A college or university credit, sometimes called a credit hour or unit, is a measure of how much instruction a student receives. Most institutions of higher learning in the U.S. comply with the Department of Education's definition of a credit so their students qualify for federal aid programs. In general, a credit represents an hour of instruction each week over the term, but the government allows a lot of flexibility in this calculation.

General Definition of One Credit

One college credit represents 50 to 60 minutes of class or supervised lab time every week for an entire semester or quarter. In this case, a three-credit class meets three hours per week. In a supervised internship or correspondence course, one credit equals 60 minutes each week. In every case, students must also spend at least two hours of outside study for each 50- or 60-minute instructional period. Colleges award semester credits for terms lasting 15 weeks or more and quarter credits for terms of 10 to 12 weeks. One semester credit equals 1.5 quarter credits for transfer purposes.

Flexibility in Awarding Credits

Institutions can award one semester or quarter credit for terms of varying length if the amount of work is equivalent -- for example, in intensive programs or summer sessions. In addition, online courses must have equivalent instruction for the same number of credits as traditional classes, but there's no specific seat time requirement, according to the U.S. Department of Education. Institutions are allowed to make reasonable adaptations of the rules.