It is possible that your college student may be a part-time student – taking only one or two classes per term while working or doing something else. There are many students who might benefit from entering college slowly – for either academic or financial reasons. This is a decision that you and your student may need to make together.
However, most “traditional” college students are categorized as full-time students. This generally means that your student is registered for a minimum of 12 credit hours per traditional semester and often means that you are charged a standard tuition fee rather than a per-credit fee. Often, this standard semester fee allows students to register for a range of credits: full-time students must be registered for a minimum of 12 credits, but may take up to 18 or 19 credits at no additional charge. There may be variations at institutions, depending on whether the school calculates units, credit hours, or clock hours.
Full-time status is important for several reasons. Full time status is required for many forms of federal financial aid, for residency on campus at many institutions, for varsity athletic eligibility, and sometimes for health insurance, car insurance benefits, or tax deductions.
How do you calculate credit hours?
Credit hours refer to the amount of coursework the student is taking. According to federal standards, a credit hour refers to 37.5 clock hours of work per semester. This means that a student who is registered for a 3-credit course, is expected to invest just over 112 hours per semester in that course. Federal standards state that one third of that time (37.5 hours) should be spent in the classroom. The rest of the time is expected to be out-of-the-classroom activity.
Many college students, especially new college students, may not be familiar with this formula or the expectation that they should be spending 2 hours of work outside of the classroom for every hour that they spend in the classroom. The freedom which college students experience is a heady thing. After spending a minimum of seven hours a day (35+ hours/week) in the high school classroom, spending only a few hours a week in class (generally 12-15) is exciting and liberating. However, many students either forget, do not realize, or choose to ignore the amount of time that they should be spending on coursework – especially if they were able to manage with only a few hours of homework time during high school.
What does this mean?
If your student is a full-time college student, especially if they may be struggling in their classes, it might be beneficial for you to help them calculate the amount of time that they are spending on studies and ask them to consider whether they are putting in the time needed. Many students are surprised when they actually do the calculations. A student who is sitting in 15 credit hours (often a standard load), should be spending 15 hours/week in class and another 30 hours/week outside of the classroom working on schoolwork.
Ask your student roughly how many hours/week they are studying now. Often students will estimate that they spend a couple of hours/day or around 8-10 hours/week. Some students express surprise when they do the math. “Thirty hours per week studying? With classes added, that is over 40 hours/week!”
Helping your student think about their full-time student status as a full-time, 40 hour/week job, will help put their college career in perspective. Of course, students have differing abilities, are enrolled in different programs, and take different courses. Some students will find that they can be successful with less time, and some students will find that it takes them even more time than this to manage successfully. Students also find that not every course will demand the same amount of time. But keeping this ballpark figure in mind should remind your student of the significance of full-time status.
Be careful of overloading
As a college parent, keeping this formula in mind is helpful as well. If your student is charged a flat tuition rate for a range of credits (12-18), you may be encouraging your student to take the maximum number of credits allowed in order to make the most of your tuition dollars. Some students are able to do this successfully, but it is important that both you and your student remember the formula. At student registered for 18 credits should be spending approximately 18 hours/week in class and an additional 36 hours/week studying for a total of 54 hours/week. Help your student think about whether this is realistic.
A complicating factor for many students is the need to be working a job at the same time that they are in school. For many families, this is a necessary way to meet the cost of the college education. However, both you and your student should realize that as a full-time student they have a full-time responsibility. If it is possible to cut back work hours to allow more study time, that may be an important thing to do. If it is not possible, and your student needs to work a full-time job, they will need to balance their time carefully, or may even need to consider reducing their course load to part time.
Whether your full-time student works on campus or off campus, or doesn’t work at all, it is helpful to think about what full-time student status means. Your student’s biggest job right now is to do their best possible work in their classes – and in many cases that may simply mean putting in the time.
Remember, as a college parent, that your job is helping your student to consider the reality, perhaps make some suggestions, but then letting them make whatever decisions they may need to make. It is not your job to monitor study time, or class attendance. Your student will need to find the balance and the approach that works – even if that means faltering or failing along the way. Watching the understanding and decision-making processes grow is an important part of your job as college parent.