How Long Does It Take to Earn a Bachelor’s Degree Online?

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How long to get a bachelor’s degree online? With the continued popularity of online education and the growing need for bachelor degrees in certain professions, many students may be wondering how long an online bachelor’s takes.

Online education is proving particularly popular in terms of the flexibility it offers students, who can take classes and complete degrees at their own pace and in their own space. Such flexibility can be especially important when trying to complete a degree while maintaining a heavy work schedule or care for a family. However, the time it takes to finish a degree may also be a factor when deciding whether or not to pursue an education online.

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Definition of a Bachelor’s Degree

Before discussing online degree options, it’s helpful to go over the traditional bachelor’s degree program. An understanding of this type of degree program allows potential online students to make critical decisions about which type of degree program would work for them. This section provides students with some foundational knowledge about bachelor’s degrees.

The baccalaureate or bachelor’s degree is probably the most common degree that students seek. Typically, students who earn a baccalaureate degree, which is also called an undergraduate degree, require at least four years to complete it. At least, this is the case for students who go through a traditional, campus-based bachelor’s degree program. A bachelor’s degree provides students with a foundation in a subject. Bachelor-level students don’t necessarily contribute new thought to the field in which they study. Rather, they receive a deep foundation in the subject. A student pursuing a master’s degree, on the other hand, must contribute new and meaningful research to the field. They usually do this by writing a thesis.

In many professional settings, people need to hold a bachelor’s degree in order to qualify for a job. At the undergraduate level, it’s possible to pursue degrees in many subjects, like engineering, art, biology, or anthropology. Academic institutions call these subjects “majors.” Students who say, “I am majoring in biology,” are saying that they’ve decided to study the subject of biology in-depth.

Most bachelor’s degrees require students to complete at least 120 credits. Students earn a certain number of credits that teach them about their major specifically. They also earn credits in other subjects, like math, English, science, and the arts. Schools often refer to these general courses as core or foundation subjects, and they are intended to introduce students to a number of disciplines. Once students complete the required number of credits, they earn their bachelor’s degree. There are a number of different types of bachelor’s degrees. These include the Bachelor of Fine Arts, the Bachelor of Arts, the Bachelor of Science, the Bachelor of Music, the Bachelor of Engineering, and the Bachelor of Business Administration.

Earning a bachelor’s degree requires a big time commitment over the course of several years. That is one of the reasons why many students hesitate to get one, particularly if they’re already in the workforce. They can’t stop working. They need the money to live.

However many times, they cannot receive a promotion at work if they don’t have a bachelor’s degree. Not getting a degree turns out to be detrimental to these professionals’ careers. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS), people who hold a bachelor’s degree earn almost $1,200 per week on average. Those who only have a high school diploma don’t even earn $700 per week on average. A bachelor’s degree almost doubles a person’s earning potential.

In light of this, many would-be students stop asking, “How long does it take to get a bachelor’s degree?” Instead, they want to know how to earn a bachelor’s degree while they work. For many, an online bachelor’s degree program provides them with the flexibility they need to earn their degrees. Even more fortunately, many of these degrees don’t take as long to complete as their campus-based counterparts. This allows students to get the same degree in less time.

Pre-Degree Advising

how long does it take to get a bachelor's degree

It may be useful for students who haven’t been in a classroom in a while to visit with a university guidance counselor before embarking on a degree program. Otherwise, the amount of work required to complete the degree may catch them off guard.

Here’s why this is important. According to the US News and World Report, students should expect to spend at least 12 to 14 hours per week per subject. That means the student who takes just two classes spends at least 24 hours a week on school work. (This includes time in- and outside of class.)

Completing this work isn’t impossible, but many students find they need a game plan in order to do it. A guidance counselor can go over the student’s schedule and make suggestions so that the student can reach his or her educational goals.

It’s additionally wise to find out if the school offers an orientation to the online class environment. Many times, online degrees don’t utilize the lecture format that most students are used to. They deliver the coursework via alternative means. Getting a walkthrough that shows students how the online classroom works puts students’ minds at ease, particularly if they’ve spent a number of years out of school.

