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Bachelor's Degree: How Many Years Does It Take?

Posted by Hannah Muniz | May 21, 2019 7:00:00 PM

College Info, General Education

 

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Wait—a bachelor’s degree is how many years? Most Americans wouldn’t hesitate to say, "Four." But as it turns out, this isn’t always the case—and certainly doesn’t have to be for you if you’d rather graduate early!

In this guide, we address one of students' biggest questions about college: how many years is a bachelor’s degree, and how can you shorten this time frame? Read on to learn what a typical bachelor's degree entails in terms of credits and classes, how long bachelor's programs generally are, and how you can reduce the time it will take you to earn a bachelor's degree. We'll also cover the biggest drawbacks of getting your degree in less than four years.

 

What Is a Bachelor’s Degree? Overview

A bachelor’s degreealso known as a baccalaureateis an undergraduate degree bestowed by colleges and universities on people who have completed an academic program, typically lasting around four years.

A bachelor’s degree designates achievement of an education level higher than that of a high school diploma/GED and associate degree (i.e., a two-year undergraduate degree) but lower than that of a graduate degree (master's or doctoral).

One of the most common types of degrees for college-bound students, bachelor's degrees are available in a vast array of disciplines, from math and science to the arts and humanities.

They also come in several varieties depending on the discipline/field, program, and institution. Here are some of the most common types of bachelor's degrees you’ll see:

  • Bachelor of Arts (BA)
  • Bachelor of Science (BS)
  • Bachelor of Fine Arts (BFA)
  • Bachelor of Business Administration (BBA)
  • Bachelor of Music (BM)
  • Bachelor of Architecture (BArch)
  • Bachelor of Engineering (BE, BEng)

There are many benefits to getting a bachelor's degree. Besides expanding your knowledge of a particular field, bachelor's degrees are great for finding well-paying jobs and establishing a career that interests you.

According to findings by the US Bureau of Labor Statistics, the median weekly earnings for people with a bachelor's degree is $1,173 per week. That's $337 more than what those with associate degrees make in a week, and $461 more than what those with only high school diplomas make. In short, education pays off!

Now that we’ve looked at what a bachelor's degree is and how it can be useful for you, it’s time to get to the meat of the article: how many years is a bachelor's degree?

 

Getting a Bachelor's Degree: How Many Years Does It Take?

How long does it take to get a bachelor’s degree? The answer to this question depends on several factors, but in the US, most students earn their bachelor's degrees in four to six years of full-time study (not including summers).

According to a 2016 report by the National Student Clearinghouse Research Center, 37.5% of students in bachelor's degree programs at four-year public institutions earned their degrees in four years. In addition, 75.4% of students earned their bachelor's degrees in six or fewer years.

Of course, some students earn their bachelor's degrees in less timeas little as three yearswhereas others earn theirs in more timeup to eight or more years.

Here are some key factors that determine how much time your bachelor's degree takes:

  • Whether you have any credits from AP/IB exams or community college classes
  • How many classes you take per semester
  • Whether you take classes over the summer
  • What your major requires in terms of credits and classes
  • Whether you’re double majoring
  • Whether you’re taking classes full- or part-time

The total number of credits you must accumulate to get your bachelor’s degree can vary slightly depending on the school and whether it uses a semester or quarter system. Generally speaking, most bachelor's degree programs require a minimum of 120-130 semester credits, or 180-190 quarter credits. This is roughly equivalent to 40 classes.

The classes you must take will vary widely depending on both your major and school. Typically, though, you’ll need to take the following types of classes to get a bachelor's degree:

  • General Education classes: Normally, all bachelor's degree candidates must take these core classes, regardless of their majors. Classes span a variety of subjects, including math, science, writing, and social studies/history. Exact requirements vary depending on the school.
  • Major classes: These are the classes you must take to fulfill the requirements for your major and minor. Usually, these may not overlap with the Gen Ed classes you're required to take.
  • College, school, or departmental classes: These classes are required by the college, school, and/or department that houses your major. At the University of Michigan, for instance, those in the College of Literature, Science, and the Arts must earn at least 100 credits in the College but may earn the remaining 20 credits through a different college or department, such as the College of Engineering.

