Bachelors Degree: How Many Years Does It Take

How many years does it take to earn a bachelor’s degree? “Four,” most Americans would say without hesitation. But, as it turns out, this isn’t always the case—and it certainly doesn’t have to be the case for you if you’d prefer to graduate sooner!

In this guide, we answer one of the most common questions students have about college: how long does it take to get a bachelor’s degree, and how can you cut that time down? Continue reading to find out what a typical bachelor’s degree entails in terms of credits and classes, how long bachelor’s programs typically last, and how you can shorten the time it takes to earn a bachelor’s degree. We’ll also go over the major disadvantages of completing your degree in less than four years.

 

What Exactly Is a Bachelor’s Degree? Overview

A bachelor’s degree, also known as a baccalaureate, is an undergraduate degree awarded by colleges and universities to students who have completed a four-year academic program.

A bachelor’s degree denotes educational attainment that is higher than that of a high school diploma/GED and an associate degree (i.e., a two-year undergraduate degree), but lower than that of a graduate degree (master’s or doctoral).

Bachelor’s degrees are one of the most common types of degrees for college-bound students, and they are available in a wide range of disciplines, from math and science to the arts and humanities.

They also differ depending on the discipline/field, program, and institution. The following are some of the most common types of bachelor’s degrees you’ll come across:

  • 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)

Obtaining a bachelor’s degree has numerous advantages. Bachelor’s degrees are excellent for finding well-paying jobs and establishing a career that interests you, in addition to broadening your knowledge of a specific field.

The median weekly earnings for people with a bachelor’s degree are $1,173 per week, according to the US Bureau of Labor Statistics. That’s $337 more than what people with associate degrees earn in a week and $461 more than people with only a high school diploma. In brief, education pays off!

Now that we’ve discussed what a bachelor’s degree is and how it can benefit you, let’s get to the meat of the article: how long is a bachelor’s degree?

 

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

What is the average time one has to take to complete a bachelor’s degree? The answer depends on several factors, but in the United States, most students complete their bachelor’s degrees in four to six years of full-time study (not including summers).

According to a 2016 National Student Clearinghouse Research Center report, 37.5 percent of students in bachelor’s degree programs at four-year public institutions completed their degrees in four years. Furthermore, 75.4 percent of students completed their bachelor’s degrees in six years or less.

Of course, some students earn their bachelor’s degrees in as little as three years, while others take up to eight or more years.

Here are some important factors that influence how long it takes to complete your bachelor’s degree:

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

The total number of credits required for a bachelor’s degree varies slightly depending on the school and whether it uses a semester or quarter system. Most bachelor’s degree programs require at least 120-130 semester credits or 180-190 quarter credits. This equates to roughly 40 classes.

The classes you’ll need to take will vary greatly depending on your major and school. However, in order to obtain a bachelor’s degree, you will typically need to take the following types of classes:

  • General Education classes: Regardless of major, all bachelor’s degree candidates are required to take these core classes. Math, science, writing, and social studies/history are just a few of the subjects covered in class. The specific requirements differ depending on the school.
  • Major classes: These are the classes you must take to complete your major and minor requirements. Typically, these will not overlap with the General Education classes that you are required to take.
  • College, school, or departmental classes: These classes are required by the college, school, and/or department where you will be studying for your major. At the University of Michigan, for example, students in the College of Literature, Science, and the Arts must complete at least 100 credits in the College but may complete the remaining 20 credits in another college or department, such as the College of Engineering.

When it comes to electives, even if the credits count toward the total number of required credits for your degree, if they do not meet any of the three criteria listed above, they may lengthen the time it takes you to earn your bachelor’s degree.

Finally, many colleges now offer online bachelor’s degree programs, allowing you to earn your bachelor’s degree entirely online. Because these programs are more flexible than actual programs, you may be able to complete your degree in even less time (more on this later).

 

6 Tips for Getting a Bachelor’s Degree in Less Time

What is the length of a bachelor’s degree? Typically, four years, but you can certainly get yours in less time if you prefer. In this section, we’ll go over six key ways to cut the time it takes to complete your bachelor’s degree.

 

Tip 1: Earn College Credit While Still in High School

Starting in high school and taking AP tests, IB tests, and community college classes is one of the simplest ways to reduce the time it takes to get a bachelor’s degree.

Let’s start with AP exams. Earning high marks on AP exams (typically 3+) will earn your college credits that can be applied toward your bachelor’s degree.

For instance, at the University of Michigan, you can obtain anywhere from 2 to 5 credit hours for high AP test scores (what you earn depends on what exam you take and what score you get), whereas at Stanford, you can earn up to 10 quarter units for AP test scores of 4 or 5.

AP scores can also be used to waive certain General Education or major requirements at colleges, saving you the time you would have spent taking those classes in college.

However, not all colleges allow this. Some schools will only accept AP credits as elective credits that count toward the total number of credits required for your degree, not for specific major/minor or departmental credits. UCLA, for example, states on its website that “AP credit does not satisfy General Education requirements.”

