What are Credits and Credit Hours in College?

Credits and credit hours form integral parts of the academic curriculum. Read to know more about the course credit system, its history, different terminologies, calculation formula and more.

TCM Staff

31st October 2021

Relax! It's not about a Credit card. It's about the Course Credit System.

Credits and credit hours are terms used to scale up the knowledge gained by any student in a particular course.

These credits are usually given at the year-end or as half credit is given per course in case of the semester system. This credit is also known as a Carnegie Unit developed in 1906. Credit hours are the basic unit of measurement that counts for the award of any Bachelor's degree, Masters's degree, or Associate degree.

The Carnegie Unit and the Student Hour are strictly time-based references for scaling educational gain used by American universities and colleges; the Carnegie Unit assesses secondary school successful knowledge accomplishment, and the Student Hour, derived from the Carnegie Unit, assesses collegiate knowledge accomplishment.

These scores were brought into exercise, during the late 19th and early 20th centuries, through a series of three distinct events, all designed to standardize the collegiate educational experience.


Prior to this time (late 19th century) admission to post-secondary education involved a comprehensive examination, either by a public oral session, or a private written session. These processes varied greatly among U.S. colleges and universities, due to the highly subjective nature of these types of examination. Eventually, these methods were slowly discredited due to their poor reliability and validity.

Charles W. Eliot at Harvard University, in the late 19th century, devised both a contact-hour standard for secondary education and the original credit-hour collegiate post-secondary standard. In 1894, the National Education Association endorsed the standardization of secondary education.


Credit Hours

These are the basic unit of measurement that counts for the award of any bachelor, Masters, or Associate degree.

Every degree has its own set of requirements for credit hours.

  • An Associate’s degree requires you to complete 60 – 65 credit hours or 20 classes.

  • A Bachelor’s degree requires you to complete 120 – 130 credit hours or 40 classes.

  • A Master’s degree requires you to complete 30 to 60 credit hours, (depending on the program and the university).

Contact Hours

It is a standard 50 minutes classroom period which can include any lecture or labs where the professor teaches the students.

Contact hours will appear only in the classroom instruction activity category.

What is the Relationship between contact, course, and credit hours?

The relationship between the different terminologies are :

Contact and Credit hours

Students usually receive credit hours according to the number of contact hours they spend per week in class.

Course and Credit hours

A course hour is typically measured as per the number of credit hours. As per the amount of work given and instruction hours, a course is given certain credit. A basic course in an undergraduate degree would be 1 or 2 Credit. As you go higher it would increase to 3 or 4 Credit.

Semester Credit Hour

One Semester Credit Hour (SCH), is equal to the 15-16 contact hours per semester.

Basically, for a one-semester credit hour course, one should attend one contact hour and two preparation hours each week.

These preparation hours can be fieldwork, practical course, or even homework.

College Credit

Here credit is also known as the college credits and it is a little different than the normal credit system.

In the system, the calculation is done on the basis of how much effort the student has put in over the course of the whole semester (15 weeks)

1 college credit represents approximately 1 classroom and 2 homework hours each week.

After a 4-year program, the student requires 26 credits to graduate (an average of 6 to 7 at any time) whereas some high schools have only three years of school because 9th grade is part of their middle schools, with 18 to 21 credits required.

Credits required

  • For Bachelors Degree

To earn a bachelor's degree you need to earn 120 college credit, which includes 40 classes (3 credits per class). It takes 4 years to complete it.

  • For Masters Degree

To earn a master's degree you are expected to complete 36 to 54-semester credits. It takes 2 years to complete it.

  • For Associate Degree

To earn an associate degree you are expected to complete 60-semester credits. Generally, it takes 2 years to complete an associate degree.

Note: There is a provision for students to transfer the credits earned for associate’s degree to bachelor’s program, saving them time and effort.

Why are credits important?

Academic credits play an important role in a student’s career. 

  • Credits are instrumental in deciding the status of your graduation (you need to complete the stipulated number of credits).

  • Credits decide whether you are required to opt for a preparation program to cater to the interest of your Bachelor's or Master's degree 

  • Credits highly influence GPA 

  • The number of academic credits constituted in a program indicates the tuition fees for the degree/program in the U.S.

The academic credit system in the United States

The students in the educational institutions of the U.S are subjected to credit hours which is the cumulation of the number of contact hours per semester. Generally, students opt for 5 courses(each worth 3 semester credit hours) per semester. This is equivalent to 45-48 contact hours. The total number of credits to successfully complete a degree in the U.S is 30 per year. 

How to earn college credits in high school?

A student can earn college credits while still in high school in four ways :

Formula to Calculate Credit Hours

Contact hours are used to calculate the number of credit hours a course may be worth. Credit hours are used to calculate tuition and are a factor in a student’s grade point average (GPA).

Credit hour definition for lecture courses

1 Credit Hour

(1 Contact hour of classroom or direct faculty instructions)


(minimum 2 hours of out of class student work)

With a minimum of 750 minutes of faculty-directed instruction per 1 credit hour course per semester (15 weeks).

Credit hour definition of laboratory courses, practica, or dissertation research

1 Credit Hour

2 to 5 hours of laboratory work, practicums or dissertation work

Based on the number of academically engaged time with a minimum of 100 to 250 contact minutes per week based on program ratios. 

The formula for determination of Credit Hour 

The following formula is utilized for all courses within the School for determining the semester credit hour assignment: 

(minutes hour x hours day x days a week x weeks semester)

(ratio x 750 minutes)

= semester credit hours

A minimum of 50 minutes per hour for all, regardless of the type of course.  The ratio would be 1:1 for lecture courses and range of 1:2-1:6 for laboratory, dissertation, practicum, or courses in which students prepare for lectures, etc. as part of the curriculum, such a that 1 credit hour would essentially require 2-6 hours of laboratory/practicum work.


Hence, the credit system is finally used to calculate where students stand in terms of their academic performance.

By this, we calculate GPA which defines the overall academic ability of a student.

This is further used as a scale for certain college admission. Thus earning a good credit score ensures you of a good university or college.

Blogs you might be interested in 

Recent Articles

How to get the highest possible ACT score: A complete guide

Do College Credits Expire ? : College Credit Guide [2024]

What Is a Good SAT Score?

How to Get a Scholarship in 6 Easy Steps?

Undergraduate vs Graduate: What Is the Difference?

Time Management for College Students: 8 Helpful Tips