All undergraduate degrees are designed to be completed in four years -- at least in theory. But the variation in the number of hours they require means you may need to take more credits every semester than your friend to graduate at the same time. To convert quarter hours to semester hours when you’re comparing requirements at different schools, divide by 1.5.

Total Hours to Degree

Some states and institutions limit the total semester hours that are required for a bachelor’s degree to 120. At the time of publication, Minnesota and Texas had statutes that did so, and Nevada was working to pass a similar one. In addition, the Georgia, Maryland, Montana and Tennessee university systems all had institutional policies mandating the 120-hour limit. While you’ll seldom see bachelor’s degrees that require fewer than 120 semester hours, though, many require more. For instance, a B.S. in engineering at Boston College takes between 130 and 136 semester hours, while some B.A. degrees in music at Youngstown State University require 142 semester hours.

General Education Credits

Bachelor’s degrees at U.S. institutions all involve general education courses, which give you a broad education to round out the specific expertise you gain in your major courses. General education courses make up about a third of bachelor’s degree programs. For example, at Penn State, where typical bachelor’s degrees require 120 to 130 credit hours, 45 credit hours of general education are required. Similarly, Central Connecticut State University requires 44 to 46 credit hours of general education. Most general education classes are three units, although some courses, such as those with a laboratory component, have four units.

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Major and Support Credits

Not surprisingly, the major coursework taken in your home department makes up the bulk of any bachelor’s degree program. Most degree programs also involve support courses, which are taken in related departments. For example, the history major at the University of Texas, San Antonio, requires 42 semester hours of history classes, nine hours of upper-division courses related to history, and six hours of foreign language classes. In some degree programs, there’s overlap between general education and major courses. For instance, a core course for an English major might fulfill the upper-division general education requirement in the humanities.

Free Elective Credits

Free electives are courses that you get to choose from any department. Some of them must be upper-division courses, but aside from that requirement, there’s no restriction on what courses you can take. Some bachelor’s degree programs have so many major and support courses that they don’t leave room for free electives, although you do get to choose among different course options within the major. For example, the electrical engineering B.S. program at Penn State has no free electives, while the history major at UT San Antonio allows for 30 hours of free electives. Many students use free electives to fulfill requirements for a minor.

About the Author

Elissa Hansen has more than nine years of editorial experience, and she specializes in academic editing across disciplines. She teaches university English and professional writing courses, holding a Bachelor of Arts in English and a certificate in technical communication from Cal Poly, a Master of Arts in English from the University of Wyoming, and a doctorate in English from the University of Minnesota.