Whether you or a loved one is entering college or is currently enrolled, it is important to know how credits are classified. While decidedly not the "sexiest" topic in education, this information can save you time and money down the road as coursework not applicable to your degree can be avoided.
An Associate degree typically consists of 65-75 credits, and a Bachelor's degree contains 120-135 credits. The emphasis, however, is not just on the quantity of credits earned, but on the designation of those credits. An understanding of how credits are classified is important when choosing coursework and/or evaluating what has already been taken.
The three basic types of coursework are:
1) REQUIREMENTS--Know as Liberal Arts and Science Area Requirements, College Requirements, General Education Requirements, Core Requirements, etc., these are the courses that a college essentially makes you take. There are options within these prescribed courses, but students must earn a certain number of credits in Math, Natural Science, Social Science, English/Literature, Foreign Language, Humanities, Physical Education, etc.
These credits comprise about half of one's degree, whether it be an Associate or Baccalaureate and are often completed during the first two-three years of a four-year degree. They are usually 100 or 200-level in nature. (The level is indicated in the number of the course, with a 200-level English class written as ENG 211, for example.) Note: community colleges often use two-digit numbers with a 200-level English class written as ENG 21 and some universities employ a system based on "thousands" with that same English course written as ENG 2011.
2) MAJOR COURSEWORK--This is coursework in a student's major and ranges from 100-level to 400- level and above. If a student has chosen their major wisely, the majority of these courses should be interesting and enjoyable! The credits earned in these courses pretty much make up the remainder of the degree. The intent of this coursework is to provide breadth and depth of understanding in a particular area of study.
3) ELECTIVES---If the student's program allows for it, a certain number of credits are designated as elective in nature. This affords a student the opportunity to take coursework outside of the major which is not a requirement for his/her particular degree. With electives, students can explore additional study which may be of interest to them. A typical Bachelor's degree will allow for 9-15 elective credits.
Problems arise when students switch majors too late in their program and/or too frequently. When a major is changed, the majority of coursework in the first major often becomes designated elective in nature.
Let's say a student decides to change her major from Accounting to Marketing. If this student has completed 30 credits in Accounting, nearly ALL 30 of these credits would become elective in nature, and an additional 40 credits or more specific to Marketing would be needed to graduate with a major in Marketing. Of course, the student may opt for a double or co-major, but in either case, the time and money required to earn a degree would increase.
Without a clear understanding of coursework designation, students may also fail to meet the requirements of a particular degree by not completing the college's required coursework and/or the courses required in their major. While college advisors are charged with "signing off" on the courses chosen by their caseload, mistakes do occur! Ultimately, it is the student's responsibility to consult the college/university Catalogue or Guidebook to make sure that they have meet all of the distribution requirements for their intended degree.
Finally, college students who attend multiple institutions should be mindful that ALL colleges require a minimum number of credits be completed at the institution awarding the degree. A student can amass 110 credits at "X" institution, but still may need to complete an additional 40 at "Y" institution, putting the total number of credits needed to complete a Bachelor's way over the 120-135 credit range. So, at times, it makes financial, as well as time-saving sense, to just "stay put".