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

Personal preferences, goals, academic progress, transfer credit eligibility, cost and time considerations are all factors that may impact how many years it takes to earn a bachelor's degree, but 4 years is the traditional timetable to earn the 120 credits you need.
Get Your Bachelor's

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Many college students who graduate each spring spent four years earning the 120 credits needed for a bachelor’s degree. But that’s only one path to a degree. An online bachelor’s degree program can help you fit your learning into a busy schedule while working toward the key credential.

Your personal preferences, the time and resources you can put toward your coursework and especially any credits you’ve already earned are all factors that will impact how quickly you can reach your educational goals.

It’s Personal

One thing you may not have realized is just how personal earning a degree really is. It’s all about you, what your own goals are and what’s going on in your life. Do you have time to commit to being a full-time college student at a traditional campus, or is there a need to schedule your education around full-time work, raising a family and other responsibilities?

Maybe you haven’t thought school was possible simply because you have so much going on. There are options out there, such as online degree programs that allow you to move toward your education goals while balancing everything else. Exploring them will help you see what works best for you and determine the potential length of time to get a bachelor’s degree. 

How Long Does it Take to Earn a Bachelor’s Degree Online?

A bachelor’s degree is typically considered a four-year degree, but the time to complete your program can vary if you’re earning an online bachelor’s degree.

At Southern New Hampshire University (SNHU), students pursuing their bachelor's degree online typically take one or two courses per term. With six 8-week terms throughout the year, you can complete as many as 12 courses annually.

Stephanie Ratliff with the text Stephanie RatliffAn online degree program offers far more flexibility than on campus degrees, said Stephanie Ratliff, an admission counselor at SNHU. Flexibility allows you to fit your learning around your career, family and other obligations and can help you earn your degree faster. But courses can still take up as many as 15 hours of work each week, so it’s important to consider how much time you can put toward your degree when signing up for classes.

“Online courses are flexible because we’re never going to tell them when they have to be on their computer or how many times they need to be logging in,” Ratliff said. “But I usually tell students, start with one class, get your feet wet, gauge the workload and see how things feel.”

Will My Credits Transfer?

Another important consideration is where you are academically. Are you starting completely new to a degree program or have you earned course credits along the way? If you’ve completed any prior college coursework, you'll need those transcripts to determine if that credit can be transferred to your new degree, saving you time and money. At SNHU, an admission counselor walks you through this process from start to finish.

If you have prior credits to add to the mix, be sure to check on a potential school’s credit transfer policy. You’ll want to take full advantage of any credits you have available and ensure that the school you choose is transfer-friendly.

At SNHU, for example, students can transfer up to 90 credits toward an undergraduate degree. With a full transfer load, you could complete your degree in as few as five terms, or 10 courses.

Past professional experience could also help you move through your degree faster, allowing you to earn college credit for work experience and prior knowledge. Industry-specific credentials, professional certifications, law enforcement training and even an assessment of a work portfolio could all help you earn college credit and reduce the courses needed to complete your degree.

Are you starting fresh? Here’s what you need to know: To complete a bachelor’s degree, you must earn 120 credits. This translates roughly to about 40 undergraduate courses, including general education components and courses specific to the area of interest within your degree program, along with some elective courses of your choosing.

Put a Plan Together

Whether you have transfer credits in the mix or are just starting, think about the time you have to commit to your education and what you hope to achieve. What’s realistic for you?

You may well be a bit nervous about expectations and schoolwork, which may be a whole new experience for you. That's where support and assistance from your school come in. Don’t be afraid to ask questions related to your concerns. Admission team members should be able to answer your questions and get you off to a solid start. Be sure to ask about resources and support available as you go through your courses and where to turn when you need help, no matter what it is.

If you’re not comfortable with the answers given to you, this may well not be the right school for you.

When it's time to register for courses, you'll want to create a schedule that allows for a reasonable workload and the ability to balance other responsibilities in your life. Once you have completed a term or two, you’ll be able to assess if this schedule is feasible for you and adjust accordingly. It’s only then that you’ll be able to figure out the potential timeline to complete your bachelor’s degree. Keep in mind that life consistently offers up challenges and changes, and you may need to be flexible in changing up your workload at school from time to time.

Are Online Degrees Cheaper?

Cost will also be a big factor when mapping out your plan and perhaps it's the primary reason you’ve shied away from returning to school. The cost of a bachelor’s degree can vary significantly. Earning an online bachelor’s degree can often help you save money compared to an on campus degree because you’ll save on student housing costs, meal plans and other fees for on campus services.

But it’s important to remember that even as an online student, you’ll likely have additional costs on top of your tuition. Textbooks, online learning resources, software and specific technology may be needed to help you complete your courses and earn your degree.

