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How many credits do you need to graduate college?

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This article has been vetted by University of Phoenix's editorial advisory committee. 
Read more about our editorial process.

Marc Booker, PhD,  Vice Provost

Reviewed by Marc Booker, PhD, Vice Provost, Strategy

by Michael Feder

At a glance

  • A college credit or credit hour is a unit to measure academic hours completed over a particular time period, with many institutions using a semester calendar.
  • Credit hours differ by degree level: An associate degree requires roughly 60 credits on a semester basis (or 90 credits on a quarter basis); most bachelor’s degree programs require 120 credits on a semester calendar basis (and 180 credits using a quarter calendar basis); and a master’s degree requires 30 to 60 credits. Graduate program credit requirements vary by institution and program of study
  • A bachelor’s degree program usually requires students to take general education classes and electives in addition to those within their field of study.
  • University of Phoenix structures its programs to fit the lives of busy adult learners. Bachelor’s- and master’s-level courses generally consist of three semester credit hours per course for a total of 120 for a bachelor’s degree and approximately 33 to 45 for a master’s degree, depending on the degree and/or chosen discipline. 

Understanding the college credit system

Deciding to pursue a college education is a big decision. That’s why it’s important to know exactly what you’re getting into. You’ll want to know, for example, how much class time you’ll have to commit to in order to earn your degree. Knowing this can help you when deciding which major to pick, which classes to take and how best to plot your academic future.

Understanding the college credit system will help you understand how much time and money you’ll have to invest to reach graduation. Though the requirement varies among degrees, you’ll have to complete a set number of credit hours to earn a diploma.

So how many credits do you need to graduate college? Let’s find out!


What are college credits?

No matter if you are working toward an associate degree, a bachelor’s degree or a master’s degree, every college student has to successfully complete a certain amount of time to graduate in their degree program. That time commitment is represented by credits, which are measured in hours.

A college credit or credit hour is a unit to measure the amount of academic hours completed over a time period (commonly a semester) — both in and out of the classroom. This can take various forms, such as lectures, seminars, clinicals, lab work, assigned readings, tests, group work or independent study.

Understanding what college credits are is important for a number of reasons:

  • Making a class schedule that works for you
  • Transferring credits to other institutions
  • Determining whether you will enroll full time or part time at the institution
  • Fulfilling requirements for financial aid
  • Planning school around work and life obligations 


How credits are measured in a semester vs. quarter vs. trimester

When looking at how credits are measured, you must take into account the type of academic calendar a university operates within. There are three main calendars: semester, trimester and quarter.

  • Semester: An academic year divided into two fall and spring sessions, each lasting approximately 15 weeks.
  • Trimester: An academic calendar year broken into three fall, winter and spring sessions that last 12 to 13 weeks.
  • Quarter: An academic year divided into four sessions, typically 10 weeks each.

Since roughly 90% of colleges in the U.S. follow a semester academic calendar, let’s look at how credits work within a semester. The amount of learning time expected in one semester credit hour over the span of the term is defined by federal guidelines as approximately one “contact hour” of in-classroom learning per week, plus two hours of weekly work outside the classroom, which might take the form of studying, research or homework.

For a three-credit course, for instance, you can assume you’ll be spending three hours a week in the classroom and six hours a week working outside of the classroom. This means over the span of an approximately 15-week semester, one would spend about 135 hours of work inside and outside of the classroom to earn three semester credits.

Typically, in the traditional semester calendar format, students take four or more courses at the same time to be considered a full-time student for that term.

However, some schools, like University of Phoenix, offer courses in an accelerated format using the semester credit calculation by having students focus on one course at a time while truncating the 135 hours of learning activities for three semester credits into a 5- or 6-week course to better serve working adults by speeding up degree completion.


Looking through a list of courses at many semester-calendar institutions, you’ll likely see classes that range between one and five credits, with the majority being three or four credits.

In a quarter system, students spend less time in the term, therefore making each quarter credit calculate to less than a semester credit when converting to the semester calendar. Specifically, each quarter credit is worth about two-thirds of a semester unit.

This means a bachelor’s degree program that would normally take 120 semester credit hours to complete would require 180 quarter credit hours. This is important information when deciding on a college, transferring credits between institutions on different calendar systems and understanding the cost of schooling.

Credit breakdown by academic level

Now that you have an understanding of what college credits are and how they work within an academic calendar, let’s take a look at credits at the associate, bachelor’s and master’s degree levels.

Before we dive in too deep, though,nwe need to understand the prerequisites for these programs. At the undergraduate level, universities divide credits into three main categories, each of which needs to be completed to graduate. They are major, general education and electives. A college may also require minor credits if a student chooses to pursue a minor or a double major. 

Major requirement credits

Credits toward major requirements are the most important part of earning a degree. These credits cover the main learning objectives of the major that a student has selected as the focus of their study. Major requirements typically account for 30 to 60 credits in lower- and upper-division courses. Depending on the university, some general education courses may count toward major requirements if they introduce a student to their program’s focus. Major requirements may also include projects, internships or research. 

General education courses

Associate and bachelor’s degrees require general education courses as part of the program. General education makes up the breadth of an undergraduate degree and includes courses like critical thinking, writing, research, English, math and humanities. These can differ by a program’s educational goals, such as a business major may take communication courses while a nurse takes more science or math courses.

From a credit perspective, general education courses often cover one-third to one-half of education requirements for a degree, accounting for 36 to 60 credits of the program. Students who have earned a recognized Associate of Arts degree will not have to retake general education courses when transferring that degree to a bachelor’s program, as an Associate of Arts constitutes having met general education requirements. However, this is up to the discretion of the receiving university.  

