How to Get a Bachelor's Degree

Written by Coursera • Updated on Nov 3, 2021

A bachelor's degree takes about four years for full-time students to complete, but there are ways you may be able speed up the process.

A young, white, female student sits with an open book in front of her laptop.

Earning a bachelor’s degree means committing to a four-year educational plan (for full-time students) that involves completing coursework and earning a minimum grade point average (GPA) set by the college or university you attend. But there are a number of options that may accelerate that timeline and workload. 

Let’s review what it takes to get a bachelor’s degree, and ways you may be able to speed up the process. 

Getting a bachelor’s degree: Key facts

The requirements for earning a bachelor’s degree differ by college and institution. But typically, you will need to: 

  • Complete at least 120 credit hours of lower-level (general education) and upper-level (major) coursework

  • Earn a minimum cumulative GPA, as established by the college or university

  • Finish all coursework within a set time period, usually seven to eight years, though most students finish within four to five years 

Did you know? For the majority of colleges and institutions, a minimum cumulative GPA is usually 2.0.  

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Some colleges and institutions may also require: 

  • Continuous enrollment: You must remain enrolled non-stop at a degree-granting institution. If you require significant time off from your coursework, you’ll likely need to apply for a leave of absence, otherwise you’ll need to re-apply for admission when you’re ready to start again.

  • Residency: You must either live in the state where the institution is located for a set period of time (generally two years) or complete a certain number of credits from the specific institution. 

  • Foreign language: You must complete a certain number of credit hours of a foreign language or fulfill the requirement in another approved way. 

Tip: In order to understand any specialty requirements outside of coursework and GPA, it’s a good idea to search for your institution and either “graduate requirements” or “degree requirements” before applying.

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Bachelor’s degree coursework

In the four years that it typically takes to finish a bachelor’s degree, you’ll complete coursework that lays a strong liberal arts foundation and exposes you to a specific subject of your choice (known as a major). Combined, those courses should total at least 120 credit hours, though each institution’s requirements may be different.  

General education 

During the first two years of undergraduate study, you’ll take general education courses—sometimes called core curriculum. These courses generally include introductory subjects in composition, science, and math, as well as electives that offer you a chance to explore or build on your interests. 

Major coursework

As an undergraduate student, you’ll be asked to declare a major—or concentration. Some institutions require you to declare a major as soon as you enroll, while others expect you to do it during the end of your second year or around the time you finish your gen ed requirements.  

The number of required courses you’ll be expected to complete for your major differs by department, but on average you can expect to take around 30 to 40 credit hours. If you’re considering different programs, make sure to investigate what their requirements are, so you have a clear idea about what it will take to finish.  

Read more: What Should I Major In? 5 Things to Evaluate

Minor coursework

Depending on your institution, you may choose to complete a minor. While not always required, doing so is a way to gain knowledge about a subject area complementary to your major. If you choose to complete a minor, you will likely be expected to complete 18 credit hours in the chosen field. 

Accelerated bachelor’s degrees

Getting to 120 credit hours takes time, but there are ways to increase how quickly you complete your coursework and earn your degree. Here are a few ways you might be able to complete a bachelor's degree in less time.

Transferring previously earned credits

You may be able to transfer certain credits, applying them to your coursework and reducing the length of time it takes to earn your bachelor’s. Freshmen students may be able to apply their advanced placement (AP) or International Baccalaureate® (IB) courses toward credit, if they’ve successfully passed the corresponding exams. Returning or professional students may be able transfer previously earned college credits, including an associate’s degree.

It’s important to note that many on-campus colleges and universities require transfer students to complete a set number of semesters or credit hours at their new institution in order to qualify for graduation, though the exact number varies. Make sure to research any restrictions that may apply to your status as a transfer student. 

Read more: Do College Credits Expire?

Testing out of requirements (CLEP)

The College Board offers the College-Level Examination Program (CLEP) in 34 introductory college courses, including introduction to psychology, financial accounting, biology, composition, and more. 

Instead of taking a semester-long course, you can register and pay a fee of $89 USD to take an exam that certifies your knowledge in a subject and may be used toward college credit. It’s best to double check whether your school accepts CLEP tests before signing up for that option. 

Attending summer semesters

While students who attend an on-campus institution are traditionally required to enroll in classes during the fall and spring semester, summer semesters are an opportunity to take additional classes that go toward total coursework.

Summer semester courses may not be as plentiful compared to other semesters, but taking one or two each summer can speed up the amount of time it takes you to graduate.   

