What Are Credit Hours? All You Need to Know

When you’re just starting college, you need to figure out how it all works! One of the terms you’ll come across is credit hours. You may find that you need a certain number of credit hours to graduate, so it’s definitely an important phrase to define. So what are credit hours? In short, it’s how long you spend in a class. But read on to get to the full scoop on credit hours in college. 



What are Credit Hours?


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Each course you take in college is worth a certain number of credits, which can be directly translated into credit hours. Programs have requirements for students to obtain a certain number of credits in order to graduate, and usually have stipulations about certain amounts of credits that must be taken in one discipline or another. 


The amount of credits a course is worth typically translates into how many hours you will need to spend on that course, whether in class or outside of class. 


Oftentimes, in the U.S., colleges will count credits as the number of hours spent in class. For example, a 3-credit class may mean 3 hours of class or lecture time, and a 5-credit course may equal one hour of class each day of the week for 5 total hours. But that does not mean that you will only spend five hours per week on the class! As defined below, one credit usually means one hour of class time, and two hours outside class time. 



Federal Credit Hours Definition



Being able to define what a credit hour is, across universities and across the United States, is important for the purpose of financial aid. The federal government needs to guarantee that universities have relatively similar definitions and expectations for credit hours so that aid can be distributed fairly and according to the effort and amount of time put into studying. 


In the Federal Student Aid Handbook, the United States government defines a credit hour as one hour of classroom or direct instruction plus a minimum of two hours outside class work per week, for fifteen weeks for semester/trimester credit hours. For quarter credit hours, the amount of class and work per week is the same, but given for ten to twelve weeks of instruction. 


The U.S. government also stipulates that one credit hour can be given for the equivalent amount of work for other academic activities such as laboratory work, internships, practica, studio work, or other academic work.


Most universities within the United States use this as a guideline for how they define their own credit hours to remain aligned with other universities. 




Semester vs Quarter vs Trimester Credits 


Credits are calculated differently depending on if a school is on a semester, quarter or trimester system. This is because the number of weeks in a course varies between these systems. 


Semester schools, for example, may have students taking 5 courses over 15 weeks, twice a year, whereas quarter schools have students take 3 courses over 10 weeks, three times per year. 


Both types of schools include a summer vacation in their academic year. 


It’s important to understand these differences if you ever need to transfer credit between one type of school system to the other. 


Trimester schools aren’t very common, but they will typically offer courses in 12-13 week formats. 


Semester credit hours vs quarter credit hours may vary because they need to account for the difference in total number of hours spent in class over the entire course, compared to looking at hours spent per week. 



Contact Hours


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Contact hours, compared to credit hours, signifies the number of hours where a student spends in class, or at lecture. Typically, for a 3-credit class, students will have 3 contact hours — or 3 hours of in-class or online lectures. Contact hours are for lectures only, and other types of courses such as labs, internships, research, and fieldwork are calculated according to hours spent working on class related materials. 




Difference Between Contact Hours and Credit Hours


Credit hours are made up of contact hours, plus time spent outside class. However, you will only get ‘credit’ for the class hours. You can also get credits, or credit hours, from internships, labs, and service learning. 


For each ‘contact hour’ or time spent in lecture, you will likely need to spend an additional two hours outside class on studying. But you will still receive 1 credit per 1 contact hour of lecture.




How Many Credit Hours to Graduate? 


Most semester programs will require 30 semester credit hours per year (15 per semester), and quarter programs will require 45 quarter credit hours per year (15 per quarter). Bachelor’s degree programs usually require 120 semester credits, and 180 quarter credits. Master’s degrees typically require 30-60 semester credits, and 60-90 quarter credits. 


Depending on your program, students are required to have certain amounts of credits in what are considered core courses for the major. Students may also need certain amounts of credits from certain disciplines or colleges within the university. 




How Many Credit Hours Does One Course Have?


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Courses vary greatly in their number of credits, or credit hours. 


Some programs offer seminars, for example, which only meet once per week and may only be 1 credit. Some courses may require 3 lectures and 2 lab sessions, equalling 5 hours per week, or 5 credits. Most courses are between 3-5 credits, and meet for 3-5 hours per week, but will expect more hours of outside class work than just those 3-5 hours. 



The Bottom Line 


What are credit hours? At U.S. universities and colleges, the phrase ‘credit hours’ is used interchangeably with the word ‘credit.’ Credit hours equal the number of in-class time you will spend on a course. 


Remember, though, you will spend a lot more hours outside class time to earn those credits. Students need a certain number of credit hours to graduate, and it’s important to remember that credit hours may vary between semester schools and quarter schools. 



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