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

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If you’re a working adult considering going back to school for a bachelor’s degree, time is an important factor. Perhaps you have kids at home and other commitments, so you can’t commit to being a full-time student. On the other hand, maybe you’re in the later stages of your career and want to earn a degree as fast as possible to maximize your earnings potential and retirement savings.

Whatever your reason for pursuing a degree, a natural question is “How long does it take to get a bachelor’s degree?”

In this article, we will explore statistics about degree completion times and the various factors that can impact how many years it can take to get a bachelor’s degree.

Education Statistics About Degree Completion Time

The National Center for Education Statistics – an entity within the U.S. Department of Education – collects and analyzes data about the condition of American education and conducts and publishes reports. In their 2020 report about time to degree, the NCES published the following:

Of all students who attended college for the first time in the 2011-2012 school year and completed a bachelor’s degree, the average number of months elapsed between starting school and completing a bachelor’s degree was 48.5 months, or 4.04 years.

The average of just over four years to complete a bachelor’s degree isn’t surprising. After all, bachelor’s degrees are frequently called “four-year” degrees and institutions offering them are often called “four-year” colleges.

It’s important to keep in mind, however, that this result is simply an average. There are many students who completed their degrees in less than four years or more than four years.

Factors Affecting Degree Completion Time

How long it takes to complete a bachelor's degree program can depend on many different factors. Here are just some of the potential reasons that degree completion time can vary.

Course Load

The number of classes you take at a time can have a direct impact on how quickly you can finish a degree. Traditionally, colleges require students to complete at least 120 credits to earn a bachelor's degree. A typical course load per semester is 12 credits or four classes.

In the NCES report, the number of credits a student completed in their first year had a significant correlation with their time to degree:

  1. For students who completed 30 or more credits in their first year, 72.3% earned their bachelor’s degree in four years or less, 23.4% earned it in five years, and 4.5% earned it in six or more years.
  2. For students who completed 24-29 credits in their first year: 55.7% earned their bachelor’s degree in four years or less, 32.4% earned it in five years, and 11.8% earned it in six or more years.
  3. For students who completed 0-23 credits in their first year: 30.1% earned their bachelor’s degree in four years or less, 43.9% earned it in five years, 26.0% earned it in six or more years.

Transfer Credits

If you have previously earned college credits, scored well on Advanced Placement or CLEP exams, or have relevant military or professional experience, you might be able to apply those credits toward your degree. The more credits you have accumulated and can transfer upon enrolling in an online program, the faster you can potentially earn your bachelor's degree.

Self-Paced and Accelerated Programs

Some schools are now offering new degree program models, allowing students to complete bachelor’s degrees outside the traditional four-year model.

Self-paced degree programs – which are typically offered online – allow students to complete their coursework within a timeframe that works best for them. For example, here at Columbia Southern University, our LifePace Learning® enrollment option is open 365 days a year, allowing students to log in any hour of the day and finish any individual course in as little as four weeks or as many as 10 weeks.*

Additionally, accelerated degree programs are gaining popularity, especially at institutions that offer their degrees online. Students who have already completed some college coursework are typically a good fit for accelerated programs. Here at CSU, we offer an accelerated cybersecurity degree program in which eligible students can finish their degree in as little as one year.**

Grades

Grades are also an important – if obvious – factor in completing your degree. Students who performed well in high school tend to complete their degrees faster in college. In the NCES report:

  1. Students with a high school GPA of 3.50-4.00 finished their bachelor’s degree in an average of 47.4 months.
  2. Students with a high school GPA of 3.00-3.49 finished their bachelor’s degree in an average of 48.7 months.
  3. Students with a high school GPA of 2.50-2.99 finished their bachelor’s degree in an average of 50.1 months.
  4. Students with a high school GPA of 2.00-2.49 finished their bachelor’s degree in an average of 50.9 months.
  5. Students with a high school GPA below 2.00 finished their bachelor’s degree in an average of 51.3 months.

Failed courses can set your timeline back significantly, so it’s important to familiarize yourself with all of the various support services available to students.

Personal Commitment

Our final – and potentially most important – factor in completing your bachelor’s degree is personal commitment. If you can stay focused and motivated, and you can stay organized enough to keep up with all your coursework, assignments and exams, you’ll be more likely to finish your degree in your desired timeframe.

Getting Started

If you’re ready to get started in a bachelor’s degree program – and you recognize the value of online learning – CSU offers degree programs at the associate, bachelor’s, master’s and doctoral levels. To learn more, visit our website.

*The LifePace Learning® option is not eligible for Federal Student Aid, VA funding or doctoral programs.

**Eligibility rules apply.

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