High IB exam scores, in addition to AP scores, can count as credits toward your bachelor’s degree. To earn college credit for an IB exam, you’ll typically need a score in the range of 5-7.

Colleges are more likely to give credit for higher-level IB exams than for standard-level IB exams. So, if you’ve completed a standard-level IB course, be aware that you may not receive college credit for it!

Furthermore, because AP classes and exams are more popular, colleges may be less likely to accept IB exam credits. I strongly advise you to look into the official credit policies of each college you’re thinking about attending so you 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).

Eventually, if a college allows it, you may be able to earn college credits while still in high school by taking some community college courses. It’s uncommon for four-year colleges to accept community college credits from high school students, so check with the colleges you’re considering first to see if they’ll accept these credits.

 

Tip 2: Select a major early on and stick with it

Knowing what you want to major in will help you streamline your bachelor’s program and may even shorten the time it takes you to complete your degree.

If you change your major after a few years or wait until late in your program to declare one, you’ll almost certainly be in college for at least four years—possibly longer!

Furthermore, concentrating on a single major can shorten the time it takes to complete your degree. Though there’s nothing wrong with double majoring (I did it), it means you’ll be in school for at least four years, if not longer.

Finally, you must decide what is most important to you. Would you rather get your bachelor’s degree faster but only be able to major in one subject? Or would you prefer to spend more time in college—four or more years—and be able to study whatever you want?

I recommend meeting with your college academic advisor as soon as possible to discuss your plans and determine your course and schedule options.

Tip 3: Increase the number of classes you take each semester/quarter

Students can try to reduce the time it takes to complete their degrees by taking more classes during the semester/quarter. Essentially, instead of taking four classes per semester (equivalent to 16 credits), you would take five classes (20 credits).

You could cut your program by as much as a semester or year by taking just one or two extra classes per semester, allowing you to graduate sooner. Remember that the “normal” number of credits you take per semester/quarter varies depending on the institution.

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

Tip 4: Sign up for Summer Classes

Many students complete their bachelor’s degrees in four years of full-time study, but this time frame excludes summer courses, which provide you with an extra quarter or semester of credits. Just make sure the courses you take are required for graduation, such as major courses or General Education courses, and you’ll be fine.

Though most students take summer classes at their home institutions, another option is to take summer college classes at a local community college. This is more convenient if your school is far away and you want to spend the summer close to home.

Before enrolling in community college classes, make sure your school will accept these summer credits. As well, keep in mind that you will most likely not be able to transfer grades to your home institution, only credits.

 

Tip 5: Look for shorter bachelor’s programs in particular

Many colleges and universities offer bachelor’s degree programs that are specifically designed to allow you to complete your degree in three years or less.

The structure of these programs varies greatly, but you’ll usually 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 looking into which colleges offer these programs and whether they offer the program in your intended major.

The chart below depicts popular schools offering three-year bachelor’s degree programs. The schools are listed alphabetically, with information about their location and programs available.

More three-year bachelor’s degree programs can be found by searching Google for “three-year bachelor’s degree programs site:.edu.”

School Location 3-Year Programs Offered
Ball State University Muncie, IN Nursing
Central State University Wilberforce, OH Accounting, Business Administration, Political Science
Grace College Winona Lake, IN Most majors
Hartwick College Oneonta, NY Most majors
Newbury College Brookline, MA All majors apart from Computer Science, Graphic Design, Interior Design, Culinary Management
Regis College Weston, MA Biology, Global Business Management, Interdisciplinary Studies in the Humanities, Psychology, Social Work
Southern New Hampshire University 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
Southern Utah University Cedar City, UT About half of all majors
SUNY Potsdam Potsdam, NY Biology, Chemistry, Communication, Computer Science, Creative Writing, Geology, Literature, Literature and Writing, Physics, Politics, Studio Art, Theatre, Writing
Thomas College Waterville, ME Accounting, Business and Management, Communications, Computer and Technology, Criminal Justice, English, Finance, Marketing, Political Science, Psychology, Sports Management
Trinity International University Deerfield, IL Most majors
University of San Francisco San Francisco, CA Most majors
University of Toledo Toledo, OH Most majors
Western Michigan University Kalamazoo, MI Most majors

 

Tip 6: Consider Earning a Bachelor’s Degree Online, Either Completely or Partially

Many colleges provide online and hybrid bachelor’s degree programs, both of which typically take less time to complete than an actual four-year undergraduate degree.

An online program is one in which you take all of your classes and submit all of your assignments online. A hybrid program, on the other hand, combines in-person and online classes—in other words, it’s a cross between an actual and an online program.

If you don’t mind not going physically to campus and missing out on interactions with classmates and professors, an online or hybrid bachelor’s degree program may be right for you. Just be aware that there may be significant drawbacks to doing one, such as fewer (if any) networking opportunities and a lack of prestige (online and hybrid programs are still sometimes viewed as less “legitimate” than actual ones).

Because of their versatility, these programs can save you both time and money. Purdue University, for example, claims that “most [online] bachelor’s degree programs can typically be completed in 2 to 4 years.” This short time frame is possible because students have a great deal of flexibility in terms of when they choose to take classes and access assignments.