When it comes to taking electiveseven if the credits count toward your degree's total number of required creditsif they do not fulfill any of the three criteria above, they might prolong the time it takes for you to earn your bachelor's degree.

Lastly, many colleges these days offer online bachelor's degree programs, through which you can earn a bachelor’s degree entirely online. Because these programs offer more flexibility than a traditional program, you could earn your degree in even less time (more on this later).

 

body_speed_odometerReady to speed through your degree?

 

How to Get a Bachelor’s Degree in Less Time: 6 Tips

How many years is a bachelor’s degree? Typically four, but it’s certainly possible to get yours in less time, if you so choose. In this section, we go over six key ways you can reduce the time it’ll take to get your bachelor’s degree.

 

Tip 1: Start Earning College Credit in High School

One of the easiest ways to reduce the time it takes to get a bachelor's degree is to start in high school by taking AP tests, IB tests, and community college classes.

First, let's look at AP tests. By earning high scores on AP exams (typically a score of 3+), you'll get college credits that can be applied toward your bachelor’s degree.

For example, at the University of Michigan you can earn anywhere from 2 to 5 credit hours for high scores on AP tests (what you earn will vary depending on what exam you take and what score you get on it), whereas at Stanford you can earn up to 10 quarter units for scores of 4 or 5 on AP tests.

AP scores can also allow you to waive certain General Education or major requirements at colleges, thereby saving you time you would've spent actually taking those classes in college.

Nevertheless, not all colleges permit this. Some will only accept AP credits as elective credits that count toward the total credits required for your degree but not for specific major/minor or departmental credits. For example, on its website, UCLA makes it clear that "AP credit does not satisfy General Education requirements."

In addition to AP scores, high scores from IB exams can count as credits toward your bachelor’s degree. You’ll typically need a score in the range of 5-7 on an IB exam in order to earn college credit for it.

Be aware that colleges are more likely to award credit for higher-level IB exams than they are standard-level IB exams. So if you’ve finished a standard-level IB course, just know that you might not actually get any college credit for it!

In addition, because AP classes and tests are more popular, colleges might be less likely to accept IB exam credits. I strongly advise you to check the official credit policies for each college you're considering so you'll know what kinds of tests they accept for credit and how much credit you’ll get (some schools offer more credit for AP tests over IB tests, or vice versa).

Finally, and only if a college allows this, you might be able to earn credits for college while in high school by taking some community college courses. It's not particularly common for four-year colleges to accept community college credits from high school students, so be sure to check first with the colleges you’re considering to see whether they'll actually accept these credits.

 

Tip 2: Choose a Major Early and Stick With It

Knowing for sure what you want to major in will help streamline your bachelor's program and could even cut down the time it takes you to get your degree.

If you end up changing your major a couple of years in or wait to declare one until late into your program, you’ll most likely be in college for at least four yearspossibly longer!

Moreover, choosing just one major can reduce the time it takes to get your degree. Though there’s nothing wrong with double majoring (I did it), doing so means you’ll likely be in school for four years, maybe longer.

Ultimately, you have to decide what’s important for you. Would you rather get your bachelor’s degree in less time but only be able to have just one major? Or, would you rather spend more time in collegefour or more yearsand be able to study everything you want?

I suggest meeting with your college academic advisor as soon as you can to explain your plans and see what your options are for courses and schedules.

 

body_woman_pushing_clock_timeTalk to your advisor about adjusting your schedule so you can graduate sooner.

 

Tip 3: Take More Classes Each Semester/Quarter

One way students can try to reduce the time to their degrees is to take more classes during the semester/quarter. Essentially, instead of taking the normal course load of, say, four classes per semester (which we'll say is equal to 16 credits), you'd be taking five classes (20 credits).

By taking just one or two extra classes a semester, you could cut down your program by as much as a whole semester or year, allowing you to graduate early. As a reminder, the "normal" number of credits you take per semester/quarter will vary depending on the institution.

Check with your college (or any colleges you’re considering) to see how many credits students typically take and whether there is a maximum number of credits or courses you can take per semester/quarter.

 

Tip 4: Enroll in Summer Classes

Many students earn their bachelor's degrees in four years of continuous full-time study, but this time frame doesn’t include summer courses, which offer you an extra quarter or semester of credits. Just make sure that the courses you take are ones you need to graduate, such as major courses or General Education courses, and you're ready to go.

