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

How Long Does It Take to Earn a Bachelor's Online

Reviewed by: Melissa Anderson / Updates: 4

Key Takeaways:

  • An online bachelor’s degree typically takes 4 years to complete.
  • Many online schools allow the student to work at their own pace.
  • Some schools offer credit for work experience, meaning you could complete your degree in fewer than 4 years.

How long does it take to get a bachelor’s degree (aka undergraduate degree) online? The need to earn a bachelor’s degree in certain professions has grown. With the rise in popularity of online education, there are many programs to choose from. It’s easy to see why many students wonder how long it takes to get an online bachelor’s degree. They may also wonder if accelerated courses of study exist.

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Online education is proving particularly popular because of the flexibility it offers. Students can take classes and complete online degrees at their own pace and in their own space. Online study offers great flexibility. This is perfect For those with home and workplace responsibilities. The time it takes to finish a degree may also be a factor when deciding whether to pursue an education online.

Definition of a Bachelor’s Degree

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

Before discussing online degree options, let’s review the traditional bachelor’s degree. The average bachelor’s program takes four years. Knowing this can help online students decide which program would work for them. This section provides students with some foundational knowledge about bachelor’s degrees.

The bachelor’s degree is probably the most common degree that students seek. Students earning bachelor’s typically require at least four years to complete it. That’s twice as long as the time required for an associate degree. This is the case for students who go through traditional, campus-based programs. A bachelor’s degree provides students with a foundation in a subject. Bachelor-level students don’t necessarily contribute new thoughts to their field of study. Rather, they develop a deep foundation in the subject. A student pursuing a master’s degree must contribute new research to the field. They usually do this by writing a thesis.

In many professional settings, people need to hold a bachelor’s degree to qualify for a job. At the undergraduate level, pursuing degrees in many subjects is possible. Fields such as:

  • Engineering
  • Art
  • Biology
  • Anthropology

Academic institutions call these subjects “majors.” Students who say, “I am majoring in biology,” are saying that they’ve decided to study biology in-depth. Some of the more ambitious and motivated students may choose to pursue double majors.

Most bachelor’s degree plans require students to complete at least 120 credits. By comparison, an associate degree program requires just 60 college credit hours. Students earn a certain number of credits that teach them about their major. 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. These classes are intended to introduce students to multiple disciplines. Once students complete the required number of credits, they earn their bachelor’s degree. There are several different types of bachelor’s degree credentials. These include:

  • Bachelor of Fine Arts (BFA)
  • Bachelor of Arts (BA)
  • Bachelor of Science (BS)
  • Bachelor of Music (BM)
  • Bachelor of Engineering (BE)
  • Bachelor of Business Administration (BBA)

Earning a bachelor’s degree requires serious commitment over several years. This also applies to online programs and accelerated programs. That is one of the reasons why many students hesitate to get one. This is particularly true if they’re already in the workforce. They can’t stop working to pursue college credit. They need the money to live.

Often, professionals cannot get a promotion or other job opportunities without a bachelor’s. Not getting a degree turns out to be detrimental to these professionals’ careers. The Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) indicates that bachelor’s degree holders earn almost $1,200 weekly. Those with only a high school diploma don’t even earn $700 per week. A bachelor’s degree almost doubles a person’s earning potential. The financial benefits for bachelor’s degree holders are clear. Some studies show this degree type results in higher job satisfaction.

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 plan gives them the flexibility they need. 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

Students should speak with a university guidance counselor before their college career begins. Otherwise, the work required to complete their bachelor’s degree may catch them off guard.

Here’s why this is important. A bachelor’s degree typically takes 12 to 14 hours per week for one course worth three credits. That means the student who takes just two classes spends at least 24 hours a week on schoolwork. (This includes time in and outside of class.)

Completing this work isn’t impossible, but many students need a game plan to succeed. An academic advisor can assist a student in reaching his or her higher education goals.

It’s also wise to find out if the school offers an orientation to the online class environment. Online degrees often don’t use the lecture format that most students are used to. They deliver the coursework via alternative means. A walkthrough shows students how the online classroom works and puts their minds at ease. This is particularly true if they’ve been out of school for a while.

Students may also feel more at ease if they also visit with a financial aid counselor. While some students can pay for their schooling out-of-pocket, many don’t. These students need financial aid to pursue higher education. Fortunately, students who get their degrees online may qualify for financial aid. This is provided that their degrees come from an accredited school. They must fill out the Free Application for Federal Student Aid to receive financial aid. Filling out this FAFSA form enables the online degree seeker to receive aid. It can come from loans, grants, scholarships, and work-study. Of course, the type of aid will depend on the school.

It is important to note that the amount of financial aid you qualify for depends on how many credits are taken. For part-time study, the financial aid package differs from a full-time program.

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

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

Some people may find the online degree environment to be more challenging, at least at first. The differences between traditional classrooms and online learning can be significant.

Even the most tech-savvy may still feel challenged by the online environment. Taking coursework online requires discipline. Some students erroneously believe that online schooling is easier. It isn’t. When students earn a bachelor’s degree from an accredited institution, it’s the same degree. This means it requires the same work.

The technology component introduces a new element to the education game. Some students may need some time to adjust. This is why some students may not want to go full-time in the first semester. T may affect how long it takes to earn a bachelor’s degree online. Looking at how instructors deliver online course content is helpful.

Online bachelor’s students must know the terms 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 elect this format online will use technologies like Zoom or Skype. 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
  • Even video games

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.

