In higher education institutions in the United States, academic terms are divided into either quarters or semesters, with quarter hours typically being weighted with less hours than semester hours. There are advantages and disadvantages to each academic system. There are also complicating factors, such as when a student needs to transfer hours from one academic system to the other.
Quarter hours are computed on a quarterly academic system. Under the quarter system, the academic year is divided into three quarters: fall, winter and spring, generally 10 weeks each. Most academic programs do not consider summer as part of the regular academic year, although courses are frequently offered during the summer. Quarter systems are often scheduled so that the academic term ends before major holidays such as Christmas and Hanukkah or Easter and Passover.
Advantages of Quarter Hours
Quarter hours allow for a greater variety of courses to be offered within an academic program. Many students are more willing to venture outside their majors within a quarter system because each class bears less weight against their overall academic records. In scheduling classes under a quarter system, it is easier for students to enroll in upper-level courses as undergraduates in a quarter system than in a semester system. Additionally, for less enjoyable classes, the duration of the term is shorter than for semester hours.
Semester hours are computed on a semester academic system, with two academic terms per year: typically fall and either winter or spring, generally 15 weeks each. As with the quarter system, the summer is not considered a standard part of the academic year under a semester system. When classes are scheduled during the summer, the term is much shorter than the standard semester. Semester systems are frequently scheduled so that classes begin in late August or early September, and the end of the school year occurs in late May, often before Memorial Day.
Advantages of Semester Hours
Semester hours allow for more in-depth study of a subject as a result of the longer terms. Students may also be able to devote more out-of-class hours to a particular subject with a semester hour system, as the class time is not as long as in quarter hour systems. Additionally, students may feel less pressured with an academic calendar based on semester hours because classes may be scheduled for fewer days per week than with quarter hours. By ending classes in May, semester hour systems allow students to get a jump on the summer job market and have a better shot at receiving part-time or full-time work.
Transferring Between Quarter and Semester Hours
There can be complications for a student who transfers from a school with one academic system to a school using another academic system or students who apply for graduate programs that use different systems from the undergraduate program. However, most academic institutions have standardized conversion charts they use in computing academic hours when considering a student's transcript. Credit conversion works along many of the same principles involved as when converting the credits from a foreign transcript to an American university system.
Overall, semesters differ from quarters in several notable ways:
- Hours of class (time spent in class)
- Time out of the year in which you have classes
- Varying credit systems (semester credit hours vs. quarter credit hours)
- Longer breaks vs. Shorter breaks
Bonus: Transfer Credits From Community College For Bachelor’s Degree
The number of credits is how you obtain a bachelor’s or master’s degree from an accredited institution. Generally, the total number of credits is 120 for a bachelor’s degree, earned for coursework or internships with college credit. For an associate degree, typically you will need 60 credit hours.
A full-time student typically takes four to five at the undergraduate level with 12 credit hours a typical minimum for full-time status. To graduate in four years, you will need to average 30 course credits each semester and to convert from semester to quarter credits, universities will multiply your accrued credits by 1.5, so 30 credit hours will become 45 credit hours in a quarter system.
What is a credit hour?
A credit hour is equal to 3 hours of work per week for a 15-week semester. Most undergraduate courses are 3 credit hour courses. For a one semester credit hour course, the expectation is that for every 1 hour in lecture, the student will spend 2 hours outside the classroom.
Three academic quarters equal two academic semesters. So, on a quarter system for a bachelor’s degree you will typically need 180 quarter hour credits. 120 x 1.5 = 180.
Number of Quarter Credits / 1.5 = Number of Semester Credits
Number of Semester Credits = 1.5 x Number of Quarter Credits
Chris Blank is an independent writer and research consultant with more than 20 years' experience. Blank specializes in social policy analysis, current events, popular culture and travel. His work has appeared both online and in print publications. He holds a Master of Arts in sociology and a Juris Doctor.