What is a College Credit? Do College Credits Expire? We Explain Here

The college credit is the building block of any degree program. Your progress in college is not just measured in terms of GPA or grades, it is also measured in terms of how many credits you earn every semester and every year. Choosing a college, getting the application in order, and getting into it can seem like an overwhelming process.

Getting into the program of your dreams is a huge sigh of relief. But there is getting into a college and then there is graduating from one! 

One component of earning that bachelor’s degree is knowing the degree requirements for your school and your major. Enter the college credit.

We are here to demystify it for you. Knowing what it is and how it works can help you better understand what makes a college degree. After all, knowledge is power! It is not enough to know which classes you need to take for that B.S. in Computer Science. You need to make room in your schedule for 12 general education credits. Being aware of the total number of credits you need to graduate, as well as how many of those total credits need to be gen eds, upper-level courses, free electives, etc., is a better recipe for success. To ensure that you graduate within the expected, four-year timeline, be sure you understand how college credits work and how many of them you need to rack up each semester.

We are here to help with that.

What is a College Credit?

Columbia University
Public domain photo via Wikimedia Commons

What constitutes college credit, you may be asking? You earn credits upon successful completion of course work. That is, you need to earn a certain number of credits to graduate. Let us dig a little deeper.

The concept of the college credit seems hard to pin down. We suggest thinking of the college credit as “points” you earn towards completing your college degree. You earn “points” for the work that you do for each course. “Points” are earned by attending lectures, preparing for the class, studying, taking exams, writing papers, and anything that earns you a grade in that course.

College credit, in essence, represents how much effort you put into a class over the course of a semester. You are “compensated” for the time spent in class, studying, and completing work for a course. The typical undergraduate semester consists of 15 weeks. The usual formula is that, for every hour of course work done in class, you put in two hours of work outside the classroom, per week. The average single-semester course is worth 3 credits, though the are colleges where the number of credits that you can earn from one course is 4.

Your progress towards a degree is measured by the number of credits you earn at the end of each semester and year. Most schools require that you register for at least 15 credits worth of classes every semester. Constantly falling short of these 15 credits could delay your degree completion. So, if you are keen on graduating within the standard four years, you better make sure that you sign up for the minimum number of credits required by your school.

It is possible to earn college credit before you even begin looking at colleges. Nowadays, it is not uncommon for freshmen to come in with a handful of college credits. These college credits are typically earned through Advanced Placement or IB programs offered in high schools.

The AP program offers college-level courses in a variety of subjects. The college credit is accrued by earning a minimum score of 3 on the AP exam, though some colleges accept 4 or higher. Credit earned from AP courses can substitute for certain pre-requisite or introductory-level classes. Scoring a 4 or 5 on the AP Biology exam may allow you “test out” of an introductory biology course or one of the science gen eds. Schools apply AP credits differently, so it is best to consult an academic advisor or admissions counselor on how your AP credit can be used.

Taking college classes, while in high school, is also another route to getting college credit.

What Are “Credit Hours?”

The credit hour may seem as elusive as the college credit. It is another building block of your college education, yet its function may not be entirely clear. The simplest definition is that a credit hour is equivalent to 50-minutes to one hour of in-class instruction, plus two hours of additional work outside of class for every in-class session. At least, this is the standard formula implemented by most colleges and universities in the US.

In-class instruction consists of time spent in a lecture or engaging with your class instructor and any activities or assignments completed during class time. Lab work, fieldwork, and internships are separate components and do not count towards classroom instruction time. Independent studies also have different numbers of credit hours assigned to them.

To get a concrete picture of what a credit hour looks like, an actual example is helpful. For example, the American International College uses the industry-standard in calculating credit hours: 3 credits awarded for 9 hours of work per week for a standard 15-week course. At most colleges and universities, the majority of undergraduate courses are 6-9 hours each of work per week. Again, this is just the standard, and the number of credit hours your need for each semester may be different, depending on the schools you are looking at.

