Credit Hours: What Are They & Why They Matter

By Krystal Ndoni · February 23, 2024 · 7 minute read

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Credit Hours: What Are They & Why They Matter

Credit hours are the building blocks of a college career. They measure progress, and define full- and part-time status and degree types such as bachelor’s and master’s. And these factors determine federal aid eligibility.

A credit hour is defined as one classroom hour and two hours of student work per week. Students who take 12 or more credit hours a semester are considered full-time. University semesters are a minimum of 15 weeks.

What Is a Credit Hour?

A credit hour is a system to measure college course loads. They were invented in 1906.

According to Encyclopedia Britannica, the Carnegie Foundation created the credit hour system to determine how to give scholarship funds to colleges. However, it quickly became a useful tool for universities to measure higher ed programs and student progress. Nearly every U.S. university adopted the system within six years.

Credits are also key in accreditation, an evaluation process that ensures a college’s academic merit. It’s granted to universities that have met minimum credit requirements and other academic standards.

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1 Credit Hour Is Equal to How Many Hours?

One credit hour is equal to one hour of classroom or direct faculty instruction and at least two hours of out of class student work per week. That means you can expect to spend three hours of work and classroom instruction per week in a one-credit course.

How Many Hours of Study Time per Credit Hour Online?

Credit hours are no different in-person than online, depending on the type of online course. There are two types: synchronous and asynchronous programs.

Synchronous programs are virtual classes that students can attend in real time. These courses may involve digital lectures, class discussions, presentations, and other styles of scheduled interactive learning. Students also work together outside of class, whether virtually or in-person. This type of program offers ease of access.

In asynchronous programs, students access pre-recorded classes and forums on their own time. Students in these programs set their own pace and manage coursework completion deadlines. Virtual attendance is not required and students may communicate with staff and their peers in board-style forums and email.

Synchronous programs have a similar structure to in-person college classes — and therefore have similar credit hour requirements. Some universities suggest more study hours for online credits. For instance, the University of North Carolina suggests four to five hours of study time each week per credit for a bachelor’s degree program.

Asynchronous programs, on the other hand, have more loosely defined requirements for credit courses. Students meet program requirements by fulfilling coursework needs on deadline.

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Credit Hour Calculator

To determine total time spent on classes in a semester, add the credits of all your courses. Multiply that number by two hours, or more depending on your university’s requirements. Then multiply that total with the weeks in a semester.

Courses can be one to six credit hours. Below is an example credit hour calculator chart to determine total hours spent on one or more credits. Rice University has a great example of a chart that converts credits to study time.


Study Hours Per Credit

Total Study and In-Person Hours Per Semester (15 Weeks)

1 2 Hours 45
3 6 Hours 135
12 24 Hours 540

How Many Credit Hours Do You Need to Graduate?

The credit hours you need depend on the degree type — but the federal minimum is the same for all. The range of credit hours required also varies by major, so be sure to check with your registrar that you have all the information you need.

Higher education programs include associate, bachelor’s, master’s, professional, and doctorate degrees. Depending on the degree, students can expect to complete around 30 to 120 credit hours.

Bachelor’s Degree Credit Hours

Bachelor’s degrees are generally 120 credits minimum and usually take four years to complete. Schools that operate on a quarterly basis (four terms a year), usually require 180 credits to graduate.

Students enrolled in a bachelor’s program complete core curriculum and various credit hour types: general education, major/minor, and elective credits.

General education courses are required courses for a degree. They often cover foundational subjects such math, English, and sciences. However, the core curriculum might vary by major. For instance, a student majoring in marketing might take intro economics courses, whereas an architect student may take intro art history courses.

Major and minor credit hours are classes related to a student’s field of study. They are categorized into lower- and upper-division credits. Students must complete lower-division courses in order to enroll in upper level courses. Internships may also be mandatory and are converted into credits (up to six).

Finally, bachelor’s programs require elective credits — courses unrelated to a student’s major and general requirements. Students sign up for courses out of interest or to complement their major.

Recommended: What Is the Difference Between BA and BS Degrees?

