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Typical Completion Time
While bachelor's degree programs are designed for a 4-year completion time, most students do not finish their undergraduate degree in four years. Of the students who began a bachelor's degree program in 2001, only 36% graduated within four years, according to the National Center for Education Statistics.
Given six years, 57% of those students completed their degree program. The remaining students may not have completed the bachelor's degree programs they began, or they may have taken time off and went back to school years later.
Bachelor's Degree Program Overview
Bachelor's degree programs require at least 120 semester credit hours of coursework, with one credit hour representing an hour of classroom lecture and three hours of outside preparation. Degree plans laid out by schools usually outline a schedule for completing all major and general education requirements for a bachelor's degree within four years for full-time study and six years for part-time study.
Most universities set full-time enrollment status at a minimum of 12 credit hours per semester, in line with the definition of the U.S. Department of Education, so students may need to take more than a minimum full-time schedule to complete a bachelor's degree in four years.
Degree Completion Programs
Some colleges offer degree completion programs, which are typically structured for a 2-year completion time. This timeframe allows students to apply college credits earned several years earlier, either through an associate degree or an incomplete bachelor's degree, to a new bachelor's degree program. The colleges assess which of the earlier credits apply to the new degree program and may allow students to waive some degree requirements by taking College Level Examination Program (CLEP) exams to demonstrate knowledge.
A few bachelor's degree programs are structured so students can complete the full program, including general education requirements, in less than four years. Typically, these programs require higher courseloads each semester than the 4-year plans, and students attend class year-round, adding a third semester in the summer. This reduces the completion time to three calendar years or less, but schools frequently counsel students not to hold outside jobs while attending these intensive programs.