What are College Credits?

What are College Credits?
Beth Dumbauld

Every college student earns credit for their courses, but only a handful understand what a credit hour is and how it’s earned. This article will help you understand what the college credit hour is, how it’s calculated and why you need a particular number of credit hours to earn a degree.

Most students are comfortable with the general idea of receiving credit for coursework even before they enter college. But colleges and universities use what’s known as the “credit hour” which is different from high school. In order to understand the credit hour, you must also understand the “contact hour” because the number of contact hours, or hours spent in the classroom, dictates the number of credit hours you earn for your course.

Defining the Credit Hour

MastersPortal defines the contact hour as “any lecture or lab time when the professor is teaching…usually equal 50 minutes in real time.” Generally speaking, 15-16 hours of instruction is equal to one credit hour. Therefore, for a three-credit hour course, a student has been instructed 45-48 hours of contact time. This translates into about three hours of class meeting time per week for a full, sixteen-week, semester.

This, in turn, helps calculate your grade point average (GPA). Your GPA is calculated by dividing the total amount of grade points by the total number of credit hours attempted. Grade points are assigned to the grade you receive in a course:

A = 4.00 grade points
A- = 3.70 grade points
B+ = 3.33 grade points
B = 3.00 grade points
B- = 2.70 grade points
C+ = 2.30 grade points
C = 2.00 grade points
C- = 1.70 grade points
D+ = 1.30 grade points
D = 1.00 grade points
D- = 0.70 grade points
WF/F=0 grade points

That’s the math, but what does it really mean? In short, it means that attendance matters. Being present, both physically and mentally, matters. If you are not present, no learning occurs and if you are present, the expectation is that you pay attention, be interactive, and participate in the learning experience offered by the course instructor. It’s like a chain reaction: if you attend regularly (have a high amount of contact hours), your grade will reflect the effort you put unto learning, and those grades are calculated into a GPA, which is a representation of all your work as a student.

By now you’re probably wondering how many credit hours you need for a degree? That depends on the degree. Not surprisingly, an associate degree requires fewer undergraduate hours than a bachelor’s degree. Here’s the breakdown:

Associate Degree:     60 - 65 undergraduate credit hours

Bachelor's Degree:    120 – 130 undergraduate credit hours

The Origin of the College Credit

If this sounds a bit complicated and maybe a little old-fashioned, that’s because this system, known as the Carnegie system, originated in the late 1800’s. By 1910, almost all universities had adopted this system and it remains in place in the majority of American colleges and universities today. Students have been accumulating contact hours, credit hours, GPAs and degrees in this way for quite some time. Today, federal and state agencies also play a role in deciding what courses are necessary for degrees, which is why courses like math, English and science are required in virtually every college degree.

We hope this discussion of the credit hour helps you, as you focus on your education, to understand where the system comes from, how it works and why you need a minimum number of credit hours to earn a degree.

Find out which courses you can take online to earn college credit for your degree! Get started today!

About the Author: Marty Chester is a seasoned educator with over twenty years’ experience in various facets of higher education. Her passion is working with students to overcome obstacles and reach their full potential.

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