College is an expensive investment, and it is common to wonder how long it will take to graduate. If you average 15 credits per semester, you can reach the 120-credit threshold needed to graduate with a B.S. or B.A. degree in four years. The University of Hawaii even started a campaign called 15 to Finish to incentivize students to maintain 15 credits per semester and meet the four-year graduation goal.
There are a wide variety of variables that can impact the time it takes to earn your degree, and many students will spend more than four years in college.
An undergraduate degree typically takes four years to complete if you average 15 credits per semester.
Private vs. Public Schools
Graduation rates differ between private and public institutions. A 2017 report released by the Minnesota Private College Council indicated that the four-year graduation rate for students attending private colleges was 66 percent in comparison to 23 percent of students attending state universities. The six-year graduation rate jumps to 75 percent at private colleges and 47 percent at state universities.
Why Pursue a College Degree?
In addition to becoming well rounded and educated, earning a college degree will increase your earning potential. A 2017 study by the Economic Policy Institute indicated that the wage gap between college graduates and high school graduates was more than 50 percent.
College graduates are more likely to be employed. The Bureau of Labor Statistics reports that the unemployment rate is almost cut in half for college graduates in comparison to their peers with only a high school diploma.
Try an Accelerated Program
Increasingly, college programs are available in an accelerated-degree format to earn an undergraduate degree in three years. Most of these programs offer courses in six weeks or less, and you’ll need to take classes year round to finish in three years.
You won’t find all types of bachelor's degree programs available in this format. If you intend to go on to graduate school, an accelerated program can decrease the total time it will take to finish your education. You may also find a program that combines an undergraduate and graduate degree in a five-year program.
Look at Online Possibilities
Sometimes, work or family responsibilities make it difficult to pursue a traditional college degree. Degree completion can take considerably longer or be impossible if you don’t have concentrated time to dedicate to college.
Consider an online degree program to offer flexibility and the opportunity to graduate in four or five years. Your college years may be spent in front of a computer, but you can continue to work on your degree when you have time.
Create an Academic Plan
It’s easy to add time to a degree if you don’t have an academic map to guide your course selection. Students who don’t meet with an academic adviser may lose track of their direction. In 2015, 28 percent of college students in Florida took more classes than were needed for degree completion. This can be avoided by following a set academic plan. Avoid taking unnecessary classes and try to combine degree requirements if you’re pursuing a double major or a minor.
Maintain Satisfactory Academic Progress
You must be successfully progressing toward your degree in order to remain in good academic and financial aid standing. If you drop or fail a class, it will extend the time that it takes to earn all types of bachelor's degrees.
The federal government requires enrolled students to complete an undergraduate degree in 180 earned credits with a minimum grade point average of 2.0 and a 67 percent completion rate in order to obtain financial aid. Withdrawing from a class or a semester is expensive and will lengthen the time it takes to finish your degree.
Working During the College Years
The college years are fun, but being a student is a full-time job. For example, if you take a three-credit class, you can expect to spend six hours studying per week to be adequately prepared. A full load of 15 credit hours requires 30 hours of study time plus the 15 hours of time in class.
Adding a job to this schedule can take a toll on academic success. If you need to work more than 15 hours per week, consider taking fewer classes. If you fall below 15 credits per semester, add extra time to complete your degree.
Get Involved on Campus
Students who get involved on campus are more likely to persist. Student involvement helps students develop social connections and learn more about campus resources. An involved student who encounters a bump in the road is more equipped to seek help and remain enrolled. You’ll also learn better time-management skills that will help you fit more into your schedule.
Stop Out and Drop Out Factors
There are many reasons that a college student may need to stop out or drop-out of college. A medical or family crisis is unforeseen, but a lack of direction or uncertainty about a major can be avoided.
More than 30 percent of students who begin college don’t complete their degree. Financial strain, illness, stress, time management and lack of academic preparedness are the most common impediments to degree completion. One lost semester may add an entire year to your academic plan since required classes aren’t always offered all year.
Changing Your Major Impacts Degree Completion
It’s common to be unsure about an academic focus when you begin college. Nearly one-third of all college students will change their major at some point in their college career. Changing majors can impact the amount of time it takes to earn most types of bachelor's degrees. If possible, use your general education courses as an opportunity to learn more about what interests you. If you delay declaring a major, you’re more likely to complete your degree on time.
Transferring Adds Time
It’s not uncommon to transfer to a different college. You may find that your original college of choice isn’t the right fit or that you want to be closer to home. Students who begin at a community college may transfer to a four-year school to finish their undergraduate degree. Since course curriculum varies, you can expect to lose some credits in the transfer and add more time to your college career.
Seek Earned Credit Options
You can shave time off your college years by requesting credit for Advanced Placement classes or professional experience. Some colleges will award credits for military training earned by veterans. If your high school offers postsecondary-option classes, you may be able to take college classes in high school that will count toward your degree requirements. Earned credit for previous classes or professional experience can significantly reduce your time in college.
Strategies to Graduate Faster
You can graduate faster if you increase your credit load or take summer classes. However, you are more likely to experience burnout or high stress with a heavy credit load. You may also run into issues with finding the classes that you need during the summer. Some students choose to take online and campus-based classes to provide more options for class load and selection.
- Inside Higher Ed: Who Changes Majors? (Not Who You Think)
- Saddleback College: Time Management
- University of Hawai'i: 15 to Finish
- Economic Policy Institute: The State of American Wages 2017
- Bureau of Labor Statistics: Employment Projections
- Minnesota Private College Council: Graduation Rate Report
- Sun Sentinel: Lawmakers Could Ease Up On ‘Excess’ Credit Hours
- Fort Lewis College: Financial Aid Satisfactory Academic Progress (SAP)
- National Center for Education Statistics: Fast Facts
Dr. Kelly Meier earned her doctorate from Minnesota State Mankato in Educational Leadership. She is the author and co-author of 12 books and serves as a consultant in K-12 and higher education. Dr. Meier is is a regular contributor for The Equity Network and has worked in education for more than 30 years.