Answer: The average time to completion for a bachelor’s degree program is approximately eight traditional semesters or four years. However, the actual time it takes to earn a bachelor’s degree can vary depending on a number of factors, including the structure of the program, the type of program, and choices made by individual students. A student who enrolls full-time in a bachelor’s program that offers classes year round, during fall, spring, and summer semesters, may be able to earn their degree in three years. However, some undergraduate majors may require internships, field education, or other types of training that can extend the time to graduate by a semester or more, and students who attend school part-time while earning their bachelor’s degree can take five or more years to graduate.
To better understand how long it takes to earn a bachelor’s degree, it is helpful to be familiar with crediting requirements and various other components of a bachelor’s program. While the specific number of credits required for a bachelor’s degree can vary by school and by program, 120 total credits is common among bachelor’s programs offered by accredited, non-profit colleges and universities in the US. These credits typically fall into three categories: general education requirements; major requirements; and elective coursework.
The table below offers a breakdown of the crediting requirements for a 120-credit bachelor’s program that allots an average of three credits per course.
|Type of Courses||Number of Required Credits||Number of Required Courses|
Of the total number of credits a bachelor’s program requires, half or more may be designated for general education coursework in a range of subject areas, including: English composition; social science; humanities; physical science; and mathematics. Some programs may include foreign language and/or physical education courses as part of their general education requirements.
A 120-credit bachelor’s degree program that allots an average of three credits per course might require students to complete between 15 and 20 general education courses, some of which may be core general education requirements, while others may be electives within particular departments or disciplines. For example, English Composition and World History and Civilizations might be core bachelor’s program general education requirements, but students may have a range of choices among other courses that meet general education requirements in the arts, sciences, and humanities. The list below offers a representative overview of the types of courses that commonly count toward general education requirements in a bachelor’s degree program.
In addition to general education coursework, students at the bachelor’s degree level are required to declare a major in a particular field or discipline. A student’s major defines the focus of much of the mid- and upper-division coursework they are required to complete for their degree. These credits may include labs, internships, field education, a senior paper or thesis, and/or an applied capstone program, depending on the major.
While the structure of college majors varies by school and by program, students at the bachelor’s level commonly complete up to half or more of the credits required to graduate within their major. For example, a 120-credit bachelor’s program might have a number of majors, some of which require 50 credits of coursework, while others require 60 or more credits. The number of courses this equates may vary as well, but a typical college major may encompass roughly 20 courses.
There are many majors offered at the undergraduate level, some of which are more common than others. Some of the more common majors, based on an analysis of recent data collected by the Department of Education for its Integrated Postsecondary Education Data System (IPEDS), include: business; health sciences; psychology; biology and biomedical science; engineering, visual and performing arts; education; communication; and computer science and engineering. Some colleges and universities also offer highly specialized majors in fields like cybersecurity, data science, environmental studies, nursing, pharmacy, and social work. Potential applicants to bachelor’s programs should research programs carefully to determine which schools offer the type of major they are interested in pursuing.
Another component of a bachelor’s program involves coursework and credited activities that are not general education requirements and that fall outside of a student’s major. These credits are typically assigned to elective coursework, which may include courses, credited internships, and/or independent study projects that receive approval from the college or university. Some schools allow undergraduates to declare a minor in a field other than their major. A student who declares a minor may use all or most of their remaining elective credits for courses required to complete the minor. Finally, some schools allow students to double major, which means completing the coursework required for majors in two disciplines or fields. Students who choose to double major are generally not in a position to take electives outside of one of their two majors and may require an additional semester or more to complete both majors, extending the time it takes to complete their degree by up to a full year.
Ultimately, the time it takes to complete a bachelor’s program depends on the number of credits a student earns per term. Students who enroll full-time in a bachelor’s program and achieve a passing grade in four or five courses per semester are generally able to graduate in four years. Students who enroll part-time in a bachelor’s program or who are unable to pass four or five courses per semester may need an additional year or more to complete their degree. Some bachelor’s programs cap the number of years a student can spend earning their degree at six or seven years, while other schools have no formal limit on the number of years a student can spend on their degree provided their plan of study is approved by the program. Prospective applicants to bachelor’s programs should research program requirements and enrollment policies in order to determine how long it will likely take to complete the program.
An additional factor that can impact the number of credits a student must complete as part of a bachelor’s program concerns transfer credits from prior college-level coursework. Students who have taken college-level courses prior to enrolling in a bachelor’s program may be given credit for some or all of that coursework, depending on the program and the types of courses. Schools typically place a limit on the number of transfer credits a student can apply toward their bachelor’s degree and in most cases students are required to earn at least half of the credits required for a bachelor’s degree from the degree-granting institution. Transfer credits can shorten the time required to complete a bachelor’s degree by reducing the number of courses a student is required to take in order to graduate.
Students who hold an associate degree or who have completed a significant number of undergraduate credits at a community or junior college may want to explore bachelor’s completion programs. These programs are designed to accommodate students who have already started working toward a bachelor’s degree and to provide them with a pathway to finishing their bachelor’s degree without having to repeat courses they have already taken. Students who enroll full-time in a bachelor’s completion program may be able to earn their degree in two or three years, depending on the program and the number of credits they are able to transfer. For more information on bachelor’s completion programs, refer to our Online Bachelor’s Degree Completion Programs FAQ.