Though most students who take summer classes do so at their home institutions, another option is to take college classes at a local community college during the summer. Doing this can be more convenient if your school is far away and you want to stay close to home in the summer.

Check that your school will accept these summer credits before you decide to enroll in any community college classes. Also, be aware that you most likely won’t be able to transfer grades to your home institution—just the credits you earn.

 

body_college_student_backpackSummer school students need cool backpacks, too. (CollegeDegrees360/Flickr)

 

Tip 5: Look Specifically for Shorter Bachelor’s Programs

Many schools offer bachelor’s degree programs that are specifically designed to let you get your degree in a shorter time frame, usually three years.

These programs can vary significantly in how they’re structured, but normally you'll be given a strict schedule to follow as well as special academic advising.

If you’re dead-set on getting your degree in less time, it's worth it to see what colleges offer these programs and whether they have the program available in your intended major.

The following chart shows popular schools with three-year bachelor’s degree programs. The schools have been arranged in alphabetical order, with each including its location and programs offered.

You can find more three-year’s bachelor's degree programs by searching on Google for "three-year bachelor’s degree programs site:.edu."

School
Location
3-Year Programs Offered
Muncie, IN
Nursing
Wilberforce, OH
Accounting, Business Administration, Political Science
Winona Lake, IN
Most majors
Oneonta, NY
Most majors
Brookline, MA
All majors except Computer Science, Graphic Design, Interior Design, Culinary Management
Weston, MA
Biology, Global Business Management, Interdisciplinary Studies in the Humanities, Psychology, Social Work
Manchester, NH
Accounting, Accounting and Finance, Business Administration, Business Analytics, Computer Information Systems, Economics and Finance, Fashion Merchandising and Management, Hospitality Business, Marketing, Operations and Project Management, Sport Management
Cedar City, UT
About half of all majors
Potsdam, NY
Biology, Chemistry, Communication, Computer Science, Creative Writing, Geology, Literature, Literature and Writing, Physics, Politics, Studio Art, Theatre, Writing
Waterville, ME
Accounting, Business and Management, Communications, Computer and Technology, Criminal Justice, English, Finance, Marketing, Political Science, Psychology, Sports Management
Deerfield, IL
Most majors
San Francisco, CA
Most majors
Toledo, OH
Most majors
Kalamazoo, MI
Most majors

 

Tip 6: Consider Getting a Bachelor’s Degree Entirely or Partly Online

Many colleges offer online and hybrid bachelor’s degree programs, both of which usually take less time than a typical four-year undergraduate degree.

An online program is where you take all your classes and turn in all assignments online. A hybrid program, on the other hand, is where you take both in-person and online classesin short, it's a mix between a traditional program and an online one.

If you don’t mind the idea of not going to an actual campus and not meeting with classmates and professors, an online or hybrid bachelor’s degree program could be for you. Just know that there can be some big disadvantages to doing one, including fewer (if any) networking opportunities and a lack of prestige (online and hybrid programs are still sometimes viewed as less "legitimate" than traditional ones).

These programs can save you both time and money because of their flexibility. For example, at Purdue, "most [online] bachelor’s degree programs can typically be completed in 2 to 4 years." This short time frame is made possible due to the great flexibility students have regarding when they choose to take classes and access assignments.

Here's a list of the top 15 universities offering online bachelor’s degree programs. (Note that the US News rankings are specifically for the online programs and not for each school as a whole.)

School
1
2
3 (tie)
3 (tie)
5 (tie)
5 (tie)
5 (tie)
8 (tie)
8 (tie)
8 (tie)
8 (tie)
12 (tie)
12 (tie)
14
15 (tie)
15 (tie)
15 (tie)

 

body_thumbs_down_drawbacks

 

Getting a Bachelor’s Degree Faster: 4 Disadvantages

How many years is a bachelor’s degree? Perhaps you’re hoping it’s less than four for youand while there’s nothing wrong with earning your degree faster, there are some drawbacks you should be aware of.

 

#1: Your Workload Will Be Heavier

Finishing a bachelor’s degree in fewer than four years most likely means you’ll be working harder than other students by taking more classes during the school year and/or over the summer.

