How Long Does It Take to Get a Bachelor’s Degree?

A bachelor’s degree is typically completed in 4 years or 8 semesters when taking an average of 15 credits per semester. Most students complete a bachelor’s degree in 4 to 6 years.

Statistics show that 47.7% of students complete a degree within 4 years, according to NCES data on graduation rates. By 5 years, 61.4% of students earn a bachelor’s degree, and within 6 years, 64.6% of students earn their bachelor’s degree. In 2021, the 8-year graduation rate was 65.3% for students at all schools. Students in difficult majors like engineering, architecture, nursing and business often require more credits and more time to finish a degree. 

When comparing graduation rates at public vs private schools, 40.7% of students at public colleges earned a degree in 4 years. At private non-profit schools, the percentage was 56.6%. The 8-year graduation rate was 64.6% and 69.2% respectively, according to NCES graduation data

Students that earn college credits through AP and CLEP exams allow students to complete a degree more quickly. Taking more than a full load in one or more semesters, going to school in spring or summer semesters and choosing an accelerated bachelor’s degree program can graduate more quickly.

Earning a degree is slower for students that are part time, earn a double/dual major or a major and a minor, repeat classes due to poor grades or miss time taking a gap year or working in an internship that does not provide college credit.

Full time students complete their degree more quickly than part time students.

What Can Help Get a Bachelor’s Degree Faster?

You can get a bachelor’s degree in less time if you go to school year-round or earn credits in ways other than through taking college courses from your current school. Here are the best ways to get a bachelor’s degree in less than the average time: 

  • Going to school all year including spring and summer semesters: Many college students attend fall and winter semesters. While names might be different, this essentially means from late August or early September through late April or early May. Schools typically have two shorter semesters during the in-between months in which credit hours can be earned. The average number of credits earned by students that take summer courses is 6.7 credits according to National Center for Education Statistics (NCES) data.
  • Take more than a full load: A typical full load is 12-15 credit hours at most schools. Taking more than a full load of credits will allow you to earn your bachelor’s degree sooner. You may need to submit a credit overload request and have it approved to take a high number of credit hours – the number varies from school to school. And beware that taking too many classes produces the risk of getting lower grades and lowering your college GPA.
  • Earn AP Exam credits: Typically done prior to starting college, Advanced Placement exam or AP exam credits are earned by completing an exam on material considered college-level in terms of difficulty. AP exam credits are accepted by almost all colleges and universities.
  • Earn CLEP Exam credits: The College Level Examination Program, or CLEP, is accepted by 2,900 colleges and universities in the US. There are currently 34 CLEP exams covering subjects typically taught in 100 and 200 level college courses. The program allows you to earn college credits by passing exams, and no classwork is required. As a result of earning CLEP exam credits, students can earn a bachelor’s degree faster, sometimes in less than 4 years. ]
  • Entering an Accelerated Bachelor’s Degree program: Accelerated bachelor’s programs allow students to complete a degree in 1-3 years instead of the traditional 4 years. Common majors for accelerated programs are healthcare majors like nursing or public health, social science programs like social work, business majors like accounting or marketing and education programs like teaching.

What Can Slow Down the Bachelor’s Degree Process?

Here are the reasons why it can take longer to earn a 4-year degree:

  • Part-Time enrollment: Taking less than a full load of classes is the number-one reason for taking longer to complete a degree. Part-time enrollment vs full-time enrollment is considered anything less than 12 credit hours in a semester, or 1-4 classes, typically.
  • Light full-time loads: Full time status is 12 credits per semester at most schools. At that rate, going to school two semesters per year, it will take 5 years to complete a degree.
  • Failing courses (retake courses): Failing to get a passing grade in a course and having to retake it slows down the process of getting a degree. Some students also retake a course one or more times to earn a better grade, which also leads to more time in school.
  • Changing majors: When you change majors after accumulating credits that do not apply to your new major, you will likely end up taking more than 120 credits, which is the minimum to earn a degree. Taking more credit hours after switching majors slows down progress toward a degree.
  • Switching Schools: If you change schools and not all of your credits transfer, it will take longer to complete your education.
  • Choosing double degree or double major: Each major has a set number of required credits. When a double degree or major is chosen, the total number of credits required is higher than needed for a single major, and so it takes longer. In some cases, earning a minor along with a major will also take more credits and time.
  • Attending internships: Internships offer excellent experience and might lead to a job opportunity, but they take time away from coursework. If the internship does not earn college credits, it can cause a delay in graduation.
  • Taking a gap year: A gap year is, “A gap year is a year or semester of learning experiences that might include travel, volunteering, work, or internship. It can help you discover yourself, the world, and your passions before college,” according to the College Board

Other Factors: Having to take a break from college for financial, health or family reasons can slow down the process.

