My College:

De-Coding a College Course Catalog

Jo Calhoun

How do college students figure out exactly what is required for them to graduate? Good, solid and continuous academic advising is crucial for them to stay on track and this is the time of year when many students are meeting with advisors to plan next semester's courses.

However, the quality and availability of advising vary widely from school to school. In the end, students are solely responsible for making sure they complete all degree requirements.

Fortunately, this information, and much more, is found in the university or college CATALOG. Here are some helpful things to know!

What Is a Catalog?

All institutions have a detailed catalog (or "bulletin") compiled by the Office of the Registrar that lists all program and graduation requirements at the institution. This is a legal document — a kind of contract with your student. Catalogs are rarely printed these days. You can find them on line at the institution’s website.

Here is some of the information found in a typical online university catalog:

  • Academic calendar
  • Degrees and majors offered, with requirements
  • Course descriptions
  • History and general information about the school and its physical campus(es)
  • List of faculty and administration
  • Tuition and registration information

If you want to find a college policy, health insurance requirement, tuition charge — anything — enter the relevant word in the “search” option of the school’s website, and it is likely to take you right to a page of the catalog. It’s a good idea to virtually “flip through” the catalog at your student’s school to see what's in there.

Catalog of Record

The catalog that is in effect when a student enters an institution is the student’s catalog of record; that is, the general education and degree requirements listed in that catalog are the ones the student is responsible for completing.

If those requirements change after the student’s enrollment, the original requirements still apply. Please note that a student is responsible for completing the academic major requirements from the catalog that is current at the time the student officially declares the major (rather than the catalog in effect at the time they first enrolled).

General Education Requirements

Nearly all colleges and universities have a set of general education courses taken in the first two years that all students must complete regardless of their chosen major field of study. These are sometimes called distribution requirements. (A few colleges and universities do not to have such requirements; they prefer what is often called an “open curriculum.”)

Most catalogs provide little explanation for the institution’s general education requirements but simply list them in menu fashion. Take three courses from column A, three courses from column B and three courses from column C. Those courses typically include the study of foreign language, quantitative reasoning (math), writing, diversity, history, literature and the arts, social sciences and natural sciences.

Although the catalog may not state why these courses are important, there is a good reason for them. General education courses are not “throw away” courses. They represent the institution’s view of the “breadth” part of an undergraduate education, while the completion of a major represents the necessary “depth” experience.

Undergraduates benefit from exposure to a broad range of disciplinary perspectives and from reading and discussing a wide variety of views on current and historical issues. They are also well served by being required to improve their writing and their quantitative skills. General education courses allow students to learn about topics that weren’t available to them in high school. They deserve this part of “higher” education.

When you have the opportunity to talk to faculty members during a visit to campus, feel free to ask them about general education. Or read more about the historical development of the “liberal arts” in relation to citizenship and to the professions (not to be confused with “liberal” in the political sense).

Other Important Catalog Information


The more selective the institution, the more likely students will encounter limited approval of AP and IB credits. Enter AP or IB credits in the Search option of the school’s website to find out how they “count.” Whether or not AP or IB credits are accepted, they are very helpful in the advising process in order to assure that students are placed at the correct course level.


In addition to completing general education, major and minor coursework, students must complete at least the minimum number of credits required for graduation with a particular degree. That means that they are likely to add a number of “electives” of their choice to their course of study to get to that minimum number of credits.

For institutions on a semester system, graduation credit requirements tend to run from 120-140 credits; for institutions on the quarter system, that number usually ranges from 180-200. Institutions don’t “round up” to the credit requirement; students need to meet the minimum number of credits specified.

Usually one hour of classtime = one credit. (That’s why they’re also called “credit hours.”) A typical full-time student on a semester system might take five courses each worth three credits for a total of 15 credits per semester.


Some schools require that students earn a minimum specified number of “upper level” or “upper division” credits. These are credits earned in more advanced courses usually taken in the student’s junior and senior year. They can generally be recognized by their course numbers (300 or 400 level), which are higher than those of entry-level (100) courses. Be sure your student attends to this requirement.


These requirements vary significantly by students’ choice of a degree program. They are spelled out very specifically in the catalog, and students typically have an advisor in their major department to help them choose courses in the proper sequence.


Although most of us understand that Fs do not count towards completion of a degree, institutions vary in their treatment of C- and D grades. Many institutions will not count these sub-standard grades towards completion of a major or minor, for example. This is important for students to realize as they are reviewing their transcripts and academic progress reports. Most institutions require that students have a cumulative GPA (grade point average) of at least 2.0 in order to graduate.

The catalog is the single most important navigation tool available to your student. Your own familiarity with the catalog can be a huge help when your student is confused about what’s expected of them in college. Before you pick up the phone to call the school, take a look at the catalog — it may answer your question! And always encourage your student to be in close contact with their academic advisor.

Jo Calhoun worked in Student Affairs for over 30 years at institutions including Grinnell College in Iowa, the State University of New York at Binghamton, and the Morgridge College of Education at the University of Denver. Her specializations include first year programs, academic advising, career services and parent relations.
  • Fall Semester Guide iPad

    When your college student starts their first semester, it’s not just a big deal for them. It’s a big deal for you, too.

    Click Here to Download

  • Find Your University

    Don't Miss Out!

    Get engaging stories and helpful information all year long. Join our college parent newsletter!