Average Time To Get A 4-Year Degree

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Average Time To Get A 4-Year Degree

Traditionally, bachelor’s degree programs are designed to take 4 years to complete. However, there are many exceptions that can allow students to finish a bachelor’s degree faster, such as accelerated online bachelor degree programs that can be completed in 2 years, or finish a degree much slower. For example, some bachelor’s degree programs have time limits that give students 7 to 10 years to complete the program. Several other factors may affect how long it takes someone to graduate from college, which we discuss in more detail below.

How Long Does it Take to Graduate College?

Graduation time may be affected by factors like chosen majors, changing majors, financial aid, work schedules, home life demands, and more. While it normally takes students 4 years to complete a bachelor’s degree, most students are done within 6 years. This is supported by the National Center for Education Statistics (NCES). They reported most bachelor’s degree students (60%) who began study in 2011 graduated in 2017. Here we examine just a few factors that may allow students to finish a bachelor’s degree program faster or slower than 4 years.

A bachelor’s degree is a post-secondary diploma awarded to students who complete general and major-specific coursework at undergraduate colleges or universities. Continuing your education after high school is highly encouraged in today’s job market, but you may wonder “how many years is a bachelor’s degree?” We have listed 40 top accelerated bachelor degree programs here that may interest you.

Bachelor’s degree programs are consistently linked with better career opportunities, salary potential, and job satisfaction. The Bureau of Labor Statistics reports that the median weekly earnings for bachelor’s degree holders is $1,137, which is significantly higher than the $678 for high school grads. Baccalaureate-level unemployment is also lower-than-average at 2.8 percent. Committing time to attaining your bachelor’s can pay off wonderfully.

Types of Degree Options


More universities are offering accelerated online bachelor’s degrees to place students on the fast track to career success. Depending on its schedule, the accelerated program could be completed in just 18 to 36 months. This becomes possible because students hasten their learning with six-week, eight-week, or 10-week sessions. Rather than follow the traditional semester schedule with summers off, accelerated students attend year-round. Cutting out downtime will likely reduce the cost of attendance. Online classes are accessible 24/7 in interactive virtual classrooms for scheduling flexibility too. Nonetheless, accelerated bachelor’s degrees still require the same number of credits though. Jamming coursework into shorter terms can be overwhelming for some, especially full-time working adults.


Another learning option for undergraduates is the joint bachelor’s/master’s program. Over five years full-time, joint programs allow students to complete the requirements for a bachelor’s and master’s degree concurrently. These programs are especially popular in engineering, accounting, counseling, and management. High-achieving students can begin taking the master’s-level coursework beginning their senior year. Certain courses overlap to reduce the time normally required to complete a two-year master’s program too. But most universities reserve dual degrees to students with minimum cumulative major GPAs of 3.5. Those who qualify and want to enter fields where a master’s is preferred should consider these degrees.

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As you can see, how many years a bachelor’s degree takes can range from two to six or more depending on various factors. Rising college tuition makes it necessary to finish your education quickly. Consider the above accelerated degree programs available. Maintain the heaviest course load possible while still achieving a high GPA. Minimize the number of non-enrollment periods that can break up your schooling. Also, ask your academic advisor about credits offered for work experience, military service, or standardized tests like the CLEP. Following these tips could help you graduate within the desired four years or less!

time to degree meaning

Time to Degree

The time it takes to earn a degree varies depending on a number of factors, including choices students make, and those choices can affect the price of college. Although taking fewer classes may give students more time to work, increasing their in-school earnings and the resources they have available to pay for college, taking longer to graduate increases the degree’s net price. This strategy can also increase forgone earnings, reduce financial aid, and increase the amount of debt students accumulate.

Time Enrolled versus Time Elapsed

The number of years a student is enrolled in college may differ from the number of years that elapse between first enrolling and completing a degree. A student who enrolls half time will take two years to complete one full-time year of enrollment. Some students take time off. Some students go to summer school, enrolling for more than one year of school during a calendar year.

