Once you’ve been accepted to college, an important decision you’ll need to make is whether to attend full time or part time. This is determined by the number of credits you take during a term. But you may want to consider more than just academic workload. Your enrollment status could also impact your financial aid, cost of attendance, taxes, and college experience.
Below, we’ll explain key differences between going to school full time and part time. We’ll also look at the implications of both to help you determine what makes sense for you.
What Is a Full-time Student?
Undergraduate students are typically considered to be full time when they’re enrolled in 12 or more credits during a term. Graduate students may take as few as nine credits to be considered full time. However, every institution sets its own threshold, so check your school’s policies and requirements.
How Many Classes Do You Need to Be Full Time?
Most classes are worth three credits. To be considered full time, undergraduate students usually take at least four classes per semester, and graduate students enroll in at least three classes.
What Is a Part-time Student?
In general, part-time undergraduate students take fewer than 12 credits. Graduate students attending school part time often enroll in fewer than nine credits. As with full-time enrollment, thresholds for part-time status can vary by institution, so consult your school’s policies.
How Many Classes Do You Need to Be Part Time?
Part-time undergraduate students typically take three or fewer classes per semester. Graduate students studying part time may enroll in one or two classes.
Difference Between Full-time and Part-time Students
The difference between full-time and part-time students comes down to the number of credits they take during a term. Enrollment status can impact how students pay for their education.
Part-time students generally pay per credit hour. This allows them to spread out the cost of their education over a longer period of time.
Full-time tuition is capped once a student reaches the credit threshold. This means a student may be able to pay the same in tuition for taking anywhere between 12 to 18 credits in a term. Because of this, full-time students may be interested in maximizing credit hours to reduce education costs. While this can help students stay on track or even graduate early, they may be charged an additional fee per credit hour if they enroll in more than 18 hours per term.
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Enrollment status can affect a student’s financial aid options. For instance, some types of federal student aid require students to be enrolled at least half-time (six or more credits) to qualify.
Pell Grants, which are awarded based on a student’s financial need, vary according to enrollment status. Full-time students may receive up to $6,895 for the 2022-2023 academic year. Awards for part-time students are proportional to the number of credit hours a student takes. For example, a student taking nine credits would be eligible for 75% of the maximum award. Part-time students should keep in mind that eligibility for Pell Grants can’t exceed 12 academic terms.
Both full-time and part-time students can qualify for federal Direct Loans and, if they attend a participating university, the federal work-study program. Interested students must indicate that they’d like to be considered for work-study on the Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA).
Since financial aid awards can vary by institution, consider checking with your school to determine how enrollment status could impact your overall financial aid package.
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Student Loan Repayment
Whether studying part-time or full-time, many students take out an undergraduate loan to pay for their education expenses. Most federal student loans do not require repayment while the student is enrolled in school at least half-time. Part-time students have to repay loans once they drop below half-time enrollment.
Borrowers with Direct Subsidized, Direct Unsubsidized, or Federal Family Education loans will also have a six-month grace period after graduation before loan payments are due. And if you return to half-time or full-time enrollment prior to the end of the grace period, you will be eligible for the full six-month period upon graduation. Interest on Direct Subsidized loans is covered by the U.S. Department of Education while students are enrolled and during certain periods of deferment.
Graduate and professional students with PLUS loans may also receive a six-month deferment on repayment when falling below half-time status.
Borrowers with private student loans and certain federal loans may be expected to begin repayment immediately.
Scholarships can help pay for tuition and related educational expenses. Organizations may use a variety of criteria when awarding scholarships, including academic merit, financial need, quality of application responses, and enrollment status.
Some scholarships have eligibility requirements that require recipients to be full-time students. Still, opportunities exist for part-time students to secure financial help, including unclaimed scholarships and grants.
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Tax Credit Eligibility
Enrollment status can have implications for your or your parents’ taxes. There are two main programs — the American Opportunity Tax Credit (AOTC) and the Lifetime Learning Credit (LLC) — that can give tax credits for out-of-pocket education expenses.
The AOTC can provide an annual credit up to $2,500 per student, given they are enrolled at least half-time.
Meanwhile, the LLC is open to all students regardless of enrollment status. The maximum credit per return is 20% of eligible education expenses up to $10,000, or $2,000 total.
Schedule and Time Commitment
For many, the choice to be a part-time vs full-time student can often come down to scheduling.
As a general rule of thumb, students can expect between two to three hours of work per week for each credit they’re taking. This means that a three-credit course would require approximately six to nine hours of student engagement, including class time, homework, readings, and studying.
Many full- and part-time students work while completing their degrees to help pay for education and living expenses. according to information from the Bureau of Labor Statistics. In October 2021, 42.7% of full-time students had some type of employment while 83.6% of part-time students were employed.
To make their schedule more feasible, part-time students may consider taking online classes while working to reduce commute times and have access to a wider selection of academic programs.
Taking night classes is another option for students to study while working.
Financial considerations are only part of the picture when deciding whether to go to school full or part time. Your overall college experience is another piece. Students carrying a full course load tend to stay in school longer. In 2021, the retention rate for full-time students was 75.6%, compared to 45% for part-time students.
Enrollment status could influence aspects of campus life and extracurricular activities as well. For instance, some schools may only allow full-time students to live in on-campus housing. And student-athletes must abide by NCAA regulations, which include minimum coursework requirements, to be eligible to play.
The difference between going to college full-time or part-time comes down to how many credits are taken during a term. In general, full-time students take 12 or more credits, while part-time students take 11 or fewer credits.
When deciding whether to be a full-time vs part-time student, you may want to consider more than courseload. Enrollment status can impact tuition costs, taxes, and financial aid options.
If you’ve exhausted all federal student aid options, no-fee private student loans from SoFi can help full- and half-time students pay for school. The application process can be completed easily online, and you can see rates and terms in just a few minutes. Repayment plans are flexible, helping students find an option that works for their financial plan and budget.
What are some benefits of being a full-time student?
Students who go to school full time are often able to focus completely on their studies, and a full course load means they can complete their degree faster. Full-time enrollment is also required for some scholarships, grants and financial aid.
What are some benefits of being a part-time student?
Studying part time gives you the chance to work while going to school, which can make tuition and fees easier to manage. Plus, some employers will help pay for a portion of the cost.
What factors should I think about when weighing whether to enroll full time or part time?
Deciding whether to be a full-time vs. part-time student is a personal decision. As you’re weighing your options, consider factors like how much time you have in your schedule for school; any work or family commitments; your financial situation and available financial aid options; and your goals after graduation and their time frames.
Photo credit: iStock/Drazen Zigic
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