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.
Choosing a For-Credit Program or Degree
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.
Associates- An associate's degree is not a "quick and easy" route, but it is quicker. If you're ready to hit the ground running, don't let anything stand in your way.
Bachelors- Employers love to see a BA or BS on a résumé because it shows that you're versatile and dedicated.
Masters- No matter what field you're in, an advanced degree increases your marketability. You'll work hard, but it will pay off in the end.
Doctoral- A doctorate is like the black belt of academics. What can you do with this degree? Pretty much anything, including crane kicks on a pylon.
Non-Degree Track Education
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.
Non-Degree Track Programs
GED Preparation- You can't take the GED online, but you can prepare through online programs and courses. Test officials point out that only 60 percent of graduating high school seniors would pass the GED if they had to take it. Make sure you're ready!
Certification, Training & Continuing Education- Hmm, let's see… These are classes that will help you on the job, and potentially get promoted. Are you kidding? You should have enrolled yesterday.
Auditing- Learning for learning's sake? As an auditor, you won't get college credits or CEUs, but you'll learn things you can use in your professional and personal life. Since we're fellow school junkies, we love this idea!
OpenCourseWare Consortium- Imagine that a top professor brought a microphone and a giant blackboard to the middle of the Grand Canyon, and everyone in the world got to attend his class… Ok, we know that's not logistically possible — even in the Grand Canyon, but that's what this program is like. You can choose from nearly 200 courses offered by dozens of universities around the world — including schools like MIT and Stanford. You can access Ivy League syllabi, lectures and exams, for free!