Master’s Degree Credit Hours

A master’s degree can range from 30 to 60 credits, and usually lasts two years. Students complete a thesis or project at the end of the program.

Master of Arts (MA), Master of Science (MS), and Master of Business Administration (MBA) are common types of masters, but vary widely in credit requirements. MAs and MSs tend to be 30 credits, while MBAs can take up to 60 credits to complete.

How Many Credit Hours Does a Course Have?

As mentioned, a college class must be at least one hour of classroom instruction and two hours of student coursework per week — the federal minimum. Courses can range from one to six credits — but typically are three to four credits.

How Do Semester Credit Hours Influence GPA?

With credit hours and GPAs, the general rule is this: More credits are better.

Your weighted GPA point values determine your GPA — where the weights are the number of credits for each class. To determine your college GPA with credits, multiply your GPA Point Value with the course’s total credits. Then divide the GPA point value total by the credit total.

For example, if you score an A in your three-credit chemistry class, it has more impact on your overall GPA than the A in your one-credit photography class. Below is an example of the impact of an 18-credit semester and a 12-credit semester on GPAs.




GPA Point Value

Quality Points

Chemistry A 3 4 12
Microeconomics A 3 4 12
Psychology B 1 3 3
Computer Science B 1 3 3
Photography B 1 3 3
English A 3 4 12
Total 12 45
Quality Points/Credits 3.75 GPA

If you score all As in your three-credit courses, but all Bs in your one-credit courses, you still walk away with a 3.75 GPA.




GPA Point Value

Quality Points

Chemistry B 3 3 9
Microeconomics B 3 3 9
Psychology A 1 4 4
Computer Science A 1 4 4
Photography A 1 4 4
English B 3 3 9
Total 12 39
Quality Points/Credits 3.25 GPA

In contrast, if all your one-credit courses are As, and three-credit courses are Bs, you end up with a lower GPA. The weight of the courses’ credits impacts your GPA.

What Is the Cost per Credit Hour?

The average college credit costs $477 — or about $1,431 per 3-credit class, according to the Education Data Initiative. Private four-year universities charge $1,200 per credit, or $3,600 for a three-credit class. These averages exclude Cost of Attendance (COA) such as room and board, books, and daily living expenses.

University tuition inflation has an impact on figures too. In 1963, the cost per credit was $21 per credit hour, or $187 adjusted for inflation. That’s a 255% increase to today’s credit hour rate of $477!

Recommended: What Is the Average Cost of College Tuition?

Paying for College

Higher education is a substantial spend, so it’s worth researching ways to earn aid and cut costs.

Determine what your family is expected to cover, as measured by the Student Aid Index (SAI). Apply for scholarships and grants from your school, fill out the FAFSA®, or Free Application for Federal Student Aid, which is used to determine federal aid, and look into cutting expenses like room and board.

Finally, look into undergraduate student loan options and understand the difference between private student loans vs federal student loan options. Federal loans often have lower interest rates, more flexible repayment plans, and offer subsidized loan options for students who demonstrate financial need. However, there is an annual borrowing maximum for students.

Private lenders offer competitive rates for qualifying borrowers. Repayment plans are generally determined by the individual lender. Unlike most federal student loans, private lenders will generally evaluate a borrower’s credit score and history, among other factors. Potential borrowers may be able to apply with a cosigner if they aren’t able to qualify for a private student loan on their own.

While private student loans can be a powerful tool to help fill financing gaps for college, they don’t always offer the same benefits as federal student loans, so are generally borrowed as a last-choice option.

Recommended: How to Pay for College

The Takeaway

Understanding how universities build programs with college credits will help you understand its cost. College credits define degree types, such as master’s and bachelor’s programs. The amount can also determine a student’s status and progress. Finally, these dictate the eligibility rules for federal and private lenders.

If you’ve exhausted all federal student aid options, no-fee private student loans from SoFi can help you pay for school. The online application process is easy, and you can see rates and terms in just minutes. Repayment plans are flexible, so you can find an option that works for your financial plan and budget.

Cover up to 100% of school-certified costs including tuition, books, supplies, room and board, and transportation with a private student loan from SoFi.

Photo credit: iStock/asbe

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