What Is a Full-Time Student?

The definition varies by school

Students sitting in 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 varies by institution. No matter what qualifies as a full-time student at your school, it's important you know the threshold, because your enrollment status can be very important.

Classification of Full Time

In a very general sense, a full-time student is often 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, especially if they're on a quarter or semester system. Full-time students often are only classified as such if they are taking more than half of a traditional course load.

If you need to know if you classify as a full-time student, however, 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 load for you might be different than what it is for other students.

Some places will have their own definition of what being a full-time student means; others will depend solely on how your college or university defines it. (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.")

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

Why Your Enrollment Status Matters

A variety of aspects of your education can be affected by whether or not you can be classified as a full-time or part-time student.

Additionally, you may be surprised at how closely you need to pay attention to your enrollment status. For example, merely dropping a class could be the difference between being a full-time and a part-time student, so you'll want to check with your academic adviser or the registrar's office before taking any actions that could potentially affect your enrollment status.

Here are some things that could be affected by whether or not you're a full-time student. 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 status as a student. Perhaps most important, your financial aid and student loans have a relationship to your enrollment. For example, many student loans do not have to be repaid until you drop below full-time status, so be aware that reducing your course load could mean you have to start making student loan payments—something you don't want to be blindsided by.