Understanding Credit Hours System in US Community Colleges

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Piyush Kohli
Study Abroad Expert
Updated on Dec 10, 2022 14:10 IST

Understanding Credit Hours System in US Community Colleges

What is a Credit Hour?

A credit hour is a process of calculating the total number of credits a student receives for attending a course which corresponds to the hours per week spent in that course. Unlike many traditional high school courses requiring students to attend a class daily, college courses may only meet two or three times per week. Every hour that a student spends in the class typically corresponds to a credit hour. For example, if a student enrolls in a class that meets for one hour on Monday, Wednesday, and Friday, that course would be worth three credit hours, which is common in many college courses.

Credits to be earned

Hours per week,
7-week course

Hours per week, 8-week course

1 Credit

6 hours

5 hours

3 Credits

18 hours

16 hours

6 Credits

36 hours

32 hours

12 Credits

72 hours

63 hours

(Source: AIC)

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In the simplest definition, credit hours are measurement units that make up for the completion of a degree. Every course will have a required amount of credit hours that need to be completed. Each credit hour translates to one hour of lecture time in class per week, so for example, 6 hours, of course, means you need to attend 6 hours of instructional classes.

Credit Hours:

Semester Calendar Credit Hours:  Most U.S. higher education institutions operate on an academic year divided into two equal semesters of 15-16 weeks, with a winter break of 2-3 weeks and a summer session of 10-12 weeks, plus additional shorter breaks.  The actual amount of academic work that goes into a single semester credit hour is often calculated as follows:

  • One lecture (taught) or seminar (discussion) credit hour represents 1 hour per week of scheduled class/seminar time and 2 hours of student preparation time. Most lecture and seminar courses are awarded 3 credit hours.  Over an entire semester, this formula represents at least 45 hours of class time and 90 hours of student preparation.
  • One laboratory credit hour represents 1 hour per week of lecture or discussion time plus 1-2 hours per week of scheduled supervised or independent laboratory work, and 2 hours of student preparation time.  Most laboratory courses are awarded up to 4 credit hours.  This calculation represents at least 45 hours of class time, between 45 and 90 hours of laboratory time, and 90 hours of student preparation per semester. 
  • One practice credit hour (supervised clinical rounds, visual or performing art studio, supervised student teaching, fieldwork, etc.) represents 3-4 hours per week of supervised and /or independent practice.  This in turn means between 45 and 60 hours of work per semester.  Blocks of 3 practice credit hours, which equate to a studio or practice course, represent between 135 and 180 total hours of academic work per semester. 
  • One independent study (thesis or dissertation research) hour is calculated similarly to practice credit hours. 
  • Internship or apprenticeship credit hours are determined by negotiation between the supervising faculty and the work supervisor at the cooperating site. Both must judge and certify different aspects of the student’s work.  The credit formula is similar to that for practice credit.

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A typical bachelor’s degree program of study on a semester calendar requires at least 120 credit hours to be earned by the student.  Normal full-time registration is usually 15 credit hours per semester or 30 per academic year (shortfalls can be made up in summer sessions or independent study).  This roughly translates into at least 30-40 courses (depending on the major subject and thus the proportion of types of credit hours earned) and represents at least 5,400 – and probably more – actual hours of dedicated academic work for a non-science or non-art concentration, and well over that total for graduates of programs in the sciences, engineering, fine arts, or performing arts.  A master’s degree program requiring at least 33 credit hours and including a research thesis or project represents over 4,000 actual hours of supervised and unsupervised (independent research) study, while a doctoral program can represent 8,000 or more actual hours of advanced study and research beyond the master’s degree.

Quarter Calendar Credit Hours:  Some U.S. institutions use a quarter calendar, in which the academic year is divided into three terms, called quarters, of 10-11 weeks’ duration plus a summer session (considered the fourth quarter, but optional), a short winter term and other calendar breaks. Quarter credit hours represent proportionately less work than semester hours due to the shorter terms, about two-thirds of a semester credit hour.  Thus, a bachelor’s degree at an institution on the quarter calendar may require a minimum of 180 quarter hours, which compares to 120 semester hours.


Q. How are credit hours calculated in the USA?

A. To calculate a college credit, you need to know the hours you are spending on classroom work and homework per week and the number of days and weeks in your semester. The calculation for credit is, 1 credit = (1-hour classroom work + 2 hours homework)/ per week x (15 weeks/semester).

Q. How many hours total is 3 credits?

A. AIC uses the industry-standard Carnegie Unit to calculate the credit hours for both traditional and distance courses. Each credit hour corresponds to a minimum of 3 hours of student engagement per week for a traditional 14-week course or 6 hours per week for a 7-week course. This time may be spent on discussions, readings and lectures, study and research, and assignments.

Q. How Many Credit Hours Does One Course Have?

A. Credit hours depend on the course, the university, and the education pattern they follow. Each university has its credit system, but the usual credit hour pattern is as follows:
Year in college No. Of credit points required
Freshmen year 0-30
Sophomore 31-60
Junior 61-90
Senior 91-120

Q. How Many Credit Hours Do You Need To Graduate?

A. Each degree has the credits needed to graduate by students and it may vary slightly based on the academic activities the degree provides, the university, and the course. Students can easily transfer the associate’s degree credit earned at a community college to any bachelor’s program. The credit hours and the number of classes may vary based on your chosen program. The general credit hours required are:
Degree No. Of credits No. Of classes required (approximate)
Associate’s 60 20
Bachelor’s 120 40
Master’s 30 – 60 10 – 20
About the Author
Piyush Kohli
Study Abroad Expert

With a plethora of knowledge of the education domain, Piyush Kohli has been involved with study abroad for over 5 years and counting. He comes with prior experience on the complexities of the study abroad applicatio... Read Full Bio




a year ago

What is pre engineering acc to American universities

Reply to Afrin GOKAK


Piyush KohliStudy Abroad Expert

12 months ago

Hi Afrin, a Pre-Engineering Program (PREP) has fundamental classes in mathematics, sciences, and engineering, that allow students to earn a dual degree and also they need not go to a community college.

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