Going to college can be exciting! It can also be a bit daunting and nerve-racking.

You’ve got to determine the best college for you, and plan your schedule for your first semester.  That can get confusing because colleges use something called credits.

Most students have questions like, “What is a credit” and “How many credits should I take?” or “Why is one class worth 4 credits and another one worth only 3?” or “How many credits do I need to graduate?

See what I mean? It gets confusing!

Well, grab a beverage and get comfy because we’re about to give you a complete breakdown of college credits so you’re no longer confused. Ready to get started?

What is college credit?

You could say that college runs on a kind of point system. You take a certain class and you earn a certain amount of points called credits. For every course you complete, you earn credits and these credits go toward your degree. Earn enough and you graduate.

But just how many credits are needed for each degree?

  • Associate’s Degree – Roughly 60 credits
  • Bachelor’s Degree – 120 credits
  • Master’s Degree – 36 credits (on top of the 120 Bachelor’s credits, which you must earn first) is the norm, but some programs require up to 54 credits

Credits can be earned in a variety of ways, but the most traditional way is by directly attending a 4-year university, and taking lectures and completing classroom work like taking exams and writing papers.

PSST!  *SPOILER ALERT* There’s a better way though to potentially save thousands of dollars and time…stay tuned and we’ll cover that later in the article!

Now there are some majors, such as physical therapy or nursing, that also require students to complete clinical hours at a hospital or nursing home. These outside experiences will also contribute to a student’s accumulated college credits.

So that is the long and short of what a college credit is. Next, let’s talk about…

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What is a Credit Hour in College?

Every class you take in college is measured in ‘credit hours.’ Each class will usually offer one to four credit hours. The total number of credit hours a class is worth is determined by the number of hours you’ll spend in the classroom each week during that semester.

Let’s look at a specific example to illustrate what we’re talking about.

So let’s say you are taking a Western Civilization class and that class meets for one hour every Monday, Wednesday and Friday. That class is worth 3 credit hours because the class meets for a total of 3 hours each week.

This can sometimes vary a little depending on the course. For instance, some science courses give you a total of 4 credit hours. This is because you receive 3 credit hours for the classroom time and 1 credit hour for the weekly lab session.

And as we mentioned just a little bit ago, you’ll also receive credits for any clinical or practical experiences that are required as part of your degree plan. The nursing student would be required to do clinical work in a hospital while an education major would be required to student teach. Both would receive credits for this outside work.

Do College Credits Expire?

Many people start their college career right out of high school, but then get sidetracked by life or starting a new family. If this happened to you, you may be wondering if your old college credits will still count toward earning your degree.

The answer is… it depends.  If you enroll at an “Adult-friendly” college, mostly likely noLearn more about why we love those here.

For the rest of the colleges, credit expiration all boils down to relevancy.

The question is, are the classes you took however many years ago still relevant. Generally speaking, any courses you took to fulfill your general education requirements should still be valid. These courses will include Social Sciences, English Composition, Art, Humanities, and basic Math. Introductory courses don’t tend to change much from year to year, and outcomes are typically the same from college to college, so these credits should not expire.

Where it gets tricky are some of the science, engineering, technology and STEM courses. These courses tend to get updated often, and so your credits may no longer pass the relevancy test. Generally speaking, if your STEM credits are older than 10 years, they may no longer be eligible to be counted toward your degree requirements. Some colleges, however, may count them as elective credits.

If you think your college credits may be expiring soon, keep reading, because we’ll share one way you can complete your college degree much faster and for far less money.

How Many Credits Do You Need to Graduate College?

How many credits will be required for you to graduate college will depend on the type of degree you are pursuing.

Typically, a 2-year associate’s degree requires 60 credits to graduate, while a 4-year bachelor’s degree requires 120 credits to graduate. To earn your Master’s degree, you will be required to earn an addition 36-54 credits on top of the 120 you received for your bachelor’s degree.

It should be mentioned that a bachelor’s degree and associate’s degree are two entirely separate programs. You wouldn’t be able to start a bachelor’s degree in, say, Business Administration, and after earning 60 credits decide that you want to stop and walk away with an associate’s degree. Each degree is structured completely differently and serves an entirely different purpose. So, be sure you know exactly the degree you want before you apply.

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Required Credits for Full-Time VS Part-Time College Students

Full-time college students are required to take a minimum of 12 credits per semester, but they can take as many as 18 if their personal schedule allows.

Part-time students are able to take less than 12 credits a semester. Usually part-time students take just one class per semester.

How Many College Credits Do I Have?

For adult students going back to school, you’ll need to contact the school(s) you attended and ask for an official transcript to know exactly how many credits you already have. If you’re applying to new schools, you’ll need this information during the application process anyway, so speak with an administrator at your former school and get the paperwork completed ASAP so you can get your application in on time. Know there is usually a small fee involved to get your transcripts.

