How Many Credits To Graduate College In 4 Years

Last Updated on December 13, 2022 by

The college system can be endlessly confusing. Whether attempting a transfer or simply trying to decide how many classes to take this semester, one of the most common questions we get from students is:

How many credits do I need for a bachelor’s degree?

The simple answer: you must complete 120 college credits to earn a bachelor’s degree. That’s about 40 classes, which most people assume you can complete in 4 years.

But it’s more complicated than that.

You can’t just register for 40 random courses and expect to walk away with a bachelor’s degree. The kinds of credit you take is very important. That’s what enables you to actually qualify for graduation. And that’s what we’ll be talking about in this post.

Let’s start with the basics.

How to Graduate College in Four Years or Less | 5 Key Steps

What are college credits?

College credit is the standard measurement of a student’s academic competency. Essentially, it represents how much effort you, the student, put into a single course over a semester (15 weeks). This effort is most often represented by hours of work.

1 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 3 credits, or 9 hours of work per week.

If you’re hoping to graduate in 4 years, you’ll need to average 15 credits (roughly 5 courses) a semester. By this estimate, that’s 45 hours of work per week!

How Long Does It Take To Get a Bachelors Degree Online – College Learners

What kinds of courses will get me a bachelor’s degree?

As I mentioned before, you can’t just sign up for whatever course tickles your fancy and expect it to fit into your degree. A bachelor’s degree is a highly-structured form of study. Most colleges want to ensure their students have a good foundation in the liberal arts (your basic math, history, science, and writing courses) while also digging deeply into whatever major you’ve chosen to study. That adds up to a fairly specific arrangement of courses in order to qualify for graduation.

Almost any college you choose will split your bachelor’s degree into 3 basic sections:

1. General Education Requirements

To encourage a broad education, your college will require you to take up to 60 credits of low-level courses spanning a variety of general subjects. While you get to choose which choose which specific courses you take, you must pick from within your college’s requirements.

Types of College Degrees | College Degree Levels

Here’s an example of what you might find in this section:

In this example, your college requires 6 history credits, but they don’t particularly care which particular history course you study. You can study Western Civilization, American History, or History of the Vietnam War. As long as you complete 6 history credits, you’ve fulfilled the requirement.

2. Free Electives

This may be the most fun section of your degree (and may be the reason so many people get the idea that a bachelor’s degree is a highly customizable type of education). In this section, your college will allow you to complete up to 30 credits of any course you want.

The free electives you choose may have nothing to do with your major, and that’s fine! You can choose from the college’s myriad of available courses, choosing up to 10 that truly are whatever you want to learn. This is a great way to give you, the student, that bit of freedom to try new things, think divergently, and not get too pigeon-holed in whatever major you chose.

3. Area of Study

This final selection of credits will consist of the specific courses required by your major. Generally, many of these courses will be upper-level courses (meaning they’re more specific, more intense, and more time-consuming than the rest of your bachelor’s degree).

For example, if you were pursuing a degree in psychology, your area of study requirements may look like this:

You’ll notice this example includes a 6-credit requirement for “psychology electives.” These electives work very similarly to your free electives. In this case, you may choose two courses (6 credits) from a pre-approved selection of psychology-related courses. This gives you a small way to tailor your degree to your particular interest or goals within the field of psychology. (You’ll also likely have fewer free electives as a result.)

Why should I care how my bachelor’s degree is structured?

If you’re planning to let an over-worked and underpaid college advisor hand you a pre-made plan which tells you exactly what to do, what to take, and how much money to waste by going to college the traditional way, then you really don’t need to know how your bachelor’s degree is structured. Go ahead and sign up and complete your courses. You will walk away with a decent education, but you’ll just have spent a lot more time and money getting it than you otherwise could have.

If, on the other hand, you’re interested in outsmarting the college system (what we do every day here at Pearson), then understanding how your degree is structured is absolutely invaluable.

Why? Because one of the best ways to save money on college is by transferring credit. There’s a myriad of ways to earn college credit that will save you thousands of dollars on your degree. Community college, CLEP, DSST, and affordable online courses are just a few examples. Trust me, if you want to save money on college, the best thing you can do is understand what exactly you need to graduate and find a way to earn that credit somewhere else. Then, once you’ve earned as much credit outside of your chosen college as possible, transfer it all in to complete the degree.

Doing college this way may sound a little unorthodox, and it is. But trust me. We’ve helped thousands of students graduate debt free using this simple method. It works.

But even if you’re not trying to hack the college system or save money on your degree, if you’re simply considering switching colleges (for any reason), understanding how degrees are structured will help you avoid wasting time and money on college credit that overlaps or doesn’t transfer at all.

Want to learn more? Click here to learn about how Accelerated Pathways can help you hack the college system to save thousands on your degree.

If you’re preparing to become an international student and pursue a degree in America, it’s important you figure out how credits are awarded at American universities as well as how European credits are converted to university credit standards in the United States. We’re also clarify the different terminology used connected to credits so you avoid any confusions.

So, here are the basic things you should learn about credits and grading system used in American colleges and universities.

View Masters in the U.S.

Why should I care about American academic credits?

  • USA credits are different in comparison to credit systems used in Europe, or other parts of the world 
  • You will need a certain number of academic credits to graduate your programme
  • Credits determine if you need to take a preparation programme to meet your Bachelor’s or Master’s degree 
  • Credits may influence your GPA 
  • Especially in the U.S., the number of academic credits a programme has may determine tuition fees for the degree

How many credits do I need to graduate college or graduate school?