Along the same lines, students may feel more at ease if they also visit with a financial aid counselor before starting their degrees. While some students have the ability to pay for their schooling out-of-pocket, many don’t.

They need financial aid. Fortunately, students who get their degrees via distance learning or online degrees qualify for financial aid, provided that their degrees come from an accredited school. To receive financial aid, these students must fill out the Free Application for Federal Student Aid, or FAFSA. Filling out this form enables the online degree seeker to receive aid in the form of loans, grants, scholarships, and work-study, depending on the school.

It’s additionally important to note that the amount of financial aid an online bachelor’s student qualifies for has to do with the number of credits he or she takes. If the student only signs up for part-time, the financial aid package he or she receives is different than those who take classes full-time.

Students who don’t know this may be in for a surprise come semester time. The way to ensure that they have the right amount of money is to begin early. Potentially, their degree programs could take longer as a result. If they don’t get financial aid, they must pay out of pocket. This may require them to put off taking classes until they can save enough money to attend school. This can drag out the length of time they need to finish their bachelor’s degrees.

Components of the Online Bachelor’s Degree

Many people who did not grow up with a proliferation of technology may find the online degree environment to be more challenging, at least at first. Everything that happens in traditional classrooms, like teachers lecturing in front of a group of students in real-time, gets flipped on its head.

That said, even those who are what are called digital natives still may feel challenged by the online environment. Taking coursework online requires discipline. Some students erroneously believe that online schooling is easier. It isn’t. Provided that students earn a bachelor’s degree from an accredited institution, it’s the same degree, which requires the same work.

That being said, because the technology component introduces a new element to the education game, some students may require an adjustment period initially. This is why some students may not want to go full-time the first semester, (which in turn may affect how long it takes to earn a bachelor’s degree online). To fully understand why this is so, it’s helpful to look at how instructors deliver course content in an online degree program.

The first terms that online bachelor’s students must know are synchronous and asynchronous. Synchronous instruction is a class that an instructor teaches in real-time. All lecture-style classes in a traditional, campus-based program fall into this category.

Professors who wish to utilize this format online will employ technologies, like Zoom or Skype, to teach a class. The instructor starts and finishes class at an appointed time. Students “show up” for class by logging onto the online platform. Interactions between teachers and subjects are live. When it’s time for class to end, the instructor and the students sign off. On the other end of the spectrum lies asynchronous instruction. This method of instruction relies on tools, like video and audio files, textbook readings, podcasts, educational blogs, and even video games in some instances. Instructors also use technologies, like Facebook, to create forums for students. These platforms allow students to interact with one another to discuss classwork and other issues.

In an asynchronous teaching situation, students access the materials for their coursework when their schedules permit. This sometimes means they must get up early in the morning or stay up late at night in order to do it.

For busy working professionals, the synchronous class model presents more challenges than the asynchronous one does. In the synchronous model, students must attend class at a set time. This may interfere with some students’ work schedules. If an online bachelor’s degree is fully or almost fully synchronous, working through the bachelor’s degree program takes more time due to schedule conflicts. In this respect, the student may as well be in a campus-based program if the class schedule remains the same. In this respect, only the delivery method differs.

However, most online degrees are structured so that students can access them when it fits their schedules. This aspect of online education permits students to work around their work and family schedules and still earn a bachelor’s degree in a timely fashion. This model also allows students to work at their own pace to an extent. They don’t need to coordinate their schedules with different groups of people, or at least not as much.

Tips for Excelling in an Online Degree Program

how long does it take to get a bachelor's degree

In many respects, excelling in an online bachelor’s degree program isn’t any different than excelling in a traditional bachelor’s degree program. However, some differences do exist. Students will want to look at both aspects of this equation in order to do well.

First, it’s critical for students to decide on a major early on. It’s also critical that they stick to that major. Switching majors constantly slows down the progress of a degree. For professionals who seek online degrees, this may not become as much of an issue. Much of the time, they’re attending school to get a degree that will help them to advance in their current line of work.

