How many credits do most colleges require to graduate?

The number of credits required to graduate from college depends on several factors, including the type of degree, the academic major, and policies set by individual colleges and universities. Most bachelor’s degree programs in the United States require students to complete 120 semester credits or around 40 college courses to graduate. However, credit requirements can range from as few as 30 credits for an associate degree to over 130 credits for some bachelor of science degrees. Let’s take a closer look at typical credit requirements for common undergraduate and graduate degree programs.

Undergraduate Degrees

For undergraduate degrees, the standard is 120 semester credits for a bachelor’s degree, 60 credits for an associate degree, and 30 credits for a certificate program. However, these can vary by school and program.

Bachelor’s Degrees

A bachelor’s degree, which usually takes students four years of full-time study to complete, requires an average of 120 credits. This breaks down to around 15 credit hours per semester over 8 semesters. However, some bachelor’s degrees, particularly in engineering and science, may require up to 132 credits.

Some factors that can affect the credit requirements for a bachelor’s degree include:

  • Core curriculum requirements dictated by the college or university, usually around 30-60 credits.
  • Prerequisites for the major, which range from 30-50 credits.
  • Credits required for the major itself, averaging around 30-40.
  • Electives, which make up any remaining credits.

So in order to reach 120 credits, students complete core courses, prerequisites, major requirements, and electives. Some schools also require a minor, adding on another 15-20 credits in a different discipline.

Associate Degrees

Associate degrees, which take about two years of full-time coursework, require an average of 60 semester credits. This is half the amount needed for a bachelor’s degree. Associate degrees are offered at community colleges and some four-year institutions. There are two main types of associate degrees:

  • Associate of Arts (A.A.) – Focused on humanities, social sciences, and liberal arts. Designed to transfer to a four-year college.
  • Associate of Science (A.S.) – Focused on math and science. Also designed to transfer credits to a bachelor’s degree program.
  • Associate of Applied Science (A.A.S.) – Focused on vocational skills for specialized careers.

For both A.A. and A.S. degrees, the typical 60 credits are divided between general education requirements (30 credits), electives, and major prerequisites. The A.A.S. may focus even more heavily on career-related courses.

Certificate Programs

Undergraduate certificate programs generally require 30 or fewer semester credits to complete. These programs are shorter and more focused than an associate or bachelor’s degree. Certificate programs provide training for specific occupations or add specialized skills to supplement a degree. For example, a student might earn a certificate in accounting, information technology, or paralegal studies.

Graduate Degrees

The credit requirements for graduate degrees are lower than undergraduate programs but vary depending on the level of graduate degree.

Master’s Degrees

A master’s degree usually requires 30-60 credits beyond the bachelor’s degree. The average is about 36 credits. Master’s programs take 1-3 years to complete depending on if the student attends full or part-time.

Some common master’s degrees and typical credit requirements:

  • Master of Arts – 30-60 credits
  • Master of Science – 30-45 credits
  • Master of Business Administration – 36-54 credits
  • Master of Public Administration – 36-48 credits
  • Master of Fine Arts – 60 credits

Graduate certificate programs, which are shorter than master’s degrees, require 12-20 credits of graduate-level coursework.

Doctoral Degrees

Requirements for doctoral degrees like the Ph.D. or Ed.D. are more variable but typically range from 60-120 credits beyond the bachelor’s degree. This translates to about 4-6 years of full-time study after completing an undergraduate degree.

Some examples of typical credit requirements for doctoral programs:

  • Ph.D. in Biology – 60-90 credits
  • Ph.D. in Psychology – 90-120 credits
  • Ed.D. in Education – 60-80 credits
  • D.B.A. in Business – 70-120 credits
  • J.D. in Law – 78-100 credits
  • M.D. for Medicine – 130-250 credits

The high number of credits required for graduate and doctoral degrees includes master’s degree credits plus additional advanced coursework, research, dissertations, and internships.

Typical Credit Requirements by Degree

Degree Type Average Credit Requirement
Associate Degree 60 credits
Bachelor’s Degree 120 credits
Master’s Degree 36 credits
Doctoral Degree 80-120 credits

This table summarizes the typical credit requirements for completing common degree types at U.S. colleges and universities.

