Most of us want to get credit for work we've completed. Whether it's a paycheck, a good grade, or a pat on the back, credit lets us know we've accomplished something worthwhile. Credit also lets other people know we've accomplished something worthwhile.
In terms of education, college credit is a specific unit awarded to students who pass college classes. Usually, one college class is equal to 3 credits. Some classes are worth more or less credits. When students pass enough of the required classes, they will have collected enough credits to earn a degree.
Credits are recognized at almost all colleges and universities. If you complete a 3-credit class in New York, and then you move to California, you can usually use those 3 credits at your new school. The same idea holds true online. If you earn 12 credits, and then you take a break for a year, you'll still have your 12 credits. In many cases, you can transfer your credits to a different program, and finish your degree at a new place and time.
So how many credits does it take to earn a degree? That depends. Different programs have different credit requirements. Some certificates require 25 credits or less. Advanced degrees might require more than 100 credits. (At an average of 3 credits per class, that means a degree might require 30+ classes.)
As you can see, it's a good idea to investigate how many class credits (and which specific classes) are required for any degree that interests you. When you know the total number of credits and classes required, you can determine how long the whole degree will take. And because tuition is often charged on a "per credit" basis, this information will also help you to estimate how much your degree will cost.
If credits are like the pieces in a puzzle, then choosing a degree or certificate program is like choosing which puzzle you want to work on. Some are bigger projects than others.
Generally speaking, there are four levels of degree programs: associate's, bachelor's, master's and doctoral. There are also for-credit programs that do not result in degrees. Examples of such programs include: training programs, continuing education programs and certification programs. The following links can help you decide what kind of for-credit program you want to start. If you already know which program you're seeking, skip ahead to research your major.
Not everyone who takes a college class is working towards a degree. Some students earn certificates. Some students need to fulfill a professional requirement for their job. Some students just want to expand their horizons.
Non-degree track education has many different names. It might be called Continuing Education or Professional Development. Some schools list non-degree track classes as "non-credit" classes. In a sense, this is accurate, because these classes don't provide the credits (outlined above) that lead to a degree. On the other hand, students can earn a different kind of "credit" for this type of education.
Non-degree track education commonly credits students with CEUs, or Continuing Education Units. CEUs help to create an academic record for students who are taking classes, but are not pursuing degrees. CEUs are nationally recognized credentials, regulated by the IACET, or International Association for Continuing Education and Training. Ten instructional contact hours typically equal 1 CEU.