If you’re planning on getting started with a bachelor’s degree program, be sure to ask about financial aid and scholarships:

  • Students earning undergraduate degrees are eligible for a student loan and/or the Federal Work-Study program.
  • Private loans and scholarships from your university or a third-party organization may also be available.
  • You may even qualify for tuition assistance benefits from your current employer, especially if your degree will help you advance in your career.

Speak to a student financial services team member about the options available to you, and you may be  surprised to learn that college is indeed within your financial reach.

Getting Ready

As you think about the time required to earn your bachelor’s degree, remember:

  • It’s personal. What are your goals, and what are your options?
  • What’s your starting point? Are you completely new or have credits to possibly transfer?
  • Put a plan together. This goal is about you and what’s going to work for you.

Combine your goals, your options and your starting point to put together a plan. Understanding these three variables can help you create a plan that takes a potential four-year degree path down to two years or allows you to create a plan over six or more years.

As you define your goals, think of this as a simple equation: You need 120 credits to earn your degree. If the average course is three credits, then taking 30 credits a year breaks out into a four-year period of time. If you can up the course load to almost 40 credits a year, it breaks down into three years and so on. The more credits each year, the less time it takes to finish your degree – and the opposite as well. Your course load determines the length. With transfer credits, you’ll be able to lessen that time for completion.

Don’t forget to turn to school admission and advising teams for help, and let your family and friends be an important part of your support team so you can keep moving forward and earn your bachelor’s degree.

What Degrees Can You Get Completely Online?

Now that you know how to tailor your timeline to your life, you might be interested in learning what degrees are available to pursue online. Well, no matter what your career interests are, there’s an online bachelor’s degree that can help you get there.

There are two main types of bachelor's degrees – a Bachelor of Arts and a Bachelor of Science –and you may be wondering what the difference is.

An online Bachelor of Arts (BA) degree, often described as a liberal arts degree, is designed to give you general knowledge on a subject and help you develop critical thinking and communication skills.

Online bachelor’s degree options for BA majors include:

An online Bachelor of Science (BS) degree is focused on teaching the technical skills you need to succeed in a variety of careers.

Online bachelor’s degree options for BS majors include:

Ready to get a bachelor’s degree that supports your career path? The first step is choosing the program that's right for you.

What Bachelor’s Degrees Are in Demand?

Online bachelor’s degrees across many industries are in demand, including in business, science, healthcare, technology and many other fields. In today’s competitive job market, earning an online bachelor’s degree can help you stand out and boost your long-term earning potential.

Bachelor’s degrees are the most common type of college degree. According to a 2020 U.S. Census Bureau report, 36% of adults age 25 and older have a bachelor’s degree.

Four-year degrees are also increasingly in demand. The U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) projects that jobs for bachelor’s degree holders will grow 6.4% by 2029 - faster than jobs for workers without a college degree.

Bachelor’s degree holders also earn significantly more than workers without a four-year degree. According to BLS data, bachelor’s degree holders earned 39% more per week in 2020 than workers with an associate degree and 67% more per week than workers with a high school diploma.

Unemployment rates are also lower for workers with a bachelor's degree, at 5.5% in 2020. That same year, associate degree holders saw 7.1% unemployment rates, and workers without a college degree saw 8.3% unemployment rates.

Earning a bachelor’s degree can also help you prepare for a master’s degree program, certificate program or professional credential, which can help you advance your career even further.

How to Choose an Online Bachelor’s Degree

Amanda Jennings with the text Amanda JenningsWhether you have a specific major in mind or want to complete an undergraduate degree you started previously, it's important to research all your degree options before applying, said Amanda Jennings, an admission team lead at SNHU.  

You can start by thinking about the type of work you enjoy doing and the work environment you’d like to be in on a day-to-day basis.

It's also important to find out if your chosen career path requires any specific educational credentials or licensure to work in the field and to make sure your chosen online bachelor’s degree meets these requirements, Jennings said.

If you're wondering what jobs you can get with a bachelor's degree, some may require a specific type of major. For example, licensing organizations may require a degree from an accredited program.

Is an Online Bachelor’s Degree Right for You?

Whether you’re starting a new career or advancing in a current role, an online bachelor's degree can help you stand out in the competitive job market.

No matter what career path you hope to follow, earning a bachelor’s degree can give you a leg up when applying for new jobs or seeking a promotion. If you’ve been working in your field without a degree, earning a four-year degree can help you turn your professional experience into a marketable credential, boosting your long-term career and earning potential.

Still wondering if an online bachelor’s degree is right for you? Take some time to consider your goals and how you want your career to grow, said Jennings.

“One fear of a lot of students is that they don’t want to start something they’re not 100% sure about,” Jennings said. “But focus on why you want to go back to school. Finding that why can help you determine if a bachelor’s degree is the right idea for you.”

Pamme Boutselis is an adjunct, writer and senior content director in higher education. Connect with her on LinkedIn.

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