Students who earned bachelor’s degrees in 2014–15 were enrolled for an average of 5.1 years, but 5.7 calendar years elapsed between the beginning and the end of their studies. Students who earned associate degrees at two-year public colleges were enrolled for 3.4 years over an average of 5.6 years. Time enrolled is a better indicator of the price of a college education than time elapsed.

The lower average time to degree for bachelor’s degree recipients at private nonprofit four-year institutions reduces the price differential between earning a bachelor’s degree at a private nonprofit college and going to a public college

Average Number of Years Enrolled and Average Number of Years Elapsed between First Enrollment and Degree Completion, 2014–15 College Graduates

Average years enrolledAverage years elapsed3. two-yearPublic four-yearPrivate nonprofitfour-yearPrivate for-profitfour-yearTotal bachelor’s012345678910Source: 

Doug Shapiro, Afet Dundar, Phoebe Khasiala Wakhungu, Xin Yuan, Angel Nathan, and Youngsik Hwang, Time to Degree: A National View of the Time Enrolled and Elapsed for Associate and Bachelor’s Degree Earners (Herndon, VA: National Student Clearinghouse Research Center, 2016).SAVE IMAGEDOWNLOAD DATA (CSV)+

How Long Are Students in College?

Most students who complete their programs take longer than two years to complete an associate degree and more than four years to complete a bachelor’s degree.

The time elapsed from initial enrollment to degree completion does not necessarily reflect how long students were enrolled. A student who takes a year off, for example, may still graduate after four years of enrollment, even though five years will have passed between starting college and graduation.

Only 12 percent of 2014–15 bachelor’s degree recipients completed their bachelor’s degrees with four full-time academic years of enrollment or less. Others required at least an additional summer school term. Almost half were enrolled for more than five academic years. Students at private nonprofit institutions graduated more quickly than those in other sectors.

Academic Years Enrolled Before Degree Completion, 2014–15 Bachelor’s Degree Recipients, by Sector

Four years or lessFive yearsSix yearsSeven years or more10.1%17.0%16.2%12.2%39.3%53.0%16.4%41.8%29.9%17.5%19.9%26.2%20.7%12.5%47.5%19.9%Public four-yearPrivate nonprofitfour-yearFor-profit andotherAll0%10%20%30%40%50%60%70%80%90%100%Source: 

Doug Shapiro, Afet Dundar, Phoebe Khasiala Wakhungu, Xin Yuan, Angel Nathan, and Youngsik Hwang, Time to Degree: A National View of the Time Enrolled and Elapsed for Associate and Bachelor’s Degree Earners (Herndon, VA: National Student Clearinghouse Research Center, 2016)Note: 

Only 7 percent of 2014–15 associate degree recipients completed their degrees in two academic years or less. Another 35 percent finished with three years full-time years of enrollment, but most students receiving associate degrees were enrolled for at least four years.

One reason it is so common for associate degree recipients to take longer than two years to graduate is that many of these students attend college part time while working.

Academic Years Enrolled Before Degree Completion, 2014–15 Associate Degree Recipients from Public Two-Year Colleges

Two years or lessThree yearsFour yearsFive years or more7.4%35.2%32.6%24.8%All sectors0%10%20%30%40%50%60%70%80%90%100%Source: 

Doug Shapiro, Afet Dundar, Phoebe Khasiala Wakhungu, Xin Yuan, Angel Nathan, and Youngsik Hwang, Time to Degree: A National View of the Time Enrolled and Elapsed for Associate and Bachelor’s Degree Earners (Herndon, VA: National Student Clearinghouse Research Center, 2016).Note: 

For-profit category also includes all less-than-four-year insittutions offering some bachelor’s degrees.

The Price of a Degree versus the Price of a Year

Extra years of enrollment add significantly to the price of a bachelor’s degree.

For example, a student paying the full sticker price of tuition and fees and room and board at an in-state public four-year university at 2018–19 prices would pay $85,500 in tuition, fees, room, and board over four years. But enrolling full time for five years would cost $106,900, and for six years the charges would be $128,200.