Translating professional experience into credits

Many colleges and universities, especially those that work with professional or returning students, exchange work experience for college credit. You can submit a professional portfolio for credit for prior learning (CPL) or a prior learning assessment (PLA). 

Your experience won’t make up for all of the coursework you need to complete, but if a college or university grants CPL or offers PLA, you may be able to earn up to 30 credits. 

Online bachelor’s degrees 

Online bachelor’s degrees have become an increasingly popular alternative to on-campus degrees, especially among professional and returning students. In fact, many of the same renowned brick and mortar institutions have online degree options. 

While it may take the same length of time to complete an online degree as an on-campus degree, there are several other benefits that factor into earning a bachelor’s degree online. 

Flexible scheduling 

Attending an on-campus institution will mean taking at least some of your classes in-person. Taking classes from home around your work schedule or other obligations can provide greater flexibility. Many online degree programs also feature part-time and full-time degree options, so you can complete the required coursework at a pace that best suits you.

Cost

The total cost of an online bachelor’s degree ranges from $38,496 (in-state) for public institutions to $60,593 for private institutions [1]. Compare that to the average total cost of attending an on-campus public institution, $73,532, according to NCES data from 2018-2019 [2]. That cost increases to $189,676 at private institutions. 

No residency requirement

Because you don’t need to live in the same state as the college or institution offering your online degree, there’s no residency requirement to fulfill, which means no relocation or commuting costs.  

Explore online bachelor’s degrees from Illinois, University of Arizona, and University of London, all available on Coursera.

Benefits of getting a bachelor’s degree 

Earning potential 

A bachelor’s degree can advance your education, deepening your knowledge about a subject, and potentially lead to more career opportunities. It can also amplify your earning potential. Employees with a bachelor’s degree earned a median salary of $78,020 USD in 2020 compared to employees with a high school diploma, who earned $39,070 USD [3]. 

Career opportunity

A bachelor’s degree has the potential to broaden the types of jobs you qualify for, and open up new possibilities. A study conducted by Georgetown University found that 65 percent of all jobs available in the US now require a college degree [4].

According to the US Bureau of Labor Statistics [5], entry-level jobs that tend to require a bachelor’s degree include: 

  • Civil engineer

  • Computer systems analyst

  • Financial analyst

  • Graphic designer 

  • Human resource specialist 

  • Marketing specialist 

  • Public relations specialist

  • Social worker 

Career stability 

Earning a bachelor’s degree has also been found to lead to lower unemployment [6]. Thanks to the foundational classes all undergraduate students must take, a bachelor’s degree can also help amplify your communication skills and analytical skills, which are two key transferable skills that may help prepare you for career changes.

Bachelor's degree: Explore further

Whether you’re looking ahead to the next phase of your education, or you’re considering going back to school to broaden or change career paths, getting a bachelor’s degree can be a lucrative investment. As you’re reviewing your options, explore online bachelor’s degrees in high-demand subjects like data science, management, public health, and marketing on Coursera.  

If you’d like more information about what an undergraduate education entails, consider enrolling in the University of Washington’s course Understanding College and College Life, which goes over what faculty expect from undergraduate students, study habit tips, how to choose a major, and more.

Frequently asked questions (FAQs)

Related articles

Article sources

1. U.S. News and World Report. "What You'll Pay for an Online Bachelor's Degree, https://www.usnews.com/higher-education/online-education/articles/what-youll-pay-for-an-online-bachelors-degree." Accessed October 28, 2021.

2. National Center for Education Statistics. "Tuition Costs of Colleges and Universities, https://nces.ed.gov/fastfacts/display.asp?id=76." Accessed October 28, 2021.

3. US Bureau of Labor Statistics. "Occupations that Need More Education for Entry are Projected to Grow Faster Than Average, https://www.bls.gov/emp/tables/education-summary.htm." Accessed October 28, 2021.

4. Georgetown University. "Recovery: Job Growth and Education Requirements Through 2020, https://cew.georgetown.edu/wp-content/uploads/2014/11/Recovery2020.ES_.Web_.pdf." Accessed October 27, 2021.

5. US Bureau of Labor Statistics. "Employment Outlook for Bachelor's Level Education, https://www.bls.gov/careeroutlook/2018/article/bachelors-degree-outlook.htm." Accessed October 27, 2021.

6. US Bureau of Labor Statistics. "Education Pays, 2020, https://www.bls.gov/careeroutlook/2021/data-on-display/education-pays.htm." Accessed October 28, 2021.

Written by Coursera • Updated on Nov 3, 2021

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.

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