Full-Time vs. Part-Time Student: What’s the Difference?

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Full-Time vs. Part-Time Student: What’s the Difference?
portrait of Marisa Upson
by Marisa Upson
Published on November 4, 2021
Reviewed by Lonnie Woods III

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One of the biggest decisions a student faces is whether to enroll in college part time or full time. Work and family responsibilities, financial situations, and additional commitments can all play a role in that decision.

Graduate and nontraditional students — including those raising children or working full time — tend to have the highest part-time enrollment rates. The Bureau of Labor Statistics reports that, in October 2020, 41.5% of full-time college students worked, while 82% of part-time students were employed.

What Does It Mean to Be a Part-Time Student in College?

The main difference between a part-time and full-time student is the number of credits they take each semester.

Typically, part-time undergraduate students take 11 or fewer credits per semester. Part-time graduate students usually take less than nine credits. However, graduate students enrolled in their thesis or dissertation course usually do not need to meet this requirement.

Part-time students make up a large percentage of those enrolled in colleges and universities. According to the National Center for Education Statistics (NCES), of the 19.6 million students attending these schools in fall 2019, 7.7 million were part-time students.

What Does It Mean to Be a Full-Time Student in College?

Typically, undergraduates are considered full-time college students if they take at least 12 credits — about four classes — each semester. According to NCES, a majority of these students do not work. In 2018, about 43% of full-time undergraduates were employed.

Most colleges require full-time graduate students to take at least three classes, or nine credits, per semester. In fall 2019, of the 3.1 million students in graduate programs, 1.7 million were enrolled full time.

Full-Time vs. Part-Time Enrollment: 3 Key Differences

Full-time and part-time students typically experience several key differences. For example, tuition costs, financial aid opportunities, and time commitments can all be affected by your enrollment status.

1. Time Commitment

Many full-time undergraduates take about 15 credits per semester to graduate in four years. That amounts to around five classes per term. If you add in study time and out-of-class assignments, full-time students devote many hours each week to academics alone.

A part-time student typically takes anywhere from 1-3 classes a week. At this rate, it takes significantly longer to earn a degree; however, you get more time to devote to work and family obligations. Many schools also cap the length of time you can take to earn your degree, ranging from 6-10 years for a bachelor's and 5-7 years for a master's.

2. Tuition Cost

Generally, a part-time college student pays per credit. They may end up paying less in tuition each semester, but they'll likely be enrolled in classes for a much longer period of time. According to EducationData.org, four-year public colleges charge in-state students an average of $312 per credit.

Attending college part time can give students more flexibility to work and balance other responsibilities. While this schedule can be challenging, it can help reduce their financial burden. Also, some employers will pay for all or part of an employee's tuition costs.

A full-time student usually pays an annual or semester-based tuition rate, which can mean paying more money upfront. However, many schools charge a flat rate for 12-18 credits per semester. This flat rate can save students who take 13 or more credits a term a significant amount of money.

3. Financial Aid and Scholarships

Your enrollment status — full time vs. part time — can directly affect your eligibility for financial aid. Eligibility for federal financial aid requires a minimum of six credits per semester, or half-time enrollment.

These programs also base their maximum eligibility on the number of credits taken. For instance, if you receive a $6,000 Pell Grant but only enroll half time, the money you're awarded will be reduced.

According to the College Board, in 2019-20, full-time undergraduates received an average of $14,940 in financial aid, whereas full-time graduate students received $27,310. While more scholarships are available for full-time students, adult learners and part-time students can also find scholarships based on merit or need.

Part Time vs. Full Time: Which Is Right for You?

Full-time and part-time enrollment each offer their own challenges and opportunities.

Challenges for full-time students include greater upfront tuition fees and less time to work or take care of other obligations. Some of the benefits include a faster path to earning your degree and more financial aid opportunities.

Additionally, according to NCES, enrolling full time can positively affect your chances of graduating due to higher retention rates.

Challenges for part-time students may include juggling the demands of school and other commitments, as well as an extended graduation timeline. A part-time student also may have to take courses on weekends or in the evenings, which can limit networking opportunities and make it harder to take advantage of student services and other resources.

Some of the benefits include reducing the financial burden by spending less upfront for school. Also, in some cases, a student's employer may be willing to help pay for their tuition.

Frequently Asked Questions About Enrollment Status

true Is it cheaper to be a part-time student?

As a part-time student, you usually pay per credit for tuition. For full-time students, most schools offer an annual capped tuition fee. This means that a full-time student can take up to 18 credits and pay the same tuition as if they were taking 12.

In the short term, a part-time student may pay less each semester. In the long run, however, it will normally cost them more to earn their degree. Some schools may also charge additional fees for each semester a student is enrolled, which can add extra expenses for part-time learners.

On the plus side, a majority of part-time students are employed. Their wages can be used to help fund their college education and pay for living expenses. Furthermore, some employers will help cover an employee's tuition.

true Can you work and be a full-time student?

A Georgetown University report revealed that, in 2015, 40% of undergraduates and 76% of graduate students worked at least 30 hours a week while attending college. The report also showed that 25% of all working students were enrolled in college full time, and that 19% of working students had children.

While it can be done, students considering this route should take a close look at their schedule and determine just how many hours they can realistically devote to work. Due to greater flexibility, some working students choose to earn their degrees online. In 2019, over 7.3 million students enrolled in distance education programs, according to NCES.

true How long does graduate school take for part-time students?

Most master's programs require 30-60 credits and take 1-2 years of full-time study to complete. Depending on your schedule and how many credits you can commit to each term, part-time enrollment can lead to a degree in 3-6 years. Most programs limit the number of years you can take to earn a master's — normally anywhere from 5-7 years.

Students have many options today, including attending school on the weekends and/or in the evenings and enrolling in online programs. Some online programs offer a flexible asynchronous learning format, whereas others require weekly virtual class sessions and some in-person components.

Feature Image: LaylaBird / Getty Images

Should you choose a full-time or part-time MBA program? Learn more about the pros and cons of each. All colleges require a minimum number of credits to graduate. Learn how many credits you'll need for an associate, bachelor's, or master's degree. Looking to earn credits more efficiently? Learn how you can use tests, work credentials, and other work and life experiences to earn college credit.

BestColleges.com is an advertising-supported site. Featured or trusted partner programs and all school search, finder, or match results are for schools that compensate us. This compensation does not influence our school rankings, resource guides, or other editorially-independent information published on this site.

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