College is full of decisions: what school should I go to? What will my major be? Should I live on campus? Should I go full or part-time? It is easy to get overwhelmed trying to find all the answers, but when it comes to choosing between full and part-time, your choice could change things like the amount of work you’re doing every week to how much financial aid, including federal student loans, you may be eligible for.
Whether you’re a full or part-time student depends on how many credit hours you’re taking during the semester.
In general, most schools require that you take about 120 credit hours in order to graduate with a bachelor’s degree. Associate’s degrees and certificate programs require fewer credits.
This means that, typically, in order to graduate with a Bachelor’s degree in four years, you’ll need to take about 15 credits per semester. But what if you’re a night student, or are balancing classes with a full-time job? In that case, you may be a part-time student, taking less than a full load each semester.
Here’s what you need to know about the part-time versus full-time distinction and how the number of credits you take each semester could impact your education.
What Is a Full-Time Student?
Each college determines the exact number of credits that constitutes a full-time course load. But at its most basic, a full-time student is someone who is taking a “full-load” of college classes, as measured by the number of credit hours.
Each class you take is worth a certain amount of credits, depending on how much work is expected in the course. Your school determines how many credits each course is worth. For example, you might take a biology course worth four credits, a chemistry lab worth four credits, an English Lit class worth four credits, and a dance class worth two credits. Together, the total number of credits in your schedule determine whether you’re a full-time or part-time student.
What Is a Part-Time Student?
A part-time student is anyone who is taking some college credit hours but who is not taking the minimum number of college credit hours designated by the school as “full-time.”
This means that you might be a part-time college student if you’re taking a single two credit art class for fun after work, or if you’re taking a 10 credit course load when your school designates full time as 12 credits or more.
Differences in Finances for Full Time and Part-Time Students
One area where being a full or part-time student can make a big difference is when it comes to finances. Full and part-time student status could potentially impact factors like tuition costs and financial aid.
One big difference when it comes to full-time or part-time student status is tuition costs. Many degree programs charge tuition based on the number of credits you’re taking. Tuition policies and rates will vary by school, so it might be worth checking the specific policies at your school to determine how your enrollment might impact your tuition. If tuition is charged per credit hour, taking additional credits could make your semester more expensive.
Some students who are paying for their degree out of pocket opt to attend school part-time in order to pay less in tuition each semester and spread out the cost of their education over a longer period of time.
On the flip side, the cost-per-credit model can mean that students looking to max out the number of credits they take each semester in order to graduate as soon as possible, might face high costs when it comes to tuition.
And that’s not to mention books, as the more classes you take, the more books you’ll likely have to buy. For students facing high costs due to taking a high number of credits, and who have maxed out the federal aid available to them, a private student loan might help cover the increased costs of attendance that come with being a full-time student.
Available Tax Credits
Student status can also make a difference when it comes to your or your parents’ taxes. Tax credits like the American Opportunity Tax Credit (AOTC) and the Lifetime Learning Credit (LLC) may offer tax benefits to students.
The AOTC can be worth a maximum annual benefit of $2,500 per eligible student, but it is only available during the first four years at an eligible college or vocational school.
The LLC offers a maximum benefit of up to $2,000 per tax return for both graduate and undergraduate students, and has a slightly broader net, as it also allows for deductions taken by professional students who want to take courses to “maintain or improve job skills.”
In order to claim either the AOTC or the LLC, you need to meet certain qualifications . These include: 1) pay for qualified education expenses and 2) you’re enrolled at an eligible educational institution.
The good news is that because these tax credits only require enrollment at an “eligible educational institution,” they are available to both full-time and part-time students.
When it comes to federal student loans, it is a different story. In order to qualify for most types of federal student aid, you must be enrolled at least half- time at a qualifying institution. Like full-time enrollment, half-time enrollment is determined by your school. Generally, it is around six credits per semester, but depends entirely on which school a student attends.
If a student falls below half-time enrollment, they could lose their eligibility for federal student aid. Some schools may also adjust financial aid awards depending on student enrollment. The financial aid office at your school should be able to provide information on your school’s policies.
This means that for students who are using federal student aid, it’s likely important to make sure your schedule has enough credits, or risk losing your student aid.
If you’re paying out of pocket and not relying on federal student aid, it might not be as important to maintain a schedule that keeps your credit hours at half-time, as fewer credits could equal lower tuition bills.
Paying for College
Whether you’re a full-time student, a half-time student, or a part-time student, it can still be a struggle to pay for college. There are things you can do to lower the cost of college, but many students end up taking out some type of loan to complete their degree.
Private student loans are one option that could help, whether you’re eligible for federal student aid or not.
Private student loans can be a backup plan to cover educational costs that go beyond what you’re able to meet with federal aid—provided, in most cases, you’re enrolled at least half-time.
It is important to consider private loans carefully, because private student loans don’t have the same repayment benefits and protections of federal student loans, including flexible repayment plans and the possibility of loan forgiveness.
If you’re looking for a way to fill in the gaps, however, a private student loan could be the answer you’re looking for.
Depending on the lender, private student loans might only be an option for students attending at least half-time. For example, at SoFi, borrowers must be attending school at least half-time in a qualifying degree granting program in order to qualify for a loan.
If you do decide to borrow a private student loan to cover educational costs, consider SoFi. There are absolutely no fees and borrowers can select from up to four flexible repayment plans. And with SoFi, you can apply online in just a few minutes—even if you’re using a co-signer.
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Tax Information: This article provides general background information only and is not intended to serve as legal or tax advice or as a substitute for legal counsel. You should consult your own attorney and/or tax advisor if you have a question requiring legal or tax advice.
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