However, some who seek online degrees wish to switch careers. For these students, doing a bit of research can help. If the student has some idea of the field he or she would like to work in following graduation, then it’s possible for the student to look into degree programs that would support that goal. To cut down on time, students can read college catalogs and look at the degree requirements. This allows them to compare similar programs. Once they settle on the right online program for them, they can submit their application materials to their school of choice. Once accepted, they can begin their degree program, sticking to it until it’s completed. The pre-degree research cuts down on the possibility that they’ll switch majors mid-stream.

Next, online bachelor’s degree students save time by going to school during the “off-season.” Most colleges offer summer classes. Some schools even offer classes in the month between the end of classes in December and the beginning of classes in January. Ambitious students take advantage of these extra class offerings because doing so allows them to complete their degrees in a shorter amount of time.

Finally, online students should also take advantage of accelerated degree programs. These programs force students to take more classes in a shorter amount of time. According to Northeastern University, traditional degree programs require students to take classes for 16 weeks. An accelerated degree program offers the same classes. However, instead of taking 16 weeks to complete, these classes take only five or 10 weeks to finish. Such a program allows students to complete a bachelor’s degree much more quickly. In fact, some accelerated degree programs allow students to finish their whole degree in 12 to 18 months.

Important Considerations for Online Bachelor’s Degrees

Assuming that a student decides to attend full-time, there are a few challenges with an online degree that he or she should be aware of. Prospective online degree students should make themselves aware of these considerations prior to signing up.

First, it’s important to note that with accelerated degrees comes a heavier workload. A full semester’s worth of work gets compressed into half the time. This can take its toll on a student’s stamina. It also impacts a student’s free time and often his or her relationships. While online bachelor’s degrees often require less time, there is a cost involved with them in terms of time, money, and relationships.

Second, students must also remember that it’s easy to get complacent in an online degree program because they’re so flexible. Flexible can translate into work not being done due to students miscalculating how much time they have.

Third, by design online degree programs rely heavily on technology. Students considering online degree programs must feel very comfortable with technology. Things can go wrong. For example, a student’s computer can get a computer virus during finals week. These issues slow a student down. Potentially, they even destroy work, so students must come in with a game plan for how to deal with technology mishaps when they happen.

Additionally, online learning requires a great deal of self-discipline. For the student with lots of self-discipline, these time-saving degrees work very well. For students who need more supervision and encouragement, a more traditional degree may work better in the long run, even though they take more time.

Finally, it’s also critical that students find accredited online bachelor’s programs. Degree programs that don’t have regional accreditation waste students’ time. Students who earn degrees in such programs find that their degrees are useless. As such, these programs aren’t the time- and money-saving bargains students had hoped for.

Therefore, prospective online students should research each potential program carefully. They also have the option of getting a degree from an established brick-and-mortar institution. For example, Harvard University offers both on-campus and online degrees. These programs receive the same accreditation that the campus-based degree programs do. This legitimizes the degree for the student and for potential employers. It also ensures that students qualify for financial aid if they need it.

Flexibility and Speed

When one considers the flexibility of online education, it’s tempting to assume that such flexibility necessarily translates to a shorter amount of time to finish the degree. In truth, it might or it might not, depending on a number of other factors. According to Top Degrees Online, the median time for the completion of an online bachelor’s degree is 52 months. This does not seem to differ significantly from a traditional bachelor’s degree, which is perhaps unsurprising given that both types of bachelor’s require about 120 course hours.

Of course, the keyword in the time frame above is “median.” Obviously that means that some students will complete their degrees in more or less time. A number of factors might speed up the process of completing a bachelor’s degree in less than 52 months, including the use of transfer credits. These may be credits you transfer from another school, if you’ve already begun your college education, or they may be credits awarded to you for relevant job or military experience.