With asynchronous teaching, students access the materials for their coursework. This means they can do it when their schedules and personal preferences allow. This sometimes means they must get up early in the morning or stay up late at night to meet program requirements.

For busy working professionals, the synchronous class model presents more challenges. In the synchronous model, students must attend class at a set time, just as they would on campus. This may interfere with some students’ work schedules or family obligations. If an online bachelor’s degree is synchronous, getting a bachelor’s takes more time. In this respect, the student may as well be in a campus-based program if the class schedule remains the same. Many colleges use a blend of asynchronous and synchronous instruction and automated technology.

Most online degrees are structured so students can conveniently complete them. Because of this, students can accommodate their work and family schedules. This model also allows students to work at their own pace to an extent. They don’t often need to coordinate their schedules with different groups of people. Still, most students enroll beyond part-time to meet program requirements on time.

Tips for Earning a Bachelor’s Degree Online

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

Excelling in an online bachelor’s isn’t any different from doing so in a traditional degree program. Still, some differences do exist. Students should examine both types of programs before pursuing an online bachelor’s.

First, students must 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. This may not become as much of an issue for professionals seeking online degrees. They’re usually attending school to get a degree that will help them advance in their current line of work.

Some who seek online degrees wish to switch careers. For these students, doing a bit of research can help. Choosing a degree program is much easier if the student knows what they want to do after graduation. Students can read college catalogs and look at the degree requirements to cut down on time. This allows them to compare similar programs. Once they settle on the right online program, they can begin the application process. Once accepted, they can begin their degree program, sticking to it until completion. The pre-degree research reduces the possibility that they’ll change majors.

Next, online bachelor’s degree students save time by earning college credits during the “off-season.” Most colleges offer summer classes during the summer semesters. 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 summer classes and extra class offerings to earn more credits. Doing so allows them to complete their degrees in a shorter amount of time.

Finally, online students wondering “How long does it take to earn a bachelor’s degree?” should also take advantage of accelerated online bachelors 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. 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, by taking advantage of accelerated degree programs, students may finish their whole degree in 12 to 18 months.

Important Considerations for Online Bachelor’s Programs

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

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 consider these obstacles before 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 programs rely heavily on technology. Students considering these 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, taking college level courses via 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.

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

Thus, 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

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

It’s tempting to assume that the flexibility of online education translates to a shorter amount of time to finish the degree. In truth, it might or it might not, depending on several 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. Of course, both types of bachelor’s programs require about 120 course hours.

Still, the keyword in the time frame above is “median.” Obviously that means that some students will complete their degrees in more or less time. Several factors might speed up the process of completing a bachelor’s degree in less than 52 months. This includes the use of prior credits or transfer credits from an associate degree program. These may be transfer credits that associate degree holders have from another school or even community colleges. This is applicable if you’ve already begun your college education or even an associate degree program. Or, they may be credits awarded to you for relevant job or military experience.

Even students without an associate’s degree can save time by testing out of classes. Many schools allow students to take CLEP tests. Often the school uses a passing grade on these tests to place students in the correct class via advanced placement. Schools also use these scores to determine if a student has enough knowledge to skip some classes and still earn credit hours for prior knowledge. For example, students who studied a foreign language in high school may retain enough knowledge to test out of their first-year of university classes. This also saves time during the course of a degree.

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

College students who earn credits by taking advantage of accelerated degree options such as this save a lot of time and money. For example, 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 program upon graduating high school. Although they must still take the typical course load of 120 credit hours 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

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

The method of your education may also affect the speed at which you’re able to get a bachelor’s degree. Still, you should keep your limitations in mind. Some online programs offer accelerated pacing. But, this is usually contingent on your ability to attend classes as a full-time student and without many breaks between terms. That is, this is not an option for part-time students.

If you are choosing online courses 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 course load 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 get a bachelor’s more quickly than you anticipate.

Best Online Bachelor’s Degrees

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

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 on campus, that same program may not be available in its online program. For example, Ohio State University only offers three online bachelor’s degrees. All of these are in the health sciences. The university’s other degrees are not yet available online. Students who wish to get a bachelor’s degree in another subject, like art history or political science, must look elsewhere.

There is another factor to consider as well. Not all online bachelor’s degree programs offer accelerated programs. Some students really want to finish the credit hours to get a bachelor’s degree in 12 to 18 months. If this sounds familiar, then you may have to do some research in order to find the right program for your schedule and career goals.

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 to take online courses than in-state students. This may be the case even if those out-of-state students take the courses in an online program. Budget-conscious students should visit the prospective school’s financial aid office. Here, they will find out if they’ll be required to pay out-of-state tuition for an online program.

Final Thoughts on Earning an Online Bachelor’s Degree

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

Whether you end up attending traditional or online classes, the time it takes to complete a bachelor’s degree may vary. Factors that could influence your completion time include your life circumstances and personal preferences, your prior education, your financial status, whether you double major, and your dedication to the goal of completing your education. Getting a bachelor’s degree online may not necessarily be faster than completing it traditionally. But, the time frame may at least be comparable. Plus, the flexibility such education provides may be an even more important deciding factor for prospective bachelor’s degree holders.

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 bachelor’s degrees in as few as 12 to 18 months by taking online courses and earning credit hours via remote learning.

Finally, some students are able to finish their credit hours towards a bachelor’s degree faster. This may be because they either test out of some of their classes or they enroll in dual-enrollment programs. Or, they take accelerated courses toward a shiny new degree. The bottom line is students who want to get a 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 via online degree programs.

Related Resources:


  • United States Bureau of Labor Statistics
  • US News & World Report: Best Colleges