Tuition and Fees and Room and Board over Four, Five, and Six years, 2017–18 Prices

Four yearsFive yearsSix years

Public four-year in-state

Tuition and feesOn-campus room andboardTuition and feesand room and board$0$100k$200k$300k

Private nonprofit four-year

Tuition and feesOn-campus room andboardTuition and feesand room and board$0$100k$200k$300kSource: 

Jennifer Ma, Sandy Baum, Matea Pender, and Meredith Welch, Trends in College Pricing 2018 (New York: College Board, 2016), table 1A.

Debt Burden and Time to Degree

Higher expenses associated with longer times to degree mean that students who spend more time in college accumulate higher debts. Pell grants are available for as many as 12 semesters of full-time study, but many state and institutional grants are available for only four years of undergraduate enrollment.

Distribution of Cumulative Debt among 2015–16 Bachelor’s Degree Recipients, by Time between First Postsecondary Enrollment and Degree Completion

No debt$1‒$10,000$10,000‒$20,000$20,000‒$30,000$30,001‒$40,000$40,001‒$50,000More than $50,00036.3%35.5%27.8%24.2%24.6%22.4%18.8%22.8%8.3%11.0%9.0%10.0%9.7%11.2%20.1%11.6%12.8%13.4%12.4%10.7%11.8%9.1%24.5%20.1%15.2%13.4%13.0%11.1%4.6%8.8%15.5%18.9%12.2%12.9%14.3%3.0%5.3%5.2%8.2%12.4%12.9%11.6%4.0%6.0%7.6%11.1%15.1%18.5%21.2%Less than 4 years(11%)4 years (31%)5 years (18%)6 years (10%)7 or 8 years (10%)9 or 10 years (5%)More than 10 years(16%)0%10%20%30%40%50%60%70%80%90%100%Source: 

2016 National Postsecondary Student Aid Study.

Staying in school longer also means students forgo more potential earnings. Adding forgone earnings to tuition and fees and the cost of books and supplies gives the most accurate picture of the actual price of more time in college.

The relevant forgone earnings for the fifth, sixth, and further years of undergraduate study are higher than those for the first four years, because a student who graduated in four years would be earning at the college-graduate level, not the high school–graduate level

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what percentage of college students graduate in 4 years

U.S. College Graduates

The number of college graduates has steadily increased in the past decade, especially among those earning bachelor’s degrees. Graduation rates have also increased overall, especially at public, 4-year institutions; college graduation statistics suggest greater student success at these institutions.

  • 4-year institutions average a 60.4% graduation rate; the number may be higher among students who take longer than 6 years to graduate.
  • 2-year institutions average a 31.6% graduation rate.
  • Among students at 2-year and 4-year institutions, the graduation rate is 46.2%.
  • 1.01 million college graduates earn associate’s degrees in a year.
  • 1.98 million college graduates earn bachelor’s degrees.
  • 820,100 graduates earn master’s degrees.
  • 184,070 earn doctorate or professional degrees.
  • 99.5 million or 39% of adults over 18 have earned a bachelor’s degree or higher.
  • There are 59.7% more bachelor’s program graduates than there were 20 years ago and 20% more than there were 10 years ago.
  • College graduation rates at public institutions have increased 15% since 2010.
  • Bachelor’s degree seekers are statistically more likely to graduate than associate’s degree seekers.
Line Graph: College Graduation Rates by Entrance Year Among Bachelor's Degree Seeking Students

Historical Graduation Statistics

College graduation statistics suggest today’s national population is the most educated in United States history. The rate of college graduates among citizenry is on the rise. The college graduation rate among students is also trending upward.