Additionally, students save time by testing out of classes. Many schools allow students to take CLEP tests. Often the school uses the students’ scores on these tests to place students in the correct class. However, schools also use them to determine if a student has enough knowledge to skip some classes. For example, students who studied a foreign language in high school may retain enough knowledge of that language to test out of their first-year of university classes completely. This also saves time during the course of a degree.

Finally, some dual-enrollment programs allow students to earn college credit while they’re still in high school. Most of these classes are online, and students can use the credits toward a future bachelor’s degree.

Students who have the option to attend a program such as this save a lot of time and money. Basically, dual-enrollment students finish the first two years of a bachelor’s degree before they even graduate high school. Often they can roll into another degree program upon graduating high school. Although they must still take the 120 credits of a bachelor’s degree, they start the degree earlier, which means they also finish it earlier.

Deciding if Online is the Right Option for You

The method of your education may also affect the speed at which you’re able to complete the degree, but keep your limitations in mind. Some online programs offer accelerated pacing, but this is usually contingent on your ability to attend classes full-time and without many breaks between terms. If you are choosing online education because of its flexibility, so that you can continue to work or care for your family, it’s highly unlikely that you will be able to maintain that kind of pace and still learn effectively. Still, taking courses online may save you time in other ways, such as helping you to avoid a regular commute to and from a physical campus. It may be that an online degree, or a combination of online courses and traditional ones, will enable you to finish your bachelor’s more quickly than you anticipate.

Best Online Bachelor’s Degrees

The US News and World Report has created a list of the best online degree programs. This list allows students to narrow down their research for online bachelor’s degrees. Some of the most respected names in academia make this list.

The list of schools on US News’ list deals specifically with traditional universities that offer excellent online programs. Other programs that these schools offer may rank differently. For example, one university’s online program may rank #5 on US News’ list, while its campus-based nursing or engineering program may rank #30 on the news site’s list.

Here’s a quick look at some of the schools that US News and World Report highlights on its Best Online Degrees list: Arizona State University, University of Florida, Colorado State University, UNC – Wilmington, Loyola University Chicago, Penn State, Oregon State, CUNY School of Professional Studies, the University of Oklahoma and Utah State University to name but a handful.

It’s also important to note that while a school may offer a degree program on campus, that same program may not be available in its online program. For example, Ohio State University, one of the programs that US News highlights, only offers three online bachelor’s degrees, all of which are in the health sciences. The university’s other degrees are not yet available online. Students who wish to study another subject, like art history or political science, must look elsewhere to get a degree.

There is another factor to consider as well. Not all online bachelor’s degree programs offer accelerated programs. If a student really feels he or she must finish a bachelor’s degree in 12 to 18 months, then that student may have to do some research in order to find the right program.

Finally, although online degree programs are borderless, tuition at some schools may not be. In other words, some schools will charge out-of-state students a different tuition rate than in-state students, even if those out-of-state students take the courses in an online degree program. Budget-conscious students should visit with a prospective school’s financial aid office if they’re concerned about having to pay out-of-state tuition for an online program.

Final Thoughts on Earning an Online Bachelor’s Degree

Whether you end up attending traditional or online classes, the time it takes to complete your degree may vary depending on your life circumstances, your prior education, your financial status, and your dedication to the goal of completing your education. While getting a bachelor’s degree online may not necessarily be faster than completing it traditionally, the time frame may at least be comparable, and the flexibility such education provides may be an even more important deciding factor.

So, just how long does it take to get a bachelor’s degree online? As this post has pointed out, it often takes less time to earn an online bachelor’s degree than it does to earn one in a campus-based degree program. Many students finish online bachelor’s degrees in as few as 12 to 18 months.

Finally, some students are able to finish a bachelor’s degree faster because they either test out of some of their classes or they enroll in dual-enrollment programs. The bottom line is students who want to finish their bachelor’s degree faster have plenty of options for doing so. How long it takes them to get the degree depends on how many programs they take advantage of as they pursue their degrees.

Bambi Majumdar

Melissa Anderson

Julie McCaulley