Factors That Influence Credit Requirements

While these credit numbers provide a general framework, the specific number of credits required by individual programs and institutions can vary. Here are some factors that play a role in credit requirements:

  • Institution type – Public vs. private and two-year vs. four-year colleges may have different requirements.
  • Degree type – Associate, bachelor’s, master’s, doctoral, and professional degrees have different credit expectations.
  • Major subject – STEM and technical majors may require additional credits.
  • Core curriculum – More rigorous core requirements increase total credits.
  • Accreditation – Regional and program-specific accreditation standards influence credit policies.
  • Institutional policies – Each school determines independent credit requirements by degree level.
  • State education regulations – Some states mandate degree credit minimums.

While 120 semester credits is the standard for a bachelor’s degree at most colleges, students should always check the official credit policy dictated by their institution and degree program. With the influence of so many factors, credit needs can fluctuate up or down by several credits.

How Many Classes Equal Certain Credit Requirements?

Colleges award credits based on the hours of instruction and student learning for each class. The standard is generally:

  • 1 credit = 15 hours of instruction
  • 3-credit class = 45 hours
  • 4-credit class = 60 hours

Most classes are worth 3 to 5 credits each. On average, a full-time student takes 4 to 5 courses per semester. This means a semester workload totals 15 to 18 credits. Based on this structure, meeting different credit requirements would typically involve:

  • 30-credit certificate: 10 courses
  • 60-credit associate degree: 20 courses
  • 120-credit bachelor’s degree: 40 courses
  • 36-credit master’s degree: 12 courses

However, students often take classes worth fewer than 3 credits, like 1-credit labs or seminars. And some intensive upper-level and graduate courses carry 6, 7, or even more credits. So the number of classes needed depends greatly on the credit value of each one and how a student schedules their semesters.

How Long Does it Take to Earn Different Credit Requirements?

In addition to counting credits and courses, colleges measure programs by the number of academic years they take to complete:

  • Certificate: Less than 1 year
  • Associate degree: 2 years
  • Bachelor’s degree: 4 years
  • Master’s degree: 1-2 years
  • Doctoral degree: 4+ years

These timeframes assume students take a full-time courseload each fall and spring semester:

  • Full-time student: 12+ credits per semester
  • Part-time student: Less than 12 credits per semester

Undergraduate students typically take 15 credits, or around 5 classes each semester, enabling them to finish an associate degree in 2 years and a bachelor’s in 4 years. Graduate students usually take around 9 credits per semester, allowing completion of a master’s degree in 1-2 years.

However, many students extend their education beyond these timeframes. Factors like attending school part-time, taking classes in summer or winter terms, completing internships, or switching degree programs can increase the amount of time to graduate.

Ways to Earn Credits Toward Graduation

Students have some flexibility in how they accumulate credits required by their degree program. Options include:

  • Standard courses – Taking normal classes during fall, spring, and summer semesters.
  • CLEP exams – Earning credits by passing College-Level Examination Program tests to demonstrate academic knowledge.
  • AP credits – Receiving credits for high scores on high school Advanced Placement exams.
  • Study abroad – Enrolling in international programs where credits transfer back to your degree.
  • Double major/minor – Earning extra credits by completing a second discipline.
  • Electives – Taking additional courses outside your core degree requirements.
  • Internships – Gaining credit through practical work experiences.

Using these options strategically can help students reach credit requirements and customize their education. Most schools also allow a certain number of transfer credits from other accredited institutions.

Tips for Meeting Credit Requirements

Here are some useful tips for students to ensure they satisfy their program’s graduation requirements:

  • Review your program curriculum and credit policies early on.
  • Meet with an academic advisor regularly to audit your progress.
  • Take around 15 credits per semester (or 30 per year) to stay on track.
  • Don’t fail or withdraw from courses as this can delay earning credits.
  • Consider summer classes to supplement fall and spring terms.
  • Check if CLEP or AP exams could earn you credits.
  • Research study abroad opportunities that meet credit needs.
  • Track your cumulative credits using your institution’s degree audit system.
  • Notify your advisor if you plan to transfer credits from another school.
  • Petition for any exceptions to institutional credit policies well in advance of graduation.


While 120 semester credits is a typical requirement for bachelor’s degrees at four-year colleges and universities, students should be aware of their specific program’s credit expectations. The number of credits required depends on the type of degree, major subject, curriculum standards, and a college’s own policies. Students can reach credit milestones through a combination of major courses, electives, internships, examinations, and transferring credits. By understanding requirements and planning course schedules accordingly, students can ensure they will complete the correct number of credits to graduate on time.

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