Elective credits

To round out the undergraduate degree requirements, most degree programs offer relevant electives providing students an opportunity to customize their degree for their interests while meeting credit requirements. Electives can also allow students to develop specialties to further hone their skills and prepare them for the workplace.  Elective credits are often opened up to the student for their own selection so that they can pursue academic interests or topic areas that may be engaging to them as part of their academic experience. 

How many credits for an associate degree?

On average, an associate degree program will require students to complete 60 semester credit hours (SCH) or 90 quarter credit hours (QCH) to graduate.

Generally, that translates to about two years of attendance, although some colleges allow students to complete their degree faster by taking on more classes per semester or quarter.

On the other hand, students who attend college part time may take longer than two years to complete their degree.

Many students pursue an associate degree as a stepping-stone toward entering the workforce. Others choose to take the credits they’ve earned in an associate degree program and apply them toward a bachelor’s degree.

How many credits for a bachelor's degree?

Generally speaking, most bachelor’s degree programs require students to complete 120 SCH or 180 QCH. If the average class provides three credits, then this translates to 40 classes.

A bachelor’s degree program is usually completed over four years, but that timeline can vary. As with an associate degree, taking on more classes per semester or quarter can accelerate a student’s progress. Working on the degree part time can have the opposite effect. 

If you expect to complete your program, you’ll have to be focused on which courses you take in order to reach 120 credit hours. (You can’t take 102 credit hours of film study, for example, if you expect to graduate with a business degree.) At the same time, you’ll likely not be restricted solely to courses within your particular field of study because of elective and general education requirements.


Bachelor’s degrees generally have specific requirements for how to divide the required credit hours, and what courses students need to take to graduate.

In the following, we’ll dive into some of the common credit hour requirements for a bachelor’s degree.

General education requirements

Depending on a student’s choice of major, they will be required to take a certain number of general education courses. The purpose of these courses is to give students a breadth of knowledge and foundational skills that can benefit them in their education as well as in life after graduation.

Students generally have a lot of flexibility as to which general education courses they choose, although every college has its own requirements as to which classes fulfill this requirement.

Some things covered in general education courses might be:

  • Developing communication skills
  • Writing and logical analysis
  • General arts education
  • Applying one’s study to a broader social context

Major requirements

As a student progresses through their bachelor’s degree program, they tend to take fewer general education courses and more classes focused on their area of study. These major requirements (also known as a required course of study) are lower-to-upper-level courses within the area of study of a student’s major, and they form the core of the student’s education at the college or university.

In these classes, a student studies to become deeply knowledgeable in their field of study. They’ll spend time in lectures and sometimes labs learning in-depth information not included in a general education course.

A student in a general education course may look around and see peer students majoring in a number of differing subjects, whereas, in a major requirement course, they are likely to see only other individuals in their field or in a related field of study.



Elective courses give students the opportunity to branch out in their study. These courses generally have no relation to the student’s major and are simply there to be enriching and intellectually stimulating. Electives generally make up the smallest portion of a student’s credit hours requirement, but they still have to fit somewhere in the student’s course schedule.


For students who want to leave college with more than a bachelor’s degree, a minor might be worthy of consideration. A minor generally takes at least 18 credit hours to complete, translating to at least six semester courses.

A minor can give students a broader educational background with an understanding of a discipline outside their major.

A minor can also give students a different lens when looking at ways to use their degree. A business major who minors in cinema studies, for instance, may take their skills into film finance or production. And, of course, some people choose to pursue a minor solely out of intellectual curiosity!

Double major

Students who fulfill the requirements of two majors before graduation can often receive a double major from their college. Because required general education courses and major courses overlap between some majors, some students are able to complete a double major while still taking around 120 credits.

This isn’t to be confused with a dual degree. In a dual-degree program, students work toward degrees in very different disciplines, such as health administration and business administration. Students who achieve dual degrees often shoulder a heavy load of credit hour requirements, which can extend the time required to complete their education.

How many credits for a master's degree?

master’s degree generally requires between 30 and 60 credit hours. These credit hours are usually completed in one to three years by full-time students or longer for part-time students.

These hours may increase depending on whether the program requires fieldwork, clinical work or practicum experience.

Master’s degree programs often culminate in a thesis or capstone project, in which students are required to perform and present an original inquiry before graduating.

How many credits to earn a degree from University of Phoenix?

University of Phoenix’s continuous learning and multiple start dates offer adult learners a distinct advantage to start school when it fits their lives, which is different from how traditional universities structure their programs. The University offers 5-to-6-week bachelor’s- and master’s-level courses consisting of three credit hours per course, which equates to a semester unit. This flexibility allows students to find class start dates that fit their schedules so they can start school when they’re ready, while still meeting the necessary credit hours to graduate. 

The total length of a bachelor’s degree at University of Phoenix is 120 credits, with each course lasting about five weeks. The total length of a master’s degree is 33 to 60 credits, depending on degree program or discipline, with each course lasting six weeks.

Learn more about credit hours per degree level and cost per credit hour at University of Phoenix. 


How many credits is four years of college?

Generally speaking, full-time students complete 120 semester credits over four years of college. This may be done entirely during a bachelor’s degree program, or after transferring credits from an associate degree.

How many credits is two years of college?

Two years of college usually translates to about 60 semester credit hours.

How many credits for each year of college?

Usually, students take on about 30 semester credit hours for each year of college.

So, how many credits do you need to graduate college? The answer depends on your goals and chosen degree program! Equipped with this knowledge, you should be better prepared to map your educational future, and make sure you fulfill all your credit requirements.


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