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What Are College Credits?

02.08.2023 • 7 min read

Mia Frothingham

Subject Matter Expert

Learn what college credits are, the typical credit-hour requirements for different degrees, the types of college classes, and how to earn credits.

In This Article

  1. What Are College Credits?

  2. Why Are College Credits Important?

  3. How Many College Credits Is One Class?

  4. Credits and Financial Aid

  5. Types of College Credits

  6. Earning College Credits

College credits will define your entire academic journey while attaining your degree. But do you know exactly how they work?

Understanding credits will ensure you complete all the courses needed for graduation day.

In this post, we’ll break down everything you need to know about college credits.

This includes:

  • Defining college credits

  • Calculating college credits

  • Learning how they transfer between schools or programs

Let’s get started!

What Are College Credits?

College credits are units of measure that represent an amount of course work completed. They are essential to a college career because they tell you how much progress you’ve made toward your degree.

College credits can:

  • Measure the number of credits toward a degree or certificate.

  • Provide a ratio between classroom learning and independent study.

  • Estimate how much work is needed for an academic program.

You earn credits by taking one or more college classes and passing them with a certain grade. Think of credits as the currency of college. With enough credits from different types of courses, you can earn your degree.

College credits show how much effort you’ve put into your course load. They serve as an excellent indicator of academic progress throughout your college career.

That being said, course requirements vary from school to school, including exams, reports, or presentations. All this is usually in combination with traditional methods of classes and lectures.

Why Are College Credits Important?

College credits are essential to make sure students have met all educational requirements and are ready for higher-level courses.

Depending on what courses you take, they’ll be worth different amounts. (More on that later.) If you take 3 courses worth 4 credits each, you’ve earned 12 credits.

Having college credits on your transcript can help you stand out when you apply to college. They show you are dedicated, prepared, and motivated in academics. Plus, they can give you a head start on your program if your college accepts them as transfer credits.

At the end of the day, keeping track of your credits is an important part of ensuring progress toward your degree. On average, students pursuing an associate degree will need to complete 60 to 64 credits. Those seeking a bachelor’s degree will usually need 120 to 128 credits. The more credits you have, the closer you are to graduation.

How Many College Credits Is One Class?

Every college has its own criteria. But generally speaking, to earn 1 credit, you must take and pass a prescribed class. The number of college credits a single class is worth can vary based on the type and length of the class. College classes will range from 1 to 5 credits, depending on the workload and the field of study. For example, I took a 3-credit physics class that had a concurrent physics lab students could simultaneously take for 1 credit to earn a total of 4 credits for the subject.

Generally, a 3-credit course meets for 3 hours per week over a 15-week semester. This could mean either one 3-hour-long class or three 1-hour-long classes per week.

For example, at Outlier.org, individual courses transcripted by the University of Pittsburgh earn 3 transferable credits. While Degrees+ courses from Golden Gate University (GGU) earn 4 credits toward your accredited associate degree.

Most universities assign 12 to 18 credits (4 or 5 classes) for full-time status and 6 to 11 credits (2 or 3 classes) for part-time status. It’s important to remember that while 1 class may be worth 3 credits, each credit requires 45 hours of studying. This can quickly add up, so stay on top of managing your time.

Credits and Financial Aid

College can be an expensive time. It’s no surprise many students are looking to make their education as cost-effective as possible. One way to do this is to take advantage of the financial aid options according to your number of credits.

With college credits and financial aid, they are looked at together to determine a student’s eligibility for funds. Let’s say, for example, you are applying for a grant. If you are a full-time student taking 12 credits or more during a semester, you would most likely be eligible for the entire grant amount. If you are a part-time student—say, taking 6 to 8 credits—you would most likely be eligible for half of the grant amount.

This number can vary, but the more credits you are taking each semester, you may be eligible for more types of aid. Whether it be from scholarships or grants, it pays to keep track of how many credits you’re taking currently. Stay up to date on any changes in regulations that might affect your ability to access funding.

You can save money throughout your academic journey if you understand college credits and their implications on potential funding. Transferring credits from other educational institutions can also reduce tuition costs—but more on that later.

Types of College Credits

College credits are the building blocks for a college degree. A student can earn 3 main types of college credits:

  • General education requirements

  • Major requirements

  • Electives

Finding an appropriate balance between the 3 types of college credit is essential. For example, you have to take all of your major requirement credits to graduate, but it's probably best to spread them out throughout your degree program. At the same time, you can complement these courses with general education and elective courses.

