Without question, a bachelor’s degree is a key that opens many doors to wonderful career opportunities.

It’s for this reason that more and more adults are choosing to go back to college and earn their degree.

But adult students are on a bit of a time crunch. The sooner they earn their degree, the sooner they can get that promotion and start earning more, or change careers completely to live a more satisfying life.

Depending on the degree you are going for, you’ll need to earn a certain amount of credits.

But don’t worry…We are going to walk you through exactly how credits work and how many you’ll need for an associate degree, bachelor’s degree, and master’s degree.

And, as a bonus, we’re going to give you 5, count ‘em 5 ways you can speed up the process and could earn your degree even faster, so you can start living your dreams.

But let’s start at the beginning…

What Exactly is a Credit Earned?

Simply put, for each college course you take, you will receive a certain number of credits that will be applied to the degree you are working toward.  For universities that use the semester system, a semester course is typically 3 credits. For universities that use the quarter system, it’s typically 4 credits for a course.  Regardless, as you complete courses you’ll receive credits to reach the necessary amount for degree completion.  Reach the target number of credits with the appropriate courses, and you receive the degree (more on this below).

Bit of History on “Credits”

Our current credit system is also known as the Carnegie system, and it has been around since the late 1800’s. By 1910, pretty much all of the universities in the country had adopted this system. And, like it or not, confusing or not, the majority of colleges and universities still use this same system today.The first thing to understand is that most colleges and universities use what’s known as the “credit hour.” This is different than the credits you received in high school.

But just to make things more confusing, most institutions also use what’s called the “contact hour,” and the number of contact hours – or hours spent in the classroom – dictate the number of credit hours you earn for that particular course.

So the number of contact hours you are involved in a classroom setting will dictate the number of credit hours you receive, and those credit hours (or just plain ol’ credits) are applied to your degree.

To Summarize:

Again, when you hear the word “Credits” whether for a course or a degree, it really means “Credit Hours”, which is based on “Contact Hours”.

Let’s look at a real-world example:

Regina earns three credits (or credit hours) for her applied business statistics course she has completed. To earn these 3 credits, she actually received roughly 48 hours of classroom instruction. This translates into sitting in on class for about three hours once a week for a full, sixteen-week semester.

Now if you’re like most people, your eyes are a bit glazed right about now and you’re wondering why they – whoever they is – couldn’t have come up with a credit system that was a little more straight forward. Knowing a bit about the history of the credit system above though might help explain the mystery of why it seems so outdated.

Now let’s take a look at the three most common degrees and how many credits are required for each.

How Many Credits are Required for an Associates Degree?

When it comes to required credits, a typical associates degree will need 60 semester credits. This equals roughly 20 college courses. Having said that, the number of years it takes to complete an associate program depends on the individual. Students who pursue this degree typically earn their degree in two years.

An associate degree can be earned online, through a two-year community college, or by a four-year college or university. These two years can, if you choose, act as the first two years toward your bachelor’s degree.

With more adults heading back to school, many are opting for an associate degree because it can be a quicker and less expensive route to a career change or career advancement than a traditional four-year-degree.

Why Earn an Associate Degree?

Employers typically like to hire candidates that have at least some college in their background. So obtaining your associate degree can help you get your foot in the door at a company you love. Beyond getting your foot in the door, an associate degree can also help to significantly increase your earning potential as compared to a candidate who only holds a high school diploma or GED.

Many prospective students are surprised to learn that there are some very high-paying careers for those that have earned an associate degree. A couple of examples of these careers are air traffic controller and dental hygienists. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, the median annual salary for an air traffic controller is $122,530 while the median annual salary for a dental hygienist is $65,000. Not too shabby!

So, not only can you do well career-wise holding just an associate degree, but these two years of school can then be applied toward earning your bachelor’s degree later on if you’d like to advance your career.

However, we’ll show you proven strategies on how you could earn your bachelor’s in a shorter amount of time and in a more cost-effective way so you can go straight for the bachelors degree instead of just an associates.

How Many Credits are Needed for a Bachelor’s Degree?

The short answer to this question is: 120 college credits for a Bachelor’s degree. That equates to about 40 classes.

A bachelor’s degree is a four-year undergraduate degree. Historically, when people used the term “college degree,” they were referring to this traditional four-year degree.

The bachelor’s degree remains the gold standard when it comes to entry into many professional careers. While an associate degree will help you land an entry level position, a bachelor’s degree will help you cut the line and start earning more sooner. And, if you are planning to go for a master’s degree eventually, you will almost always need to obtain your bachelor’s first.

Do I Need Credit From Certain Courses for my Bachelor’s Degree?

Yes. To earn any type of a bachelor’s degree, regardless of your major, certain classes are required. Usually, more than half of a bachelor’s degree consists of general education or liberal arts courses in areas of study such as psychology, English, critical thinking, mathematics and history. Usually only 10 to 12 courses, which amount to roughly 30 to 36 credits out of 120 total, will be in your major area of study. Of course, this is referring to a bachelor of arts degree, or a BA, which works a bit differently than a bachelor of science degree, or BS.

We already mentioned you need a total of 120 college credits. That means if you are hoping to obtain your degree within a four-year timeframe, you’ll need to average 15 credits (roughly five courses) a semester. This equates to 45 hours of work per week.

Again, if you are an adult student who has a family and works full-time, you’re probably paralyzed with doom right now. Don’t be. The truth is, there are plenty of ways to earn credits outside of the traditional classroom setting. Some of these credits could even be obtained 100% FREE. All of these credits can then be transferred to the college of your choosing, cutting down on cost and timeframe.

Keep reading, because in just a bit, we’ll show you exactly how you could obtain credits toward your degree much faster.

