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What do I do if I have a lot of college credits but no degree?

    The National Center for Education Statistics is projecting college enrollment to rise significantly in the coming years in the U.S. Another number that is on the rise: The number of Americans with college credits but no degree. There are more than 39 million Americans with some college credits but no degree, according to a 2022 report from the National Student Clearinghouse Research Center. That’s a number that’s up from previous years.

    Students stop going to college in the middle of their degree for many reasons — tuition costs, curriculum changes, or life situations that call for it. If you are one of the millions of Americans who attended college but did not complete your degree, keep reading as we break down college credits and how to go about getting over the finish line.

    What are college credits?

    Each course you take in college has a corresponding number of credits. These credits quantify the hours of study you put into a course, either in-person or online.

    Full-time students, for the most part, take between 12 to 15 credits per semester, whereas part-time students, for the most part, take less than 12 credits per semester.

    Colleges and universities require students to complete a specific number of credits to obtain their degree. And often, students are expected to complete a set number of credits in specific areas of study — for example, a certain number of credits in their chosen major or a certain number of credits to complete a language requirement.

    The three types of college credits

    General education requirements

    General education requirements exist at many colleges and are the core courses students are expected to take. Although every college has a different approach to required courses, usually they fall into buckets such as math and writing. There is no standard across colleges as to the number of general education required credits. Still, usually, students are expected to complete some number of them.

    Elective credits

    These are the courses that a student selects to study regardless of their major. Think of them as interest-based or choice-based courses. For example, a student pursuing math as their major can choose a theater class as an elective. Credits for electives still count toward the number of credits needed to graduate.

    Major specific credits

    The courses that are directly related to your major are called major-specific courses. These credits are usually necessary for you to obtain your degree. If you are a freshman or a sophomore, you may not be required to decide your major, but you are usually expected to state it by the end of your sophomore year and then to start to work towards major-specific credit requirements.

    Steps to take if you have some college credits but no degree

    There are steps to take and options to consider if you have amassed college credits but haven’t yet completed your degree.

    Talk to an academic advisor

    Your first step is talking to an academic advisor and reviewing your transcript. Find out what requirements you have completed and what major will be the quickest path to graduation. They’ll be able to walk you through your options and lay out a plan based on your needs and interests.

    Apply for financial aid

    Affordability is often a factor for students who leave college early. Make sure to fill out the Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA®) to be eligible for most forms of financial aid.

    Look for a job with tuition reimbursement

    Some companies encourage their employees to go back to school and even front (at least some of) the bill.

    One of the great things about tuition assistance or tuition reimbursement is that the only stipulation that will come with this benefit most of the time is just a commitment to work for your company for a specific amount of time, either before and/or after you complete your degree.

    This is a great way to make money, gain experience, and finish your education without incurring a lot of student debt or putting an extra financial burden on yourself.

    Pursue a college work-study program

    Sometimes schools have opportunities for students to work on campus and get reduced or free tuition. Look into work-study programs at schools in your area.

    Consider the military

    The military is a way for people without degrees to get real-world experience. Those in the military can take advantage of tuition assistance while on active duty or use the G.I. Bill when they leave the service to help pay for college.

    Common questions about college credits

    How do I earn college credits?

    The simplest way to earn college credits is by completing courses. Overall, earning college credits depends on your academic ability and course participation.

    How many credits do I need to graduate college and receive my bachelor’s degree?

    Generally, you are required to complete 120 credits to graduate with a bachelor‘s degree. That breaks down to about 40 classes. However, it can vary depending on the degree you are pursuing and the specific school you attend.

    How many credits are in an associate degree?

    An associate degree (sometimes referred to as a two-year degree) is equivalent to 60 semester credit hours (or 90 quarter credits). In other words, 20 college courses usually. This credit number can vary based on your career path and its academic requirements. The credits you earn through an associate degree can be transferred later to a four-year college as long as the institution you received the credits from is regionally accredited. Programs that offer a bachelor’s degree as an extension to the associate degree are often called 2+2 programs.

    Do college credits expire?

    College credits do not come with an expiration date, but they are subject to validation by the school you have chosen. It depends on that college as to whether they are willing to accept your previously acquired college credits.

    How do I transfer credits?

    In order to transfer credits, you will have to contact the school you want to transfer to and check with an advisor about its credit transfer policy. Depending on what they allow, you will then have to reach out to your former college and have your official transcripts sent to your new college.

    What schools accept any transfer credits?

    Transferring credits depends on the college’s rules. Most colleges and universities do allow transfer credits, but they have many different guidelines. Most schools have a “residency” requirement, meaning a minimum number of credits must be earned at their institution (most require 30 hours, but some need 60 or more).

    Final thoughts

    There are a significant number of students who have college credits but no degree. If that is you, you can take steps to turn those credits into a degree, it will just take some work and a strategy.