Is There a Time Limit to Finish a Bachelor’s Degree?

There is not a time limit to finish an undergraduate degree at most colleges and universities. A few do have “sunset rules” or policies that require completion of a bachelor’s degree in 8-10 years after beginning the program. However, extensions can be obtained by many students when necessary.

However, keep in mind that students do face time limits for student financial aid. The Pell Grant, for example, is available for 12 semesters or up to 6 years at 2 semesters per year. This is called the LEU or Pell Grant Lifetime Eligibility Used rule.

How Do Majors Affect the Length of Time to Get a Bachelor’s Degree?

The major chosen by a student affects the time it takes to complete a degree in two ways.

First, some majors require more than the minimum 120 credit hours. According to the report by Complete College America, engineering majors most commonly require 126 to 132 hours, especially for degrees in electrical engineering, robotics engineering and engineering physics. Other specialized degree programs with a higher average number of credits required include computer and informational science, majors within education and teaching,  international business, accounting, and clinical laboratory science.

Secondly, majors with a higher percentage of very difficult courses can take longer to complete because students in them often take fewer classes per semester. Pre-med majors like chemistry are a good example.

Keep in mind too that taking a double or dual major may require 150 to 180 credit hours and take longer to complete. A major and minor could require up to 140 credit hours.

What Are the Potential Drawbacks of Delaying Completion of a Bachelor’s Degree?

The potential disadvantages of taking longer to complete a degree are mostly financial costs, but there may be academic and personal costs too.

In terms of financial costs, first, every year in school comes with fixed costs of attendance costs. Students need housing and food regardless of the number of credit hours they take.

Secondly, delaying entrance into a career has financial costs in the form of lost opportunity costs. Thirdly, because of the financial aid Lifetime Eligibility Used rules, students run out of eligibility to receive financial aid if they delay their education too long.

Academically, program requirements often change. Putting off completing a degree might mean that the student must meet new requirements or take additional classes, further delaying graduation.

Personally, delaying education can mean losing momentum and motivation. Many who delay completing a degree never finish college or have to delay marriage, having children or other common life events.  

How Academic Advisors Help You Get a Bachelor’s Degree in a Timely Manner

One of the tasks your academic advisor is trained to do is to help you efficiently complete your degree.  

Your academic advisor can help you complete your bachelor’s degree in a timely way by suggesting majors requiring only 120 credits, guiding you to take the right general education and prerequisite classes to avoid taking unnecessary extra classes, and generally meeting all requirements for your degree program in an efficient way.

Academic advisors work with students to create a semester-by-semester plan to keep you on track to graduate on time. Most colleges recommend meeting with your advisor each semester or at least once per academic year.

How Many Credits Are Required to Earn a Bachelor’s Degree?

Most bachelor’s degree majors require a minimum of 120 credits. To complete the degree in 4 years, this is the equivalent of 15 credits per semester times two semesters per year times 4 years.

Some majors including those in engineering, business, nursing, computer science and architecture often require more than 120 credits to complete. The number is typically between 126 and 132 credits.

How Long Does It Take to Earn an Associate Degree?

The standard length of time to earn an associate degree is 2 years, which is typically 4 semesters over those two years. This is why an associate’s degree is often called a 2-year degree.

How Long Does It Take to Earn a Master’s Degree?

The time it takes to earn a master degree is typically 1.5 to 3 years for full time students. The specific degree being earned and whether the student is full time or part time affects the length of time for completion.

Master’s degrees in STEM fields and those that require a master’s thesis often take longer than those that do not have these requirements. 

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