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The Prudent Scholar explores the topic of money and higher education. We look at at big picture and small: both the latest news and the nitty-gritty details of college life that might help you save money and get more value from your educational experience.

March 30, 2011

Out in 4 years: Budgeting Credit Hours

Simple calculations lead to a credit-hour budget.              Photo by Judi Cox

An extra semester or year of college is an expensive proposition. One of the biggest reasons students fail to graduate in four years is that they take too few credit hours each semester.

What is a credit hour?
In a semester system, a credit hour is usually a measure of time is spent in class each week. A three-credit hour class indicates approximately three hours of class time per week during the course of a semester. Most classes are three-credit hours.

What is an appropriate semester load?
A full-time load for a semester is 12-18 credit hours, which usually translates to four to six classes. Eighteen credit hours are too much for most students. Twelve hours are usually too few. The sweet spot is 15.

Twelve credit hours (again, usually four classes) might be considered full-time and it might leave time for work and extra-curricular activities, but it won't get you to graduation in four years.   

How do I graduate on time?
Complete your credit hours and the course requirements of your program. Use your campus resources to find out what these are.

The math to figure a credit-hour budget is simple. If your program requires 122 credit hours and you take 12 credit hours each of eight semesters, you have only 96 at the end of four years.    

In reality, a 122-credit program requires you to take an average of 15.25 credits each semester (think 15 sometimes, 16 sometimes) to graduate on time with no summer work.


Prudent Scholar Joan
High school senior Joan reads her college bulletin and talks to her college advisor during orientation. She  needs 124 credits to graduate in her program in 4 years (8 semesters).
124  divided by 8 semesters =  15.5 a semester

Joan's plan: Take 15 hours half the time, 16 hours the other half to reach 124. Talk with your advisor about how best to do this.

Late Start Sally
Sally took light loads her first two years in school so that she could take on more work hours.  She, too wants to graduate in four years (8 semesters). She has four semesters to go and needs 74 more credits.
74 divided by 4 semesters = 18.5 credits a semester
Sally's plan:  18 or 19 hours is a jump, but possible. Sally can't afford to cut her work hours and decides to take summer courses.
Summer courses can be a good way to catch up, but might be a financial trap for students who don't need the extra classes. We'll discuss summer courses (pros/cons, questions to ask yourself) in another blog post.

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