The simple answer is that the amount of credits you need to graduate depends on how long the overall programme duration is. Each semester awards a certain amount of credits, so if you multiply the number of semesters you need to study with the credits per semester that’s how many overall credits you’ll need.

So, how many credit hours is one semester? Normal full-time degrees require 15 credit hours per semester, so 30 credit hours per year. If your Bachelor’s degree takes 3 years to graduate, that means you’ll need 90 credit hours total.

What are credit hours and semester hours?

They are one and the same thing. The terms are used interchangeably in U.S. universities.

A semester credit hour (SCH) is the amount of credit a student earns for successful completion of one contact hour and two preparation hours per week for a semester. One semester hour equals 15-16 contact hours per semester, regardless of the duration of the course.

Basically, for a one-semester credit hour course, you should invest one contact hour in class and two additional preparation hours each week that take place out-of-class. These can represent homework, fieldwork or practical courses.

How do I get the academic credits I need to graduate?

This answer is easy too. You simply study and pass your classes. Each class awards a set number of credits. You pass all your classes during a semester, you get all the credits! If you have elective classes in addition to regular classes during a semester, you should make sure the electives you pick amount to the total amount of credits you need in addition to the mandatory classes.

What is a contact hour?

Ah, yes, the plot thickens! A contact hour is different from a credit hour. A contact hour includes any lecture or lab time when the professor is teaching the student. Usually, 1 contact hour equals 50 minutes in real time.

What’s the difference between contact hours and credit hours?

In universities and colleges in the United States, students usually receive credit hours based on the number of “contact hours” they spend studying per week in class. A credit hour is usually the standard way of measuring workload at a college or university.

So, credit hours are made up of contact hours.

How many credit hours does a course/class have?

Most colleges and universities award 3 Semester Credit Hours (SCH) (45-48 contact hours) for the successful completion of a study class. The number of credits for lectures, independent project work, laboratory time and internships vary depending on specific institution requirements.

Student working on her assignments

How many credits for a Bachelor’s or Master’s degree in the US?

A course is measured in the number of credit hours needed to complete it. For an undergraduate degree, basic courses may have 1 credit or 2 credits. In a Master’s degree, including for MBAs, most courses are either 3 or 4 credits.

A standard full-time study load is usually 30 credit hours per year. Typically, in order to graduate with a degree, universities expect students to complete:

  • 120-130 credit hours for a Bachelor’s degree
  • 30-64 credit hours for a Master’s degree

Some universities use Semester Credit Hours to set tuition fees and scholarships for prospective students. During a semester, an international student has to take between 9 and 12 credit hours, depending on each college or university.

What are Quarter Credits?

Some universities in the United States use Quarter Calendar Credit Hours, where, the academic year is divided into three terms. In this case, a Bachelor’s degree usually requires a minimum of 180 quarter hours to complete instead of 120.

How do semester credit hours influence GPA?

In the U.S., credits are also used to determine a student’s Grade Point Average (GPA) for a semester or academic year. In some cases, GPA scores are required for admission to advanced study programmes in the U.S. (most typically for MBA programmes).

GPA scores range from 0.0 to 4.0. A score of 4.0 is the equivalent of an A average, while 0.0 represents an F score. Each American Bachelor’s and Master’s programme specifies their own minimum GPA requirement for graduation.

The semester GPA of a student is calculated based on the final marks received for each course and the credit hours awarded by the programme for that semester. The final overall GPA is the average of all courses completed during the years of study.

Find out why the GPA is so important for your studies abroad.

How to convert American credits to European credits

ECTS is the most commonly used credit system in Europe. The major difference between the European Credit System ECTS and the U.S. College Credit System is that the first is based on student workload and the second on contact hours.

The student workload represents the number of hours needed to follow and prepare for a class, taking examinations, and preparing for these examinations.

The ECTS is oriented towards the time required for a student to meet the intended study outcomes, while the U.S. system is more oriented towards the time a faculty member needs to teach.

Here’s a comparison between the grading system in the Netherlands and the one used in the U.S.

Example of converting ECTS to Semester Credit Hours

For a college or university in the U.S.:

1.67 ECTS = 1.00 US College Credit Hour

Conversion standards may vary between higher education institutions in the U.S.

Here’s an online calculator that can help you convert ECTS into GPA.

Find Masters in the U.S.

Preparation courses offer an easier path to an American university

In some cases, due to the entry requirements of some universities from the U.S., a credit transfer may not be possible so you won’t be eligible for admission. You might also be in the situation where you don’t meet the required level of English proficiency or haven’t taken the official TOEFL exam.

Advanced English knowledge is a must if you want to be a good candidate for an American university. So you still have a chance if you apply to a pathway programme or preparation course. Either focused on English language or a certain field of study, pathway programmes will help you acquire the necessary skills and education you need to get admitted to your chosen university in the USA.

Get more details about preparation courses and find the right one for you.

Coronavirus and international studies

We know you might be worried about your study abroad plans, especially during these uncertain times. That’s why we’ve created an informational Coronavirus page, which is updated weekly. Here, you can check out:

  • How universities are responding
  • What online courses are available
  • Answers to frequently asked questions (FAQ) by other students like you

To offer feedback or suggest additional questions, don’t hesitate to contact us on our social media channels: Studyportals – Facebook, Studyportals – Instagram.


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