The following is a list of the top 15 universities that offer online bachelor’s degree programs. (It should be noted that the US News rankings are for online programs only, not for the entire school.)

 

School US News Ranking
Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University 1
Arizona State University 2
Ohio State University — Columbus 3 (tie)
Oregon State University 3 (tie)
Penn State 5 (tie)
University of Florida 5 (tie)
University of Illinois — Chicago 5 (tie)
Colorado State University 8 (tie)
University at Buffalo — SUNY 8 (tie)
UNC — Wilmington 8 (tie)
University of Oklahoma 8 (tie)
Loyola University Chicago 12 (tie)
University of Alabama — Birmingham 12 (tie)
University of Central Florida 14
CUNY School of Professional Studies 15 (tie)
Utah State University 15 (tie)
Western Kentucky University 15 (tie)

 

 

 

4 Disadvantages of Obtaining a Bachelor’s Degree Quickly

What is the length of a bachelor’s degree? Perhaps you’re hoping for less than four years—and while there’s nothing wrong with completing your degree faster, there are some drawbacks to consider.

 

#1: Your workload will increase

Finishing a bachelor’s degree in less than four years almost certainly means you’ll be working harder than other students, taking more classes during the school year and/or during the summer.

With such a demanding workload, you’ll most likely have far less time to socialize, take vacations, and participate in extracurricular activities such as clubs and sports. Depending on what you hoped to gain from your college experience, all of this could have a negative impact on your personal satisfaction with it.

These disadvantages may be insignificant to some students. However, if they are for you, you may want to reconsider what you are willing to give up in order to complete your degree faster.

#2: There will be fewer opportunities for you to take classes for fun

Obtaining a bachelor’s degree in less time entails not only adhering to a strict schedule but also taking only the classes required to obtain your degree. As a result, you’ll probably have fewer opportunities to take electives, or classes just for fun.

Electives can enhance your college experience by allowing you to investigate topics that you are interested in but have never had the opportunity to study in-depth.

Without the time in your schedule to take classes for fun, you may feel as if you’ve missed out on the opportunity to pursue intellectual interests outside of your major.

#3: You Will Not Have Time for Summer Jobs or Internships

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

This can be a significant disadvantage if you want to gain work experience in your field before graduating from college.

The choice here is whether you would rather graduate quickly with little to no work or internship experience or graduate slowly with more professional experience.

#4: You’ll Have to Pay More Upfront

Taking extra classes—whether during the school year, the summer, or both—usually means you’ll have to pay more for these classes upfront.

Although completing your bachelor’s degree in less time can save you a lot of money in the long run (you won’t have to pay for any additional tuition, class fees, housing, or meal plans), you should be prepared to pay more upfront for the additional classes you’ll be taking as well as any housing and/or meal plans you’ll require (if taking summer classes).

 

A summary of how long it takes to get a bachelor’s degree.

Most students in the United States complete their bachelor’s degrees in four years of full-time study (excluding summers). However, by planning ahead of time and taking advantage of certain opportunities, many people are able to reduce this time frame to as little as three or even two years.

Although you will still need the minimum number of credits required for your bachelor’s degree (usually 120-130 semester credits or 180-190 quarter credits), you may be able to complete this number of credits in less time.

Here are six different approaches you could take:

  • Begin earning college credit in high school by taking AP exams, IB exams, and (if accepted by a college) community college courses.
  • Pick a major early on and stick with it—this will help you plan your future and keep you focused on one main academic focus.
  • Enroll in more classes each semester/quarter to earn the credits you need faster.
  • Register for summer classes to get credits ahead of time.
  • Look for shorter bachelor’s programs in particular if you prefer a program with a built-in structure for students who want to finish in a shorter time frame.
  • Consider earning your bachelor’s degree online—both online and hybrid programs will provide you with the flexibility you need to complete your degree in less time.

Before you start thinking about how you can cut the time it takes to get your bachelor’s degree, consider some of the disadvantages of such a strict schedule. Here are the four most significant disadvantages to consider before making any decisions:

  • Your workload will be increased, making it difficult to find time to socialize with classmates and friends, participate in extracurricular activities, relax, and take vacations.
  • You’ll have fewer opportunities to take classes just for fun, which can be frustrating if you’re interested in fields other than your major.
  • You won’t have time for summer jobs or internships, which means you’ll graduate with less professional experience than you’d like.
  • You’ll have to pay more up front for extra classes, summer housing, and meal plans, but you’ll probably save money in the long run!

Finally, whether or not you want to try to complete your bachelor’s degree in less time is entirely up to you. Just make sure you understand what you’re getting yourself into!

What to Consider Next?

Are you unsure of what you want to study in college? Learn how to choose the best major for you, as well as the advantages of double majoring if you are interested in more than one field.

How much does college nowadays cost? Our expert guide discusses how much you can expect to pay for your undergraduate education and provides advice on how to spend less money. You can also look through our list of the cheapest out-of-state colleges.