The Credit System in US Colleges
Indian colleges have a simple, straightforward academic delivery system – admitted students choose from a set of branches (majors) and study a set requirement of subjects in their major. On the contrary, US colleges offer a framework, the credit system, that provides each student with greater flexibility in designing their education.
Simply put, the credit system is a system of measuring curriculum completion requirements based on the credits earned. A credit (aka credit hour/unit) is the basic unit of measurement for courses. In the US, the terms “course” and “class” are used interchangeably. “Course” does not mean a specific major; instead it is generally a semester-long class in a subject. The cumulative total of these credits then counts towards receiving your degree. A bachelor’s degree usually requires 120-130 credits. MIT has its own unique credit system where one unit = one-hour work/week. Most classes are 12 units and a typical workload consists of 48-60 units/semester.
For example, MIT requires a total of ~160 units within the Electrical Engineering and Computer Science (EECS) department to complete a computer science major, along with ~200 units outside the major in general, required courses. While some of the EECS credits are in mandatory classes such as Algorithms and Software Design, the vast majority allow a student to specially tailor their education to a specific area of interest. So, if one student is interested in human-computer interaction while another in artificial intelligence and machine learning, as long as each has completed mandatory credits and the requisite number of credits in their individual areas of interest, they will each earn a bachelor’s degree in computer science. In short, the credit system allows a student to take practically any course within their major as long as they fulfil the overall credit requirements.
Beyond that, a student also has the opportunity to take elective courses. These are courses taken solely out of personal interests. For example, regardless of major, a student can take a sculpture, creative writing or acting class just because they are interested. Below are some advantages of the credit system.
- A greater degree of flexibility: One of the most obvious benefits is that the credit system allows for greater flexibility in terms of courses. Not only are you free to choose your own courses, but are also free to take them at any point of your undergraduate studies. I’ve personally taken advantage of this by taking advanced graduate-level courses in my sophomore and junior years!
- The freedom to choose an area of specialisation within your major: Since there’s no set curriculum, you are free to choose any one of several specialisation areas within your major. So, if you’re extremely passionate about one technology or mathematical subject, you can dedicate several courses just to that area. For example, my areas of EECS specialisation are artificial intelligence and software engineering.
- Option to attain greater breadth within your major: Greater course flexibility also allows for exploring all areas of focus within a major. This is especially helpful if you don’t know exactly what you want to focus on but instead would prefer a general taste of everything that your major has to offer.
- A more balanced education: Beyond my EECS coursework, I have enjoyed classes in microeconomics and communications. If I had studied in India or in countries other than the US, there would no option for such type of exposure to non-major related subjects.
On the other hand, flexibility and too much choice can confuse those students who aren’t prepared to own the process and carve out their education opportunities. With so many options and so little time, it can be paralysing to prioritise and even know what to prioritise.
The credit system is one unique attribute of the US education system. With a little bit of planning and a long-term vision, it can help a student craft an education that is unique to him or herself. That opportunity, when embraced and strategically leveraged, can yield one-of-a-kind benefits for each student.
Ayush Sharma is a guest blogger for The Red Pen and final year computer science student at Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT)