While most students complete college in four or more years, it is possible to complete your degree in even less time.
Colleges require at least 120 credits to earn a bachelor's degree. A full-time student typically takes 30 credits each year, resulting in a total of four years to finish the degree. But learners can earn their degrees in less time by enrolling in dual-enrollment programs, AP classes, prior learning assessment programs, or accelerated degrees.
Accelerated or fast programs allow enrollees to earn bachelor's degrees in less time, which can also save money in the long run. This article explores options for students who need to earn degrees quickly. With these options, degree-seekers can shave months or even years off the time it takes to complete their bachelor's programs.
Dual-enrollment programs let high schoolers take classes at a community college to earn college credit. Programs like RunningStart and Dual Enrollment in South Carolina use college-level coursework to meet high school graduation requirements. Completing these courses results in both high school and college credit.
By earning college credits in high school, students can save time and money in their college careers. However, not every state offers dual-enrollment programs, so high schoolers need to research the options in their area.
Advanced Placement Programs
The Advanced Placement (AP) program allows high school students to earn college credit for achieving passing scores on AP exams. High schoolers usually take AP classes at their schools to prepare for taking these tests in the spring, though they can also take the test without first completing a course. Entering college with AP credits saves undergrads time and money on their degrees.
However, taking an AP class does not guarantee college credit. Students typically must earn at least a three out of five on the exam to receive credit, and colleges set their own policies on granting credits for AP exams. Always check with your prospective schools about their AP score requirements.
Community College Programs
Community colleges help degree-seekers earn college credits at a lower price tag. They can also save students time on a degree. For example, learners with associate degrees who transfer to four-year colleges can often complete their bachelor's degrees in two years instead of four. Students can also complete their general education requirements at a community college before applying to a four-year college.
However, community college credits may not transfer to every university. Most four-year colleges only accept transfer credits from regionally accredited schools. Prospective students should research transfer credit policies to make sure their credits apply toward future bachelor's degrees they may choose to pursue.
Colleges With Alternative Credit Options
Many colleges grant credit for prior experience, military training, and other forms of alternative education. Rather than taking classes to earn credit, students at these schools can earn credit by taking an exam or submitting portfolio. This option saves enrollees time on their bachelor's degrees.
Sometimes called "prior learning assessment" or "credit for prior learning," these options benefit adult learners with professional experience, military students, and advanced learners. Credit for completed military training programs is the most common avenue, though some colleges also grant credit for professional certifications or licenses.
Additionally, nearly 3,000 colleges grant credit for the College Level Examination Program (CLEP), which is offered by the College Board. CLEP tests allow students to demonstrate college-level knowledge in introductory subjects. For example, learners can take the English literature or college composition exams to test out of general education requirements in English. Before signing up for CLEP tests, degree-seekers should check their school's policy on granting credit for these tests.
Accelerated Online Programs
Students looking for quick degrees can pursue accelerated online programs. In a traditional schedule, an undergraduate often earns 30 credits per year, but with an accelerated program, they can complete 36 or more credits per year. However, fast programs are often more expensive than traditional programs because they include more credits per semester.
Accelerated programs often use a different schedule than traditional programs. For example, students may take 1-2 classes during a 6-8 week term, thereby completing more classes each year. Many accelerated programs also include summer courses to increase the number of credits earned per year. Accelerated programs appeal to students who have the flexibility to take additional courses or who want the quickest route to a bachelor's degree.
Check out our guide for more information about online accelerated degrees.
A self-paced program lets students complete coursework at their own rate, often without set deadlines for assignments. Learners with prior knowledge or experience in the subject can earn college credits faster by choosing a self-paced option. A self-paced schedule also appeals to working or otherwise busy students who need more flexibility.
In a self-paced program, undergrads generally take one class at a time. Online learners watch lectures, complete assignments, and submit projects. Instructors provide feedback throughout the course. This format allows enrollees to complete courses in less time than a typical term. Colleges will generally include a maximum deadline to complete each course in a self-paced program.
Most colleges offer online summer courses. By enrolling in summer classes, students can earn more credits in a single year. Many accelerated bachelor's degrees incorporate summer classes to maximize credits.
Before enrolling in summer courses, students should consider several factors. First, many colleges offer fewer courses in the summer, and some upper-division courses may only occur during the school year. Prospective enrollees should review their school's course schedule and consider saving general education requirements for the summer.
Second, degree-seekers who work in the summer may find it difficult to also study, or they may prefer online courses. Always check prerequisite requirements before signing up for summer courses.
Alternatives to Bachelor's Degrees
There are plenty of alternatives to bachelor's degrees. While some career paths require a bachelor's degree, many do not. These alternatives often take less time, so graduates can enter the workforce more quickly.
Students can earn associate degrees in two years. An associate degree costs less than a bachelor's degree and can prepare graduates for careers in healthcare, business, technology, and other growing industries. Many of the highest-paying jobs with an associate degree offer above-average salaries with strong growth projections. Associate degree holders can also transfer into a bachelor's program.
Another alternative to a bachelor's degree is to research short-term courses with high salary opportunities. For example, certificate programs often take under one year to complete and provide focused training for careers like accounting, technology, and emergency services. Many colleges offer online certificate programs with self-paced or accelerated options.
Finally, students can consider trade schools, which offer career-focused training. Vocational programs train students in fields like allied healthcare, manufacturing and technology, and mechanics. Those with career goals in a vocational field may find trade school more useful than a bachelor's degree. Learn more about high-paying trade school jobs from our handy guide.
Frequently Asked Questions
Is Online College at Your Own Pace?
Many programs offer self-paced programs for online learners, though not all online programs are self-paced. A self-paced option can help undergraduates who are interested in earning degrees quickly.
Is It Possible to Finish a Bachelor's Degree in Three Years?
Yes. Undergraduates can earn their bachelor's degrees in three years by applying transfer or exam credits, taking a bigger per-semester course load, or enrolling in accelerated programs.
Is It Better to Take AP Classes or Dual Enrollment?
AP classes and dual enrollment can both help high schoolers earn college credit. However, students only receive credit for AP classes if they earn a passing score on the exam and their college grants credit for AP tests. As a result, dual enrollment is a more sure route to receiving college credit, if it is offered in your state.
Are Summer College Classes Worth It?
Summer classes can help college students earn degrees in less time. By taking courses in the summer, enrollees increase the number of credits they can complete in a year. Many accelerated programs include summer classes for this reason. Some colleges even offer tuition discounts for summer courses.
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