How Many Credits to Earn a Master’s Degree?

Once you’ve earned your bachelor’s degree, you’ll have the opportunity to work toward a master’s if you so choose.

Now you may be wondering, “if I earn my bachelor’s degree, what do I need a master’s degree for?” Well, to be blunt, so you could earn even more!

Remember, more than half of the credits you earn to receive your bachelor’s degree will go toward general studies. A master’s degree allows students to really focus on their specified field. So for instance, if someone is going for a master’s degree in literature, they would no longer need to pursue courses in history, math and science, but could instead solely focus on their chosen field of study.

The more you know about your chosen field, the more valuable you become to a prospective employee. Consider that in 2017, over 33% of U.S. adults had Bachelor’s degrees, but only 9.3% had a Master’s degree. Getting your master’s helps you stand out from the crowd and potentially earn far more.

Here are just some of the career paths that will typically require a master’s degree:

  • CEO
  • Director of Nursing
  • Physical Therapist
  • Jobs in International Relations
  • Physician Assistant
  • Certified Registered Nurse Anesthetics
  • Prosthetist and Orthotist
  • Construction Engineer
  • IT Manager
  • Clinical Therapist
  • Genetic Counselor
  • Academic Writer

Okay, so just how many more credits will you need to earn your master’s degree so you can earn a bigger salary? Typically speaking, a master’s degree requires an additional two years of schooling and roughly 30 more credits of coursework.

Yes, a master’s will take more time and be more of a financial investment in your education, but the returns can really pay off.

Credits VS CEUs – What’s the Difference?

As we discussed, credits are earned through time spent in the classroom. Most college classes award students three credits upon completion. Full-time undergraduate students complete 12 or more credits per semester, whereas full-time graduate students complete nine or more per semester.

In your research about degrees, you may have seen something called “continuing education units” or CEUs. These are specific credits that are applied toward certifications or professional development requirements. One CEU is obtained after 10 hours of contact (classroom) study have been completed under a qualified instructor.

So, credits are the number of hours needed to complete a college degree, whereas units are awarded to students for participation in a continuing education program. Often the terms credits and units are used interchangeably, and this tends to cause confusion. Hopefully this clears things up!

Quarter VS Semester Credits – What Gives?

Different institutions use different academic systems, and this can sometimes make things confusing as well. There are systems that use semesters and systems that use quarters.  This is generally not an issue unless you are trying to transfer credits.

In a quarter system, students attend classes for four quarters a year. In most cases, each quarter lasts 10 or 11 weeks.

In a semester system, students typically attend classes for two semesters a year and these usually are called fall semester and spring semester.

Both of these academic systems enable students to graduate in two to four years depending on the school, course load and program of study. Again, the real confusion tends to happen when students try and transfer credits earned per course between the two systems. If you have credits to transfer and still have any questions, you should speak with a representative at the college you are interested in to ensure your credits will transfer.

5 Tips to Accumulate Credits Faster (And Cheaper!)


Okay, so you’re an adult looking to go back to college but you have a full-time job and family responsibilities, and you can’t see yourself spending 45 hours a week to obtain your bachelor’s degree. What should you do, give up on your dream?

Heck no!

The truth is, there are some pretty awesome ways you could earn your credits speedily and even save money at the same time. Let’s dig in…

  1. Earn FREE Credits Online

OnlineDegree.com allows adult learners to take as many free online courses as they’d like from the comfort of your own home, hotel room or favorite coffee shop! You can learn about marketing, computer programming, psychology, education, and much more from excellent professors around the country.

All part of my mission to make college more affordable for everyone.

We’ve gone ahead and built relationships with universities around the country that can give you credit for the free courses you’ve completed. Not only does this give you the ability to save thousands on your degree, it also allows you to potentially earn your degree much, much sooner.

You can get started here and begin taking free courses toward your degree.

  1. Life Credits

Many adult students have been in the real world for some time, acquiring valuable life and work experience. Some colleges and universities recognize this experience as far more valuable than typical introductory-level courses and may award credits for your experience.

  1. Military Training

Additionally, some institutions may offer credit to students with military experience or time spent working abroad. If you’re not sure your own life or work experiences could gain you some credits, just speak with someone. It never hurts to ask!

  1. Community College

Community colleges are notorious for being adult-friendly because they offer flexible class schedules, generally on nights or weekends. This may be one way you can earn some credits toward your chosen degree.

  1. CLEP Exams

The College-Level Examination Program (CLEP) helps students earn college credit for what they already know. These credits are accepted by 2,900 colleges and universities across the country.

CLEP lets you demonstrate your mastery of college-level material so you can earn college credits. By earning these credits, you ultimately save thousands of dollars in tuition expenses, student-loan fees, and book costs. Consider that taking the CLEP exam only costs $85 while the average cost of a traditional college course is more than $900.

Ready to Get Started on Your Dream of Earning Your Degree?

OnlineDegree.com has a mission to make higher education more flexible, affordable and possible for adult students. We not only offer free courses that can be applied toward your degree, we’ve also partnered with institutions that offer tuition discount of as much as 25% off.

If you’re ready to get started on your path to earning more and living better, enroll with us today.

See you in class!

About the Author
Grant founded OnlineDegree.com with a purpose-driven mission: make college accessible and affordable for everyone. After graduating college with an overwhelming amount of debt, he was determined to change how students embark on their education. He's a frequent speaker and author in higher education, and has been featured in Forbes, Bloomberg Businessweek, Business Insider, American Express, AOL, MSN, Thrive Global, Reader's Digest, Inside Higher Ed, Evolllution, EducationDive, and nearly 100 radio shows and podcasts.