High schoolers or people currently taking classes at their local community college can simply speak with a guidance counselor or someone in administration to get this information.

Will My College Credits Transfer?

Supposing your credits have not expired (meaning it has been less than 10 years since you received them) or the credits you received were for general education classes, your credits should transfer as long as they came from a regionally accredited university or college.

If you are changing majors, however, some of your credits may not fit into your new degree plan. But usually you can use these credit to fill up any elective credits that may be required.

How Exactly Do I Transfer College Credits?

Your first step is to contact an advisor or someone in the registrar’s office to see exactly what forms you need to fill out and if any supporting paperwork is required. Also, you’ll want to ask about deadlines you will need to meet.

As we mentioned a little bit ago, you’ll also have to contact your former school and pay a small fee to get your official transcripts sent out to you. Your new school will need to see these to determine which credits will transfer and which won’t.

It’s also a good idea to get a copy of a schedule or syllabus from any class you hope will transfer. While your transcripts will typically only show the name of the class, the credit hours it’s worth and the grade you received, the syllabus will show exactly what you learned, and this can often make a difference in the new school’s decision.

How to Get College Credits Faster…And Without Tuition!

Hopefully you now understand what college credits are and how they work. As promised, we’re going to show you some ways you could receive college credits more quickly, online, and, in some cases, 100% tuition-FREE.

Potentially saving you a ton of time and money.

CLEP Exams

The College-Level Examination Program (CLEP) helps students earn college credit for what they already know. That’s right. If you’re an adult that’s been in the workforce for some time, you’ve no doubt already learned a ton! And many colleges will award you credits for this real-world knowledge. In fact, CLEP credits are accepted by 2,900 colleges and universities around the country.

Not only will CLEP help you earn credits quickly, thereby cutting down on the time you need to spend earning your degree, but they also help you save money in tuition expenses, student loan fees and book costs.

Who Should Take CLEP?

If you are a prospective adult student and have been in the workforce some time, it is definitely worth it for you to take the CLEP exam. In addition, high school students who excel in a particular subject should consider taking the CLEP exam. In this instance, a passing CLEP score acts a bit like an AP score, as it can earn you 3 more credits at many colleges and universities.

Credit for Life Experience

Are you going back to school after spending the past 23 years raising children? What kind of skills do you think you obtained raising kids? Maybe management, scheduling, organization and teaching? Guess what, you may be able to instantly earn credits for that life experience.

Credit for Prior Learning (CPL) is a credit that you can earn for any work or life experience that would be similar to something you would earn in a classroom. It never hurts to ask so be sure to inquire at the school(s) you are interested in if they accept CPL and how many credits you may be eligible for.

4 Ways to Get College Credit for Work Experience

There are a handful of ways you can receive credit for prior work, education or life experiences:

  • Take an exam to illustrate knowledge in a particular subject
  • Create a portfolio to document your work
  • Professional licenses and credentials
  • Military training and experience

Take Free Online Classes at OnlineDegree.com

Taking free online classes is a great way you could get credits quickly. Free online classes are particularly helpful to adult learners, who perhaps have family obligations and a limited budget, and who need to earn their degree as quickly as possible so they can advance their career and start earning more!

And this is exactly why OnlineDegree.com was created.

Our mission is to make higher learning affordable and accessible for everyone. We know how hard it can be for students of all ages to get their degree. We also know how important a college education is in order to become a top earner in most industries.

But with OnlineDegree.com, students can take as many college-level courses as they’d like for FREE. Yep, you read that right, 100% FREE.

You can study at your own pace, at home, and never have to miss any important family events or work functions. We offer courses in a variety of areas such as marketing, computer programming, psychology, education, and much more.

That’s the good news. Now are you ready for the GREAT news?

When it comes time to receive your credits and earn that degree, we can help there, too! We’ve built relationships with some of the top accredited colleges and universities around the country that could 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 faster.  We’ve worked hard to make our courses super interesting, and the ability for those to apply as requirements toward your general education, elective, or degree-specific courses.

Our application process can be completed in as little as 60 seconds. Simply sign up and start learning so you could get credits 100% tuition-FREE. Find out exactly how you can save and learn.

Recommended Next Step

Now that you know what college credits are and how they work, you’re probably asking yourself:

“What school is a good fit for me, and what alternative credits could I get to save time and money??”

We can help.  When you register for free, we’ll help you identify schools that are a good fit and get you a SmartPlan to identify ways to save.

Yep, it’s that awesome.

Get started here in 60 seconds.  There’s never been a better time to go back to college and get that degree. We hope OnlineDegree.com can help you on your higher education journey.

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.