Understanding Lower Division Vs. Upper Division Courses

By Emma Diehl · August 14, 2023 · 7 minute read

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Understanding Lower Division Vs. Upper Division Courses

Declaring a major in college is a big decision, but the choices don’t stop there. Once students know their area of study, then comes the selection of courses. And, generally, you can’t just sign up for classes willy-nilly. Students typically need to start at one point before they can progress to another. This is where upper and lower division courses come into play.

Like levels in a video game, students have to start with beginner lessons before they can take on advanced challenges. Here’s a closer look at what lower division and upper division courses are and how they differ.

Types of Courses Students Can Take

When signing up for their first semester of classes, college students might notice that there are many more offerings than they had in high school.

In addition, core classes are different, and requirements will vary based on a student’s course of study.

While a college student can take everything from astronomy to architecture, here’s how courses are typically designated:

•   Lower division
•   Upper division
•   Major courses
•   Minor courses
•   General education courses

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Degree Requirements

Every college major will have different courses, electives, and requirements that are necessary for graduating.

In addition to core requirements, students might need to take general education courses. These courses are required for all students, no matter their area of study. (Some will “CLEP out of” some or all gen ed courses. The College-Level Examination Program® offers 34 exams that cover intro-level college course material. Others might pass AP or International Baccalaureate exams to get college credit.)

Students won’t get to graduate just by taking classes for four years. They’ll need to meet the requirements of the major (and minor, if applicable) they’ve selected.

Each course has a number of credits, and students usually will need to accumulate a number of credits to qualify for their degree.

Degree requirements will vary based on what a student studies, but each will come with a mix of lower division and upper division courses to round out the educational experience.

Recommended: 5 Ways to Start Preparing For College

What Is a Lower Division Course?

Lower division courses are the building blocks of an undergraduate’s major. College beginners might have restrictions in the courses they can enroll in.

Unless they bring in AP, IB, or college credits, they’ll need to take (and pass) lower division courses in their major before being able to sign up for upper division courses.

In general, here’s what student can expect in lower division classes :

•   Introductory material Typically, lower division courses teach the building blocks of concepts that students will use more down the line. For example, a biology major might start the course requirements with a lower division Introduction to Biology lecture before moving on to more challenging material.
•   Younger students Generally, students will find more freshmen and sophomores in their lower division courses.
•   A larger class Depending on the size of the school, lower division classes are often larger because they may cover a broad swath of material that applies to multiple majors and areas of study. A lower division class might even have more than one section a semester because so many students need to take it. In these larger lectures, participation might be limited, and attendance might not even count toward a grade.
•   A stricter structure Students might find that lower division courses vary by the book (or syllabus). Each class, a professor covers exactly what was detailed in the syllabus — nothing more, nothing less. Similarly, test questions might come straight out of lecture notes or assigned readings. Often this is done to ensure that students know the basics by heart before moving on to more challenging courses in their major.
•   Evaluation by test Due in part to their larger class sizes and structure, students can often expect multiple-choice tests in lower division courses.

Of course, every college’s policies on classes are different, but for the most part, students can expect to take lower division courses as they begin their academic career.

Lower division courses may be required by a major or minor, or they might be a general education course all students are asked to take.

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What Is an Upper Division Course?

If lower division courses are the foundation an education is built on, upper division courses are the structure on top.

Lower division courses sometimes count as prerequisites for upper division classes. That means an undergraduate must take, and pass, a lower division class before enrolling in an upper division course.

Here’s what a student might experience in an upper division course:

•   In-depth curriculum Upper division classes are a deeper dive into areas of study or more complex topics. Once students master a lower division class, they’ll be challenged with harder concepts in an upper division class. Upper division classes are more likely to have words like “advanced” in the title.
•   Older students Third- and fourth-year students are more likely to be in these courses, typically because they’ve taken the prerequisites.
•   Smaller classes Whereas lower division classes may be large lectures, upper division classes start to get smaller, in part because the curriculum is more specialized. The deeper a student gets into a major, the more in-depth classes become.
•   A fluid structure Upper division courses likely have a syllabus and required reading, but the day-to-day structure of the class may be less lecture-focused. In fact, some classes are seminars where students are encouraged to contribute ideas in a discussion format, often resulting in a participation grade.
•   Varied evaluations Depending on the class focus, testing may look different than that of a lower division course. Students may be asked to write in-depth research papers or create large presentations to show their learning. If tests are in use, they might rely less on multiple-choice questions.

Since upper division courses include more complex teachings, professors might expect students to show what they’ve learned in a more complex way. That might mean essays to prove an argument, or demonstration of critical thinking skills that don’t rely purely on lecture notes or readings.

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Numbering Systems for Division Courses

A simple way to tell if a class is a lower or upper division course is using a school’s numbering system for classes.

Most college courses will have a three- to five-digit number. The number is unique to the course, and can help students know what they’re getting into before they sign up in terms of difficulty.

While numerical systems will change from college to college, they might follow these general formulas:

•   1-199 At UCLA , for example, all undergraduate courses are assigned a number between 1 and 199. Any class with a number between 1 and 99 is a lower division course, and any class with a number between 100 and 199 is an upper division class.
•   100-499 Other schools, like the University of Arizona , might start the numbering higher. All lower division classes are numbered from 100 to 299. Anything 300 to 399 is an upper division course. The University of Massachusetts uses a similar system, where every 100 is a different year of school (100s are for freshmen, 200s for sophomores, etc.)

The numerical system for a college course probably won’t help students compare classes across different universities, but it can be a useful guide in plotting academic schedules within one school and major.

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Finding a Way to Pay

Figuring out how to pay for college can feel like an upper division course in and of itself. After completing the Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA), you may find that you are eligible for grants, scholarships, and subsidized or unsubsidized student loans. However, you may still fall short of all the funding you need.

That’s where private student loans can come in. These loans are available through private lenders, including banks, credit unions, and online lenders. Rates and terms will vary depending on the lender. Some students may need a cosigner to qualify for private student loans due to a lack of credit history and income.

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.

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