With such a heavy workload, you’ll more than likely have far less time to interact socially, go on vacations, and participate in extracurricular activities, such as clubs and sports. This could all negatively impact your personal satisfaction with your college experience, depending on what you hoped to get out of it.

For some students, these drawbacks might not be a big deal. But if they will be for you, you might want to reconsider what you’re willing to give up in order to get your degree faster.

 

#2: You’ll Have Fewer Chances to Take Classes Just for Fun

Getting a bachelor’s degree in less time means not only following a strict schedule but also taking only the classes you need to take to get your degree. Consequently, you’ll very likely have fewer opportunities to take electives, that is, classes that are just for fun.

Electives can enrich your college experience by allowing you to explore subjects you’re interested in but have never had the chance to study in-depth.

Without the time in your schedule to take any classes for fun, you might feel as though you've missed the chance to explore other intellectual interests you have outside your major.

 

#3: You Won’t Have Time for Summer Jobs and Internships

Similar to the disadvantage above, if you’re taking classes over the summer to get your bachelor’s degree in less time, you won’t have any time during the summer to focus on other things, such as internships and jobs.

This can be a big drawback if you’re hoping to get some work experience in your field before you graduate college.

The trade-off here is whether you would rather graduate early with little to no work or internship experience or graduate at a normal (or slightly slower) pace with more professional experience.

 

#4: You’ll Have to Pay More Upfront

Taking extra classeswhether it’s during the school year, the summer, or both periodsusually means you’ll need to pay more upfront for these classes.

Although finishing your bachelor’s degree in less time can save you a ton of money in the long run (you won’t have to pay for any more tuition, class fees, housing, or meal plans) you still need to be prepared to pay more upfront for the extra classes you'll be taking and any housing and/or meal plans you’ll need (if taking summer classes).

 

Recap: So A Bachelor’s Degree Is How Many Years?

Most students in the US earn their bachelor’s degrees in about four years of continuous full-time study (excluding summers). That being said, many people are able to shorten this time frame to as few as three or even two years by planning ahead and taking advantage of certain opportunities.

Although you’ll still need the minimum number of credits required to get your bachelor’s degree (usually 120-130 semester credits or 180-190 quarter credits), it is possible to accumulate this number of credits in a shorter amount of time.

Here are six possible ways you could do this:

  • Start earning college credit in high school through AP exams, IB exams, and (if a college will accept it) community college courses
  • Choose a major early on and stick with itthis will help you plan out your future better and keep you on track with one main academic focus
  • Take more classes each semester/quarter so you can earn the credits you need faster
  • Enroll in summer classes to earn credits ahead of schedule
  • Look specifically for shorter bachelor’s programs if you prefer a program that offers a built-in structure for students who want to finish in a shorter time frame
  • Consider getting a bachelor’s degree online—both online and hybrid programs will give you the flexibility you need to easily earn a degree in less time

Before you get to work figuring out how you can shorten the time it’ll take to get your bachelor’s degree, take a moment to consider some of the drawbacks to following such a strict schedule. Here are the four biggest disadvantages you’ll want to think about before making any decisions:

  • Your workload will be heavier, making it hard to find time for socializing with classmates and friends, participating in extracurricular activities, relaxing, and going on vacations
  • You’ll have fewer chances to take classes just for fun, which can be frustrating if there are fields outside your major you’re interested in learning about
  • You won’t have time for summer jobs or internships, meaning you’ll be graduating with less professional experience than you might want to have
  • You’ll have to pay more upfront for extra classes, summer housing, and meal plansthough you'll most likely save money in the long run!

Ultimately, whether or not you want to try to get a bachelor's degree in less time is completely up to you. Just make sure that you know what you're getting yourself into!

 

What’s Next?

Not sure what you want to study in college? Get tips on how you can choose the best major for you, and learn about the benefits of double majoring if you're interested in more than one field.

How much does college cost these days? Our expert guide goes over how much you can expect to pay for your undergraduate education and offers tips on how you can fork out less money. You can also check out our guide to the cheapest out-of-state colleges.

Have friends who also need help with test prep? Share this article!
Hannah Muniz
About the Author

Hannah received her MA in Japanese Studies from the University of Michigan and holds a bachelor's degree from the University of Southern California. From 2013 to 2015, she taught English in Japan via the JET Program. She is passionate about education, writing, and travel.



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