What Does It Mean to Be a Full-Time Student?

The definition varies by school

Students sitting in a classroom.

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You've probably heard the terms "full-time student" and "part-time student" in reference to college enrollment. Obviously, full-time students go to school more than part-time students, but what distinguishes the two often varies by institution. No matter what qualifies as a full-time student at your school, it's important that you know the requirements because your enrollment status can affect your taxes and other obligations.

What Is Full-Time Enrollment?

In a very general sense, a full-time student is usually a student who takes 12 units, credits, or hours per term at an institution where the standard course load is 16 units, credits, or hours.

This, of course, is a very general description. Each institution calculates credits differently, and what counts as full-time at a school that uses a semester system will be different from what counts as full-time at a school that uses a quarter system. Full-time students are often classified as such, as long as they are taking more than half of a traditional course load.

To learn if you are considered a full-time student, you should check with your college or university. The registrar's office will likely have their institution-specific definition posted online. If not, however, a quick phone call, email, or visit might be in order. Additionally, if you are a student who, for example, has some learning differences, what counts as a full-time course load for you might be different from what it is for other students.

Some institutions will have their own definition of what it means to be a full-time student; others will use the definition provided by your college or university. The IRS, for example, classifies you as a full-time student if "you are enrolled for the number of hours or courses the school considers to be full-time."

Put simply, you need to ask the appropriate authority to learn your full-time enrollment requirements. It's crucial that you know whether or not you are a full-time student, as your enrollment status can affect your graduation timeline, among other things.

Why Your Enrollment Status Matters

Your enrollment status — whether or not you are classified as a full-time student — may affect different aspects of your education. For example, you may qualify for certain tax credits and deductions as a full-time student that you would not be eligible for as a part-time student. For this reason, you'll want to check with your academic advisor or the registrar's office before taking any action (such as dropping a class) that could potentially affect your enrollment status.

If you're a student-athlete, you should know that you may not be eligible to compete if you fall below half-time enrollment. Your car insurance premiums and taxes are also related to your enrollment status. Perhaps most importantly, your financial aid and student loans are affected by whether you are a full-time or part-time student. For example, many student loans do not have to be repaid until you drop below full-time status. Be aware that reducing your course load may mean you have to start making student loan payments, which is something you don't want to be blindsided by.