Ask a Professor: How Many Credits Do You Need to Graduate College?

Ask a Professor: How Many Credits Do You Need to Graduate College?
portrait of Genevieve Carlton, Ph.D.
By Genevieve Carlton, Ph.D.

Published on August 25, 2021

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As an incoming college student, I figured that since high schoolers took six classes a term, so did college students. This led me to try to sign up for double the full-time course load. Thank goodness my academic advisor stopped me!

In fall 2020, nearly 20 million college students signed up for classes. Among those, about 12 million enrolled on a full-time basis, and 7.7 million signed up part time. Full-time undergrads typically take 12-18 credits a semester, while part-time students take fewer than 12.

But how many credits do you need to graduate from college? Credit requirements vary depending on the school, though accredited degree programs must require a minimum number of credits. Regional accrediting agencies set and enforce these minimum credit requirements.

For example, the New England Commission of Higher Education states that accredited institutions must ensure that "minimum degree requirements are 60 semester credits at the associate level, 120 semester credits at the baccalaureate level, and 30 semester credits at the master's level."

Each school, however, divides up these credits in different categories, including a student's major, general education requirements, and electives.

How Many Credits Do You Need for a Bachelor's Degree?

A bachelor's degree from a regionally accredited institution requires at least 120 credits. Some colleges require more. For example, a national survey of credit requirements found that 10% of programs require 124 credits, while 15% require 128 credits.

Colleges divide credit requirements into major, minor, elective, and general education classes. Each school sets minimum credit requirements for each category, but undergraduates typically dedicate about half their credits to gen ed courses, a quarter to their major, and a quarter to electives or a minor.

General Education Requirements

Also known as distribution or core requirements, general education requirements typically make up around half, or 60 credits, of the coursework for a bachelor's degree.

At most schools, these required courses strengthen critical thinking, analytical, writing, and research skills. Students often select from a variety of courses that meet these requirements, including coursework in the humanities, social sciences, and natural sciences.

Outside liberal arts majors, gen ed requirements may differ somewhat. For example, a business major might take core business and communication courses, whereas a nursing major might take natural science and math courses. Engineering schools often set their own gen ed requirements.

Major Requirements

Undergraduates choose a major to focus their studies. Within their major, students typically take 30-36 credits, including lower-division and upper-division courses. General education courses that introduce students to a field may also count toward their major. Many departments require undergrads to complete several courses with a minimum GPA before they can declare a major.

Depending on the school, major coursework might also include a senior project, internship, and/or senior thesis.

Electives

General education requirements and a major usually add up to under 100 credits. Electives make up the rest of the credits required to graduate college. Students choose electives based on their interests and professional goals. Electives also help students explore new fields.

Transfer students may receive elective credits for courses taken at other schools. When assigning transfer credits, colleges look for the closest equivalent course at their institution. Schools cap the number of transfer credits students can apply toward their degree.

Minor vs. Double Major

Instead of filling up their schedule with electives, students can choose to pursue a minor or double major. Minors typically require 15 credits, while a second major takes another 30-36 credits. Undergraduates who are set on a double major should plan ahead to avoid going far beyond the 120-credit minimum.

How Many Credits Do You Need for an Associate Degree?

An associate degree usually costs less than a bachelor's degree and helps transfer students save money while completing gen ed requirements.

Earning an associate degree typically requires at least 60 credits. While most bachelor's degree-granting institutions stay close to the 120-credit requirement, associate programs can vary widely. Only about 15% of associate programs require exactly 60 credits — the majority require at least 65 credits.

Many two-year colleges sign articulation agreements with four-year institutions, meaning graduates with an associate degree can receive credit for the gen ed requirements for a bachelor's degree when transferring to a four-year school.

How Many Credits Do You Need for a Master's Degree?

A master's degree requires a minimum of 30 credits at a regionally accredited university. That said, the actual number of credits required to earn a degree varies depending on the program.

Many MA and MS programs require 36 credits, whereas an MBA or MSN can exceed 50 credits. Graduate students often customize their degrees by taking interdisciplinary seminars, completing independent studies, and/or undertaking a master's thesis, which can add credits to the degree.

Credits and College Graduation

Each college sets its own credit requirements, though regionally accredited schools all have the same minimums. Additionally, keep in mind that while most U.S. colleges use the semester system, some follow a quarter schedule. On a quarter system, undergraduates need 180 credits to earn a bachelor's degree.

College students don't automatically graduate as soon as they hit 120 credits — they must also meet all graduation requirements at their school. As a result, students planning out their class schedule should make sure to meet with an academic advisor to ensure they complete every requirement on time.

In the end, a single visit could save you from accidentally signing up for 30 credits at once like I did.


Feature Image: Thana Prasongsin / 1273461265 / Getty Images

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