The timeline depends upon several factors, including your status as a student, whether you have previous credits, and whether or not you take a full course load.
While the majority of college students in the United States used to take between four and five years to earn the 120 credits required to graduate with their bachelor’s degree, it has since become more common for undergraduates to take six years to finish [1, 2]. There are many factors that can affect that timeline. Let's explore some of the things that contribute to the length of time it can take to obtain your undergraduate degree.
The time it takes to earn your bachelor's degree largely depends on whether you're able to attend full-time or part-time. While many students enter college to pursue a bachelor’s degree directly after high school, it’s not uncommon to pursue a degree later in life. More online and alternative bachelor's programs have made it easier to obtain a degree while studying on a part-time basis, which may help you balance work or family responsibilities.
Full-time students tend to dedicate their time completely to their studies. Most take a full course load of around 15 credits per semester, averaging two semesters each academic year. Many colleges require 120 credits for graduation (though that minimum may vary depending on the institution), so full-time students can expect to complete their bachelor's degree within four or five years.
There is no definitive timeline for part-time students to complete a degree program, since it often depends on how many credits they're able to take each semester. For instance, if a part-time student takes around 9 credits per semester, it may take them a little over six years to receive their bachelor’s degree.
Various factors can affect how long it takes to receive your bachelor’s degree, even if you’re a full-time student following a traditional timeline. Some common influences include the following:
Switching majors: Each major requires a certain number of courses to graduate. Although it's common for students to switch majors, doing so may mean that your college journey will take longer than four years .
High school credits: In some cases, advanced high school classes such as Advanced Placement (AP) may count for college credits, though each college or university ultimately makes that decision. If you enter college with credits, you might graduate in less time.
Community college credits: Some high school students can dual-enroll in community college classes that earn them both high school and college credits. Entering a bachelor’s degree program with some of these credits could reduce your time to graduation.
Summer classes: Many colleges and universities offer courses over the summer months. Taking advantage of this "extra semester" could allow you to graduate sooner.
Dropping classes: Reducing your course schedule isn’t uncommon. If you drop a class and can’t immediately take another course in its place, you might find that it will take you longer to earn 120 credits and qualify for graduation.
Learn more: How to Get a Bachelor's Degree
Opting to be a part-time student comes with considerable benefits. Some of the perks include:
Flexibility: As a part-time student, you have the flexibility to fit your classes into your schedule. If you have a job or family obligations, part-time school makes a lot of sense. You can use your free time, such as nights and weekends, to study without disrupting your daily obligations.
Steadier income: Giving up a steady income to be a full-time student may not be an option, so part-time classes might be a better fit for you. With part-time studies, you can aim to enhance your knowledge and work toward your degree while remaining in the workforce.
Attending college full-time has its own benefits, and it’s often considered the more traditional route to receiving a bachelor’s degree. Perks of being a full-time student include:
Potentially shorter timeline: Full-time students finish their degree faster than part-time students. If you pursue this track, you might enjoy a quicker entry into your desired career. Full-time studies might also allow you to advance to graduate school in a more timely manner.
More on-campus experiences: Students who take full-time classes have the chance to enjoy the benefits of being fully immersed in college life. They might interact with their peers more often, participate in campus clubs and activities, and live on-site in the dorms. While none of this is required to receive a bachelor’s degree, many students enjoy these benefits as perks of the overall college experience.
There are three common types of bachelor’s degrees, which all generally take the same amount of time to complete. They are:
Bachelor of Arts (BA): The BA degree covers all liberal arts, humanities, and social service fields. Examples of BA degrees are English, history, psychology, or communications.
Bachelor of Science (BS): A BS degree encompasses studies in the areas of math, technology, and science. Examples of BS degrees include nursing, chemistry, biology, or information technology.
Bachelor of Fine Arts (BFA): A BFA degree focuses on artistic disciplines and prepares students to work in an art-related field. Examples of BFA degree specialties include dance, performing arts, fashion design, music, film production, or photography.
You’ll find several advantages to getting a bachelor’s degree, including the potential for improved financial prospects and job opportunities. You might even enjoy better odds of long-term career satisfaction.
Financial benefits: Greater financial security is often cited as a benefit to receiving a bachelor’s degree, and there is data to back this up. A 2021 study from the US Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) found that the median yearly earnings of bachelor’s degree recipients were $27, 248 higher than those of high school graduates .
Work stability: Bachelor’s degree recipients also typically enjoy a more stable employment situation. The College Board determined that the unemployment rate of those age 25 and older who only have a high school diploma is twice as high as those who have a bachelor’s degree .
Better job opportunities: In addition to higher average pay, college graduates may also have a better chance of finding jobs that offer benefits. For example, individuals with a bachelor's degree are more likely to have an employer-provided retirement plan and employer-provided health insurance, according to The College Board’s 2019 study.
Better job satisfaction: According to a 2014 study by the Pew Research Center and the US Census Bureau, 53 percent of Millennial-aged bachelor’s degree holders say that they are “very satisfied” with their job. Conversely, just 37 percent of people who have never attended college report that they are “very satisfied” .
Learn more: Is a Bachelor's Degree Worth It?
Considering earning your bachelor's degree online? Request more information about bachelor's degrees from top universities on Coursera in high-demand fields like business administration, marketing, and computer science to explore whether a degree is a good fit for your personal and professional goals.
1. National Student Clearinghouse Research Center. "Time to Degree, https://nscresearchcenter.org/wp-content/uploads/SignatureReport11.pdf." Accessed May 26, 2022.
2. National Center for Education Statistics. "Graduation Rates, https://nces.ed.gov/fastfacts/display.asp?id=40#." Accessed May 26, 2022.
3. US Department of Education. "Beginning College Students Who Change Their Major, https://nces.ed.gov/pubs2018/2018434.pdf." Accessed May 26, 2022.
4. US Bureau of Labor Statistics. "Education Pays, https://www.bls.gov/emp/chart-unemployment-earnings-education.htm." Accessed May 26, 2022.
5. The College Board. "Education Pays: 2019, https://research.collegeboard.org/pdf/education-pays-2019-full-report.pdf." Accessed May 26, 2022.
6. Pew Research Center. "The Rising Cost of Not Going to College, https://www.pewresearch.org/social-trends/2014/02/11/chapter-2-public-views-on-the-value-of-education/." Accessed May 26, 2022.
This content has been made available for informational purposes only. Learners are advised to conduct additional research to ensure that courses and other credentials pursued meet their personal, professional, and financial goals.