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What Does Credits Mean In College?

Kara Kots

Sep 03, 2020

What do credits mean in college, and how do you earn them?

When starting college as an undergraduate student, there are various changes to adapt to, including professors, office hours, and dedicating more time to studying and completing course work. In addition to those, one transition that is vital to learn about is college credits and how they work. Often, in high school, college credits are not a subject of conversation unless students take advanced placement or dual enrollment courses, in that these courses will be included on their transcript upon submitting an online college application. When students enroll in these courses, they learn college-level material at a higher pace and rigor. In exchange for taking a course like this, they have the opportunity to earn college credits.

With excellent benefits, high school students must know that opportunities like this exist. By identifying this information, students can complete college coursework before they step onto the campus of their college or university. Sound tempting? Let’s take a closer look at what these programs are, and more information about each one’s benefits.

Available for upper-level high-school students, the College Board’s Advanced Placement (AP) program offers college-level courses and exams. Near the end of the school year, students can register to take the AP exam that corresponds with the subject of the class they took. If they score high enough, they can earn college credit. The AP program is an excellent resource for students to prepare for college classes while getting ahead in higher education coursework.

Also, a good AP score can let students skip introductory courses in college and save money and time by opening students’ schedules or even giving them the chance to graduate early. Similar to AP classes, dual enrollment allows students to earn college credits. As defined by, “Dual enrollment, also referred to as dual credit, allows current high students to take college-level classes that count for high school and college credit.” High-schools and local community colleges usually offer these classes.

The main difference between AP classes and dual enrollment classes is that students do not have to meet a specific exam score to earn college credit. Students have to pass with a C letter grade or better to earn academic credit.

With these programs, students can introduce themselves to the college environment and receive a jump start on their higher education. By entering their college or university with some college course credit, they can opt for a lighter first semester or tackle other courses that fit within their major.

If students decide to forgo AP or dual credit courses, they will likely learn about college credit when they enroll in a college or university class. At that time, a question commonly asked is: What are college credits? According to, “College credits measure the number of applied hours that are recognized for successful completion of a particular course of study.” In simpler terms, they are ultimately a way of equalizing the time spent learning and studying for each college class. It is after completing the specific course that they earn the corresponding college credits.


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How Many College Credits is One Class?

While the way college credits are measured can differ from each college and university, it is common to find that each credit hour equals one hour spent in class per week. To further break college credits down, Unbound by Pearson states, “One college credit represents approximately 1 hour spent in a classroom and 2 hours spent on homework each week. Most single-semester college courses are worth three credits, or 9 hours of work per week.”

Are you finding yourself asking, “how long are college classes typically?” and “how many classes should I take a semester to graduate on time?” To better envision what a semester would look like for a college student, the minimum requirement is 12 credits for full-time students, equaling four three-credit courses. A typical course load for many students is 15 credits per semester. Colleges and universities recommend this amount if students aim to graduate in four years with a bachelor’s degree. In the cases where students want to or need to take on more, they can reach up to 18 credits, equaling six three-credit courses.

How Many College Credits You Should Have as a Freshman/Sophomore/Junior/Senior?

After learning what college credits are and what a college schedule would entail each semester, calculating how many credits students should have each year becomes more natural. Before going over these figures, it is important to note that these numbers can vary, even for students in the same year, due to the amount of academic credit they have entering college and how many classes they sign up for each semester.

For instance, if a student decides to take an AP or dual credit course, he or she will enter college with existing credits. These add to the credits he or she chooses to complete the following semesters. Additionally, if a student wants to take on a full course load each semester, they will have a higher number of credits. When thinking about how many credit hours a student should have each year of their academic career, it should follow something similar to the classification below.

To look at a specific institution, degree candidates at North Central College fall into four traditional classifications:

  • First-Year students have less than 28 credit hours.
  • Sophomores have at least 28 credit hours but less than 60.
  • Juniors have at least 60 credit hours but less than 90.
  • Seniors have 90 credit hours or more.

Knowing these classifications is another way to stay on track and meet degree requirements. For most colleges and universities, it is not only essential for students to have the correct number of college credits to graduate but receive those credits from courses that meet the college or university’s overall academic curriculum, as well as the degree students are studying.

To ensure each student has a good foundation, colleges and universities have general education requirements to track academic progress. These courses hone in critical communication, thinking, and problem-solving skills. While these courses are required, there is usually some freedom when choosing what kind of humanities or elective courses to take.

Taking an innovative approach to the General Education Curriculum, North Central College created Cardinal Directions. Acknowledging that no two students are alike, including their paths to graduation, Cardinal Directions serves as a guide for students to find their passion and chart their course. With eight iCons or interdisciplinary connections, students can choose the path that sparks their interest while readying students to make an impact in a dynamic world.

In addition to General Education requirements, students also focus on completing requirements for their major and minor. Why is this foundation necessary? North Central College aims to help steer students to be curious and thoughtful leaders in their community. It is about helping students find their passions and readying them to make an impact.

Are Credit Hours Transferable?

Many factors can impact whether a student’s credits will transfer—the question of which credits can transfer and how many depends on the chosen college or university.

If a student is looking to transfer to a new college or university, whether from a community college or a different 4-year college or university, it is crucial to utilize all available resources. While sometimes tedious, transferring credits is worth the extra step as it can save students time and money down the road.

A great place to start is on a college or university’s website. Colleges and universities tend to have valuable information and resources there. For instance, to ensure a smooth process to see how courses will transfer from Illinois colleges and universities, North Central College provides Transferology, as well as Transfer Guides on its website. These documents share insight into which courses meet North Central College’s requirements in the core curriculum and academic majors and minors.

Additionally, North Central College recommends reaching out to a transfer admission counselor and viewing their transfer credit policy if students have additional questions. Here, students can add more in-depth inquiries such as what grades are needed for a credit to be transferred and the maximum amount of credit hours that can be applied.

How Many College Credits to Graduate?

The number of college credits a student has played a huge role in deciding if and when to graduate. When it is time to graduate, and a student does not have the correct number of college credits, he or she will not be able to receive a diploma.

However, the number of college credits needed to graduate varies greatly depending on the pursued degree. Students need to earn a certain amount of credit hours for different degree levels. View the list below to see a breakdown of how many credit hours each degree needs.

  • For an Associate’s degree, students need to complete 60 to 65 credit hours or 20 classes.
  • For a Bachelor’s degree, students need to complete 120 to 130 credit hours or 40 classes.
  • For a Master’s degree, the requirements can range from 30 to 60 credit hours, depending on the program and the college or university.

With this information in mind, students need to ensure they stay on track for graduation. Students are encouraged to set up meetings with their academic advisors and check their college or university’s curriculum. It is also essential for students to be self-aware and carefully track how many credits they have.

For more information on North Central College and how to apply, visit

Kara Kots is a Social Media Specialist at North Central College, where she contributes her content, writing, and communication skills.