Bachelor’s degrees are designed to be completed in four years of full-time study, usually defined as at least 12 units per term. The number of overall units required is similar across institutions, but the distribution of those units can vary dramatically depending on the degree program.
Schools either use a quarter or semester system. Bachelor’s degrees require between 120 and 130 semester units, or between 180 and 195 quarter units. To convert quarter units to semester units, multiply by two thirds; to convert semester units to quarter units, multiply by 1.5. An electrical engineering bachelor’s degree at Cal Poly requires 194 quarter units, the equivalent of 130 semester units, whereas a bachelor’s in English requires 180 units, equating to 120 semester units. An anthropology major at Ohio State University requires 124 semester units, the equivalent of 186 quarter units.
Bachelor’s degree programs allot anywhere from a quarter to half of degree units to prescribed coursework for the major. For example, English majors at Cal Poly take a series of 10 required courses for a total of 40 quarter units. They must also complete a four-unit senior project course. Electrical engineering majors, on the other hand, take 29 required courses, including labs, for a total of 68 quarter units, and they complete seven senior project units.
Electives and Support Courses
Bachelor’s degree programs frequently allow flexibility within the major, requiring students to take a certain number of units in their home department but leaving the specific courses up to students. These courses are called major electives. Cal Poly English majors must take 28 upper-division quarter units of electives in the English department, while electrical engineering majors must take 12 quarter units of coursework from a defined pool of “technical electives.” The English majors need only one support course -- a four-unit foreign language -- so they have 36 quarter units of free electives, coursework that they can take in any department. Many students use free electives to fulfill requirements for a minor. In contrast, electrical engineering majors at the same school must take 67 quarter units of support courses, leaving them with no free elective units.
All schools have a prescribed general education curriculum designed to give students breadth of knowledge. Cal Poly requires 72 quarter units of general education for all its students. However, some of these courses may overlap with major or support coursework for students. For example, the English major at Cal Poly counts a four-unit literature course from the general education requirements toward its major coursework units. And of the 67 quarter units of support courses that electrical engineering majors take, 32 fulfill general education requirements.
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.