What Does It Mean to Audit a Class?

When I was a junior in college, I enrolled in a popular course on playwriting with a well-known professor. As with many humanities classes, the course was capped at 30 students, but to my surprise, there seemed to be more than 30 in the room. As the class began and everyone introduced themselves, two students announced they were not enrolled in the class but were auditing the course.

One student was an art major who was interested in exploring different art mediums. She decided that, although she didn't have the time to take the English class for credit, she wanted to sit in on the course without stressing about her grade.

The second student needed to declare a major the following semester to graduate on time and couldn't decide between journalism or English. He was auditing the course to decide which major would be a better fit academically.

Auditing a class is an excellent choice for some students. Learners who feel they don't have enough time to enroll in all the courses that interest them or who are trying to decide on a major can explore a subject without worrying about the impact on their GPA.

Why Would You Audit a Class?

Auditing college courses may bring to mind nontraditional learners who are interested in taking a college course during retirement. However, it is just as common for students enrolled in college to audit a class. Auditing can also be seen as a "risk-free education," one that allows students to learn without fear of a low grade or missed participation points.

When a student audits a class, they enroll in a course for no credit but are almost always required to pay for the course. While auditing, students have access to all course materials but may not need to complete homework or exams. They may be encouraged to participate in the class, but it is usually not required. At the end of term, they do not receive a letter grade for the class.

Auditing can also be seen as a 'risk-free education,' one that allows students to learn without fear of a low grade or missed participation points.

While there are many personal reasons to audit a class — such as exploring a new subject, preparing for a future course, or deciding on a major — eligibility to audit a class depends on the institution. Often, a student needs to be fully matriculated at the school to be eligible.

Another point students should note is that some instructors may require you to fulfill certain course requirements, such as completion of course assignments, even though you are auditing the course and won't receive a grade on your transcript. In other cases, an instructor may expect your participation to be minimal so as not to detract from the time spent on fully enrolled students.

How to Audit a Class

Most universities require a student to receive approval from the instructor to audit a course, so reaching out to the instructor should be your first step. Doing so allows the professor to understand your motive for auditing a class rather than enrolling.

Auditing policies differ depending on the school. For example, the University of Washington will not list an audited course on a student's permanent record but requires students to be fully enrolled in the course and billed for the credits.

Chapman University in California includes an "AU" notation on your transcript to signify that a course was audited. Other universities may require students to fulfill certain minimum requirements to audit a class, such as attending all class sessions. Michigan Tech will grant students a "V" for a satisfactory audit experience and a "U" for an unsatisfactory experience, meaning a student is held accountable for how they engage with the course.

While most schools require permission from the instructor, the University of Oregon requires students to receive departmental authorization before auditing a course. Students at UO, like elsewhere, may be able to audit graduate courses, which usually requires registration and approval from both the department and instructor.

Typically, not all classes are available to audit, and certain schools may have specific audit programs in place. Columbia University, for example, has an auditing program and a special process for non-students, including a separate registration section and a list of available courses.

Certain schools may allow students to attend a few classes before they decide to audit a course. Montana State University requires students to declare an intent to audit by the third class of the semester, while the University of Nebraska-Lincoln allows students to declare intent after the sixth class.

Many universities allow a two-week grace period for students to turn a for-credit course into an audited course or vice versa. Students should be aware of the auditing policy for their particular school since guidelines can vary by institution.

Auditing Classes Online and for Free

Most colleges, like the University of Wisconsin-Madison, do not allow students to audit online courses. While some universities may allow auditing of online courses, they may find it difficult to gauge an auditing student's online engagement.

Despite most universities restricting online auditing, there are still free courses available for auditing through online platforms that have partnered with universities. One such platform is edX, a nonprofit co-founded by Harvard and MIT. Through edX, students can audit courses from UC Berkeley, the University of Texas, Cornell, Dartmouth, and CalTech, to name a few.

While some edX learners can earn college credits through the company's university partnerships, most courses are not affiliated with particular colleges and are free, self-paced, and open for anyone to enroll. Online auditing platforms are also ideal for exploring a topic of interest once you have left college.

Auditing Is an Ideal Way to Learn

Auditing courses is an excellent way to explore new topics, decide on a major, or even revisit an interest after graduation or during retirement. Auditing also allows students with different learning styles to develop new skills or pursue interests they're passionate about. If you decide to audit a college course, remember to research the school's policies and understand the expectations of both the department and the class instructor.