To ensure you are getting the most out of your education, it’s important to chat with your academic advisor often. Especially if you want to graduate with a good GPA (grade point average) and knowledge base that will bring success. Your advisor will help you balance your course load and consider key decisions.

General Education Requirements

Primarily taken for liberal arts degrees, general education courses offer an interdisciplinary curriculum with topics like history, technology, social sciences, and humanities. The goal is to give students a well-rounded learning experience.

General education courses allow students to pick classes that interest them, customizing their experience while still getting a broad educational foundation.

General education requirements ensure that all students have a wide variety of knowledge, regardless of their chosen major. From science to humanities and ethics to public speaking, they’re intended to broaden horizons. They also help students understand more than the topic of their majors.

This is not just about getting the degree. No matter what path you take in life, general college credits provide the backbone for a successful career. They also help you develop into a well-rounded individual with experience key for success.

Outlier’s online courses, for example, are a great way to earn transferable credits to fulfill your general education requirements. They’re filled with practical and interesting topics taught by world experts.

Major Requirements

Major requirements consist of courses related to the focus of your degree, such as mathematics, computer science, or social science classes. For instance, I majored in biology, some core classes I took were biology of life (of course), biochemistry, writing for the sciences, biostatistics, psychology, and physics.

Majors offer different types of course credits. They are all geared toward a future career path or further education. Some accepted or required credits include core classes in:

  • Mathematics

  • English/Writing

  • Science

If a professor offers an interesting internship, take it. Professors often assign students professional development activities to give them opportunities to gain experience. This meaningful knowledge can prepare you for the working world.

Additionally, many universities now offer online courses. The goal with these courses is to make earning course credit more accessible and convenient. Thankfully, there are many paths to get college credit. It takes ambition and determination to get them.


Electives are classes outside your focus. They allow you to branch out and explore different topics you’d otherwise never seek out.

Similar to general education courses, electives are a great way to round out each student’s educational journey. They can also help students learn about things not included in a core academic curriculum. However, electives are unique in that students can explore topics of personal interest like learning more about a hidden passion.

Electives tend to be more niche topics that are not related to a student’s chosen field at all. College electives can be anything from fine arts and creative writing to astrosociology or gender studies.

Because of this, prospective college students need to think beyond the standard list of offered classes.

Discover what types of electives you can add to your course load. Learn about how those classes can impact your learning goals.

Earning College Credits

Credits While in High School

High school students looking for a head-start on college can take Advanced Placement (AP) classes to earn college credits.

Not only can AP classes help boost the rigor of your academic portfolio, they can sharpen your skills before college. The successful completion of an AP Exam—obtaining a score of 3 or higher —can also allow students to jump ahead and skip intro courses in college.

Transferable Credits

Exploring options besides AP courses—which include taking college-level courses—can be beneficial. Transferable credits are courses completed at one institution that meet the requirements of a program at a different institution.

Outlier is a great option to earn transferable credits. Taking online for-credit courses through Outlier shows schools you're ready for the academic rigor of college, while earning both high school and college credit. (Or most commonly known as dual enrollment.)

Learning all you can will impact your entire college education and be a huge time saver. Especially with so many colleges giving awards and grant money based on academic achievements. Plus, this provides more room for electives in college—allowing you to explore more academic fields that may have otherwise been out of reach.

Not only does earning college credits early on save money down the road, but it also gives you a leg up in college. Think about it. You will have part of your degree already completed.

You can take my bachelor’s as an example! I took 7 courses at Outlier, and I transferred all of them to my undergraduate degree. Not only did I learn interesting topics from world experts, but I saved over $10,000 on my tuition.

Now that you know a little more about college credits and how they work, it’s time to start planning for your own education.

The process of accumulating enough credits for a degree may seem daunting. Remember that most students take 4 to 5 years to complete their undergraduate studies. And if you plan and get started early, you can lighten your workload later.

Be sure to check with your academic advisor to ensure your classes will count toward your degree.

And since associate degrees are increasing in popularity, Degrees+ can be a game changer. You can complete it in as little as 19 months. It includes job-ready certifications from top tech companies, and accepts up to 45 previous credits.

Whether you’re looking to get ahead or catch up, you’ve got this. Start your journey toward earning a degree today!

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