Typical Completion Time
Students who are thinking about enrolling in a bachelor's degree program may want to find out about the standard completion time of four years as well as alternative scheduling options for two- to five-year programs and total credit requirements. Most bachelor's degree programs are designed to take four years to complete. The National Center for Education Statistics tracks the percentage of students who graduate from four-year bachelor's degree programs within 150% of the expected completion time; that is, within six years of enrolling. For first-year, full-time students who began bachelor's degree programs in 2008, 60% finished within six years. That number was only 58% for public universities, but it was 65% at private nonprofit schools. The six-year graduation rate from bachelor's degree programs was only 27% from private for-profit institutions. 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. Although most bachelor's degree programs require four years of full-time study, there are also a few other types of programs that are intended to take different lengths of time.
Degree Completion Programs
Some colleges offer degree completion programs, which are typically structured for a two-year completion time. This time frame allows for 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 wave some degree requirements by taking College Level Examinations 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. These are called accelerated programs, and they typically require higher course loads each semester than the four-year plans. Students also may attend classes year-round, adding a third semester in the summer. This reduces the completion time to three calendar years or less. It is important to note that schools frequently counsel students not to hold outside jobs while they are enrolled in these intensive programs.
Professional Degree Programs
There are some professional bachelor's degree programs that are intended to take a total of five years, rather than four years, to complete. For instance, in order to earn a professional Bachelor of Architecture degree, it is necessary to complete five years of full-time training. In these programs, students not only fulfill general education requirements and take major courses, but they also take career-focused classes that are directly applicable to the workplace. A five-year professional program may also culminate in a thesis.
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Dual Degree Programs
Some schools offer dual degree programs that result in both a bachelor's and a master's degree. These programs can be finished in five years rather than that six years that it would take to earn a bachelor's and master's degree separately. In these programs, students typically begin taking graduate-level courses during their fourth year of study, instead of only taking senior-level undergraduate classes. Dual degree programs are available in a variety of topics, including accounting and engineering. Prospective students should be aware that in order to be admitted into a dual degree program, students generally need to meet certain academic requirements, such as a minimum GPA.
Bachelor's Credit Requirements
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. There are also some courses, such as science courses, where credits are awarded for laboratory work. In some programs, credits are also awarded for internships and other hands-on training experiences. It is important to note that 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. Since eight semesters with twelve credits only results in 96 total credits, students usually need to take more than a minimum full-time schedule during some semesters if they want to complete a bachelor's degree in four years. 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.
In order to complete the 120 credits that are usually needed to earn a bachelor's degree, students usually spend at least four years in college. However, there are also degree completion and accelerated programs that take less time, as well as professional and dual degree options that take longer.