In various universities I've looked at, there are some course prefixes that seem common, e.g.:

  • CSC: Computer Science
  • BIO: Biology
  • MTH and MAT: Mathematics

I have also seen four-character prefixes, and there have been times when a prefix is wildly different than what I would expect. I would imagine this would make it hard to read transcripts from universities you are unfamiliar with.

Is there a standard, or suggested standard, that exists for these abbreviations? Or are they ad-hoc decided by each university, and their consistency is a coincidence?

For comparison, there are some widespread classification systems (for libraries, not courses), both originating in the US:

  1. The Dewey Decimal Classification system, which has problematic facets in history and is entirely composed of the digits 0-9.
  2. The Library of Congress Classification system, which uses 26 distinct classes each named after a capital letter in the Latin Alphabet, and includes abstract classes like "General Works".

Edit 4: Taking the advice from @AzorAhai-him- (thank You for the edits, they were quite illustrative) I'll mention I am currently in and have grown up in the USA, but I am more than open to suggestions/comments from other nations (including those with other national languages), as education is a fully human practice and I think there is value in hearing from diverse sources on this issue. In short: Surely every country with a system for higher education needs to refer to its courses in some way, and I for one would like to know if there's a standard out there I'm unfamiliar with.

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    Aug 31, 2022 at 4:09

2 Answers 2


In the US at least, there is no hierarchical governance or oversight of academic institutions, so that means every institution pretty much does their own thing, with the exceptions being small groups that act as one body at some level (e.g., multiple campuses of a state university/college system).

I don't think it's necessary to invoke "coincidence", though; there are fairly standard common ways to abbreviate things (beginnings of words, acronyms, omitting vowels, keeping together consonants that make a single sound), as well as the possibility that someone that needs to use a label might look to their neighbors and see what they have used or might have simply encountered some abbreviation before that they may not even realize they are copying.

In my experience, these labels usually relate to other organizational levels of an institution, such as departments. That is, they do not represent an attempt to systematically classify areas of learning, but rather that someone needs to be responsible for a class, therefore the names indicate the responsible department and only indirectly label the course content. Departments are clumsy to reorganize, so it's very likely that the departmental organization of an institution is reflective of history rather than an ideal arrangement for the present. As an example, when I started as a graduate student, my institution had a "department of anatomy" that was something like 80-90% professors who worked in neuroscience and many of which would probably not be well described with the label "anatomist". Eventually a reorganization occurred and this department was absorbed with others into a new Department of Neuroscience.

  • Interesting. I wonder if there is any benefit to such a clumsy system of reorganization. I look forward to experiencing this kind of departmental system as a graduate student. As someone who grew up in the USA, the only well-defined systems that spring to mind are the DDC and LCC, both of which don't have entries relate syntactically to their subject at all, and both of which have limitations or problems which discourage my acceptance of them as a "standard". Are You aware of any others? Aug 30, 2022 at 21:46
  • 3
    @ChristopherRodriguez I think that the system is built organically and dynamically, and the academic world is not static. While you might expect departments like Math will always exist, think about the development of say, computers. These went from being niche curiosities to world-changing in a couple decades. When should you build a Computer Science department? If many of the related courses are about engineering electrical components, why not house those courses in an electrical engineering department in the meantime? How many professors is a critical mass to make a new department?
    – Bryan Krause
    Aug 30, 2022 at 21:53
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    This makes sense to me. I guess I hadn't really considered the human side of it. I guess it's just hard for me to accept that we keep doing the same decision-making in each university, over and over, and never coming to any consensus as an academic community. It seems like a waste of otherwise well-spent time, at first glance. I might need to actually experience it to fully understand. Aug 30, 2022 at 22:01
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    @ChristopherRodriguez "I guess it's just hard for me to accept that we keep doing the same decision-making in each university, over and over" ... gotta keep those admins busy Aug 31, 2022 at 0:01
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    @ChristopherRodriguez also, deciding prefix is mostly one-time deal, so it doesn't take much time anyway :)
    – justhalf
    Aug 31, 2022 at 6:27

As Bryan Krause's answer states, there is no US-wide system of numbering courses. However, at a more granular level, there is at least one state (Texas) that has created a standard set of course numberings and a mapping from that set of numberings to each of 134 universities and two-year colleges.

The Texas Common Course Numbering System (TCCNS) is a voluntary, co-operative effort among 134 Texas community colleges and universities to facilitate transfer of freshman and sophomore level general academic coursework. TCCNS provides a shared, uniform set of course designations for students and their advisors to use in determining both course equivalency and degree applicability of transfer credit on a statewide basis. When students transfer between two participating TCCNS institutions, a course taken at the sending institution transfers as the course carrying the same TCCNS designation at the receiving institution.


For example, the TCCNS designation for the calculus I course is MATH 2413, which is also MATH 2413 at most participating institutions in the state, but it's MATH 185 at Abilene Christian University, MTH 1321 at Baylor University, M 408K at The University of Texas at Austin, and so on.

This system facilitates transferring coursework credits from a two-year college to a four-year university within the state, allowing students to get many of the first two years of credits out of the way at a much less expensive community (two-year) college.

For example, a 15-hour semester at Houston Community College costs $1270.50 for an in-state student, while the same 15-hour semester at the University of Houston costs $5934.90. Both of these numbers are for tuition and fees only and do not include room and board or books.

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