There may another question that pops up in your mind: why do credit hours matter? While you may be able to get by with just counting your college credits, credit hours often matter when it comes to financial aid. If you are awarded financial aid or certain scholarships, you may be expected to register for a certain number of credit hours for a semester. Dropping below the minimum number of credit hours may jeopardize your eligibility for continuing to receive financial aid or a scholarship.

The Number of Credits Required to Graduate College

The number of credits required to graduate college ultimately depends on your program. It is essential to understand how your degree is structured. Typically, you will need to earn 120-130 credits for a bachelor’s degree. These 120-130 credits may include some combination of core or general education requirements, upper-level credits, minimum credits needed for your major, and free electives.

Simply put, it is not enough to accumulate the required number of credits to graduate. Most institutions dictate that you must earn different kinds of credits to satisfy graduation requirements; you cannot treat the course catalogue like a buffet and sign up for classes willy-nilly. The path to earning a bachelor’s degree, in most cases, is a structured one. This is best explained through example:

The College of Arts and Sciences of Syracuse University requires that 96 of the 120 credits needed for graduation must be Arts and Sciences credits. That is, you rack up those 96 credits from registering and completing courses from within the College of Arts and Sciences. 

Do not fret if your credits earned within your major and the general education requirements do not add up to the 96 you need; you can take elective courses to help you reach that total. 

The main takeaway here is that you need to keep yourself informed on the school’s requirements for graduation, specifically the number of credits required and what kinds of courses you need to take to earn them. To stay on top of your credits, we recommend that you regularly meet with a general academic advisor or the advisor assigned to you by your department. They can help you with degree planning and navigating your school’s specific requirements, helping you stay on track for graduation. 

Do College Credits Expire? A Clear Explanation

A relevant question for someone who has been out of school for a while is, “Do College Credits Expire?” The most straightforward answer is no. 

But we would like to qualify this answer. 

First, not all schools or degree programs impose the same limitations on college credit. In some cases, they never expire. In others, there may be a 5-year-limit. Second, the expiration of college credits will most likely affect your ability to transfer college credits from one institution to another.

College credits themselves do not expire, but curricula, courses, and requirements do change over time to reflect the evolving interests of the student body and the needs of the economy. The most likely candidates for these curricular and changes are STEM courses, which makes sense when you think about it. Technology and scientific research change at a dizzying pace, as it is. The methods and tools that were used ten years ago are now obsolete; the latest generation of scientists, engineers, and techies are trained to use the latest methods and state-of-the-art technologies.  

STEM curricula and requirements need to reflect this change. According to one source, the average lifespan of a STEM college credit is 10 years. Anything beyond them may be ineligible for transfer. If you racked up those credits a while ago, you might want to contact the school to which you are transferring to get a definite answer.

College credits earned from general education or core requirement courses seldom expire. Those 3 credits from your Intro to Philosophy course can count towards fulfilling the Humanities requirement for another school, or the same school if you are resuming your education with the same institution. College credits generally do not expire. But it is a good idea to check with the institution to be sure.  

Full-Time Vs. Part-Time: How Many Credits to Take

Full-time or part-time? That is the question. 

The main difference between enrolling full-time and part-time is the number of credits that you take per semester. New York, for example, defines part-time study as being registered for fewer than 12 credits for a typical 15-week semester. Full-time status is defined by being registered for a minimum of 12 credits per semester.

Successful completion of a bachelor’s degree typically requires 120 credits or more. It could take you anywhere between 4 to 7 years to complete the requirements for your bachelor’s degree if you go down the part-time route. While the degree completion timeline might be a salient factor in deciding whether to pursue part-time studies, there are other factors to consider. Some departments may not permit students to take their courses on a part-time basis.

Another factor worth considering is how your financial aid package might be affected. Generally, maximum award amounts are less for part-time students than they are for students registered full-time. The other possible downside, which may not be true for all institutions, is that services, programs, and resources are primarily drawn up with traditional, full-time students in mind. You may feel somewhat bereft of institutional support while trying to finish up your studies part-time. Thankfully, this is beginning to change as more and more people are returning to college part-time.

Full-time is ideal for anyone who can primarily focus on their studies and have the means to do it.