Skip to main content

What’s the difference between part-time and full-time college students?

Published April 4, 2024| minute read
Dhara Singh

Senior Associate, JPMorgan Chase

    If college is on your radar, you may be deciding if you want to be a part-time or a full-time student.

    If you have responsibilities outside of school, such as a job or family obligations, you may be considering enrolling as a part-time student. On the flip side, if you feel that you can afford the time and monetary commitment that comes with full-time enrollment, then this may be the option that you’re leaning towards.

    In this article, we’ll break down the differences between full-time and part-time student statuses, including the number of credits students can expect to take in these two statuses and how long it may take to graduate if you're a part-time or full-time student.

    Also, of note, you don’t necessarily have to think of this decision as a permanent one. Some schools and programs allow students to change their enrollment status between full-time and part-time for a semester or trimester, depending on their needs. Another thing to remember as you make this choice is not all schools and programs offer the opportunity for students to enroll part-time.

    What’s considered full-time college enrollment?

    There are three definitions to be aware of when understanding what it means to be a full-time student – your school’s definition, the U.S. Department of Education’s definition, and the Internal Revenue Service’s (IRS) definition.

    First, colleges and universities each have their own definitions for what’s considered full-time. To be considered full-time by a college, most colleges require students to be enrolled in a certain number of classes and credits for a semester, although the requirements may vary.

    The U.S. Department of Education defines full-time student status as being enrolled in at least 12 credit hours per term. This definition is important to understand because it may relate to your eligibility for financial aid provided by the federal government.

    There’s also a legal tax status in order to be considered a “full-time student” by the IRS. Having this status may enable you to take certain exemptions on your taxes. To be a full-time student as defined by the IRS, you must:

    • Be a full-time student as defined by your school.
    • Be a student for five calendar months of the year (these months don’t need to be consecutive).
    • Be a full-time student at a school that has a regular teaching staff, course of study, and a regularly enrolled student body. A student taking a full-time, on-farm training course offered by a school, state, county, or local government agency may also qualify.

    How many classes do full-time students take a semester?

    There’s no set number of classes that are considered full-time across the board. However, for many schools, full-time enrollment often involves taking between three and four classes a semester, depending on how many credits each class is worth. The same is true to meet the U.S. Department of Education’s definition of being a full-time student.

    Remember that all schools are not on a semester schedule, so the guidelines may differ.

    How many credits do full-time students take a semester?

    To meet the U.S. Department of Education’s definition of being a full-time student, students must be enrolled in at least 12 credit hours per semester. Individual schools may have different credit requirements for students to be considered full-time. As a refresher, credit hours are a measure that determines the weight of a particular class. Since all schools aren’t on a semester schedule, this may vary.

    How much does college cost for a full-time student?

    According to data from College Board, a nonprofit organization that helps students with college admissions, the average cost for a full-time student was $10,940 for those attending in-state public colleges and $28,240 for those attending out-of-state public colleges in the 2022-23 school year. For students who attended private schools, tuition was on average $39,400.

    Remember, these numbers are averages, which means tuition varies depending on the exact school. The other thing to keep in mind is that these numbers reflect the sticker price of tuition at schools – many students ultimately pay less because of financial aid.

    How long does it take to graduate from college as a full-time student?

    It takes most full-time students four years to graduate from college with a bachelor’s degree. For students seeking an associate degree, it most often takes them two years to graduate.

    Keep in mind, these timelines can vary. It takes some students less time to graduate with a college degree if they’re able to enter a degree program with college credits in hand, if they’re able to load up on credits during some terms, or if they take classes in summer or winter sessions (or some combination of this). On the flip side, it can take some students longer than the traditional two or four years to graduate with a college degree in some instances.

    What’s considered part-time college enrollment?

    A part-time student enrolls in fewer classes than a full-time student. They may have a day job or other responsibilities that they juggle in addition to classes. As a result, they may pay less in tuition per term (since they’re taking fewer classes), but it may take them more terms to graduate. They also may have less access to financial aid, including scholarships and grants.

    How many classes do part-time students take a semester?

    Most schools consider a student taking less than three or four classes a semester (depending on the credit hours of the class) a part-time student. This may vary depending on if a school is on a quarter or trimester schedule.

    How many credits do part-time students take a semester?

    A part-time student usually takes fewer than 12 credits a semester, though that may differ based on a school’s definition of what a part-time student is. Again, this may vary if a school is on a quarter or trimester schedule.

    How much does college cost as a part-time student?

    How much a school costs as a part-time student will depend on the school. Typically, as a full-time student, you pay by the term (quarter, trimester, or semester), but as a part-time student, you often pay by the credit hour or how many classes you enroll in for a term.

    It’s important to note that even if being a part-time student is cheaper in the short term, in the long run, it may ultimately cost more to graduate as a part-time student than as a full-time student. This is because students who are enrolled part-time are often charged by the number of credit hours they’re enrolled in and also may encounter additional fees, while full-time students may be charged a flat rate for a term, enabling them to take anywhere from 12 to 18 credits a term. Full-time students who enroll in enough credits a term may ultimately see cost-savings.

    You may want to speak to an academic advisor to fully determine the costs of part-time and full-time enrollment to make the best choice for your situation.

    How long does it take to graduate college as a part-time student?

    A 2023 study by the National Student Clearinghouse Research Center, a nonprofit, found that 20% of students from the class of 2017 who were enrolled exclusively part-time graduated in six years. The same study found that 51.1% of students with mixed enrollment (a combination of part-time and full-time) graduated within six years.

    How long it takes you to graduate as a part-time student will heavily depend on how many credits you ultimately end up taking each term, and your consistency in enrolling in classes each term.

    Does the Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA®) cover part-time students?

    The FAFSA® is used by students to access federal student aid including federal student loans, grants, and work-study, if they’re eligible. Part-time students may be eligible for federal financial aid if they’re enrolled in at least a half-time class load (usually around six credits per semester).

    If you’re enrolled half-time as a part-time student, you apply for federal financial aid in the same way a full-time student would via the FAFSA®.

    Part-time students who are eligible for federal financial aid may receive less aid than full-time students, including a reduced Pell Grant award, because of their enrollment status.

    How to decide whether to enroll as a part-time or full-time student

    By looking at your immediate financial circumstances as well as the time commitment you can make to school, you may be able to get a gauge of whether you should attend college part-time or full-time.

    When it comes to enrolling full-time, on the pro side, full-time students may be able to immerse themselves fully in their academic pursuits, allowing for deeper engagement with their studies and the college experience. Being enrolled full-time often leads students to graduate quicker and enables graduates to enter the workforce or pursue more advanced studies sooner. Additionally, full-time status may qualify students for more scholarships and financial aid opportunities, which may reduce the cost of obtaining a degree.

    When it comes to attending college part-time, one significant advantage is the flexibility it offers, allowing students to balance their education with work, family responsibilities, and other commitments. This can make attending college more accessible, especially for those who need to maintain a job or care for family members. Part-time enrollment can provide an opportunity to gain practical work experience while in school, too.

    Final thoughts

    At the end of the day, your status as a part-time or full-time student may change throughout your college career. Sometimes, life happens, and you may want to change from being a full-time to a part-time student, for instance. Even if you find yourself in this situation, know that if you stay the course, you’ll still graduate with a diploma; it may just take a bit longer.