  • In 1900, college graduates nationwide earned 27,410 bachelor’s degrees.
  • In 1910, 3% of adults over 25 years of age had a postsecondary degree.
  • In the subsequent 30 years, the number of college graduates increased by an estimated 110%.
  • By 1940, 4.2 million or 4.6% of U.S. adults over 18 years of age were 4-year college graduates.
  • The rate of 4-year college graduates among the adult population increased 704.3% in the subsequent 80 years or by a factor of 8.8% per year.
  • Since 2000, the rate of college graduates with associate’s degrees in the U.S. has increased by 28.9%.
  • The number of college graduates in the United States increased by 95.3 million or 2,269%.
  • In 1970, 176,310 or 30% of bachelor’s program graduates majored in education; 115,400 or 13.7% graduated with degrees in business.
  • 50 years later, 386,200 or 19.5% of bachelor’s program graduates earn degrees in business; 82,621 or 4.2% graduate with degrees in education.
  • In 1970, 87,670 or 37.2% of master’s program graduates majored in education; 26,490 or 11.2% graduated with degrees in business.
  • 50 years later, 192,180 or 23.4% of master’s program graduates earn degrees in business; 146,370 or 17.8% graduate with degrees in education.
  • In 1970, 17,440 or 26.8% of doctorate and professional degree holding graduates majored in legal studies; 15,990 or 24.6% graduated with degrees in healthcare.
  • 50 years later, 80,310 or 43.6% of doctorate and professional program graduates hold degrees in healthcare; 34,540 or 18.8% hold degrees in legal studies
Line Graph:Number of College Graduates Between 1971 and 1999

College Graduates by Major

College graduation statistics indicate a shift in the popularity of certain major disciplines. A majority of college students graduate with degrees in STEM fields, and most STEM graduates are bachelor’s degree earners. Business and healthcare degrees are also common among graduates.

  • 730,394 or 18.3% of college graduates earn degrees in STEM fields.
    • 94,487 or 12.9% of STEM graduates earn associate’s degrees.
    • 432,077 or 59.2% of STEM graduates earn bachelor’s degrees.
    • 168,096 or 23% of STEM graduates earn master’s degrees.
    • 35,734 or 4.9% of STEM graduates earn doctorate or professional degrees.
  • 699,505 or 16.7% of graduates earn business degrees.
    • 117,782 or 16.8% of business graduates earn associate’s degrees.
    • 386,201 or 19.5% of graduates earn bachelor’s degrees.
    • 192,184 or 27.5% earn master’s degrees.
    • 3,338 0.48% earn doctorate or professional degrees.
  • 631,486 or 15.8% of graduates earn degrees in healthcare.
    • 181,056 or 28.7% of healthcare graduates earn associate’s degrees.
    • 244,909 or 38.8% of healthcare graduates earn bachelor’s degrees.
    • 125,216 or 20.4% of graduates earn master’s degrees.
    • 80,305 or 12.7% earn doctorate or professional degrees.
  • 444,754 or 11.1% of graduates earn degrees in liberal arts and sciences.
    • 397,926 or 89.5% earn associate’s degrees.
    • 44,262 or 10% earn bachelor’s degrees.
    • 2,473 or 0.56% earn master’s degrees.
    • 93 or 0.02% earn doctorate or professional degrees.
  • 257,950 or 6.4% of graduates earn education degrees.
    • 16,182 or 6.3% of education graduates earn associate’s degrees.
    • 82,621 or 32% education graduates earn bachelor’s degrees.
    • 146,367 or 56.7% earn master’s degrees.
    • 12,780 or 5% earn doctorate or professional degrees.
  • 39.3% of graduates earning associate’s degrees major in liberal arts and sciences, general studies, and humanities; 17.9% major in health professions and related programs while 11.6% major in business.
  • 19.5% of college graduates earning bachelor’s degrees major in business; 12.4% major in healthcare and related programs while 8.1% major in social sciences and history.
  • 23.4% of graduates earning master’s degrees major in business; 17.8% major in education while 15.3% major in healthcare.
  • 43.6% of graduates earning doctorate degrees major in healthcare; 18.8% major in law and legal studies while 6.9% major in education.

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