How Long Does It Take to Earn an Online Degree?

One factor when deciding to pursue a college degree is determining how long will it take to complete. Of course, online degree completion time varies depending on the level of the program, enrollment status, transfer credits, and more. Will you be enrolled full time or part time? Do you have credits you can transfer into the program? Will you need to complete an internship? What happens if you fall behind or are somehow unable to sign up for a prerequisite course?

All of these factors play into how long it will take to earn your degree online.

How Total Program Credits Influence Online Degree Completion Time

To estimate how long it will take to earn your degree, you must identify the number of total credits in your program. The number of program credits varies depending on the degree level.

The completion time also depends on whether you are enrolled in the program full time or part time. For a bachelor’s degree, full-time status equates to 12 credits per semester, while part-time enrollment is any amount less than 12 credits. Many online degree programs break semesters into two terms, meaning that when you are a full-time student, you only take one or two classes at a time instead of four or five.

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For example, a bachelor’s degree typically consists of 120 total credits. If each course is worth three credits, then the program has 40 courses total. If you are enrolled full time, it will take four years to earn your degree. In contrast, an associate degree is made up of 60 credits and takes about two years to complete, while a master’s degree typically ranges from 36 to 54 credits and can take up to three years to earn.

Degree LevelNumber of CreditsNumber of CoursesTime to Completion
Associate60202 years
Bachelor’s120404 years
Master’s36 to 5412 to 181 to 3 years
Doctorate36 to 4512 to 153 to 5 years

If you enroll in an accelerated degree program, you can earn your degree in a shorter amount of time. Accelerated online degree programs usually have a heavy course load and are fast paced. Instead of a typical 16-week term, accelerated programs offer terms five to 10 weeks long.

Some programs also offer year-round classes, which can also help you earn your degree faster.

How Transferring Credits Can Help You Earn Your Degree Sooner

If you have earned credits in the past, you probably don’t want them to go to waste. Transferring your credits toward your online degree program can not only help you keep those hard-earned credits, it will help you earn your degree sooner and save money. Most institutions accept credits from other accredited schools. However, note that many programs require that you complete a certain amount of credits through your school (e.g. the final 30 credits for a bachelor’s program).

For a bachelor’s degree, some institutions allow you to transfer up to 90 credits toward the program. The credits you transfer into an online bachelor’s degree program will likely apply toward general education requirements. This is because those are the courses commonly offered at any institution. You can also transfer credits from an associate degree, which is equivalent to about 60 credits, or the first two years of a bachelor’s degree.

Sometimes, you may be able to transfer credits for a master’s degree. Depending on the program, six transfer credits are typically accepted for online master’s degrees.

Transferring Life Experience Credits

If you don’t have any previously earned college credits, you can sometimes transfer credits from your life experiences and knowledge gained outside of the classroom. While assessed differently by each institution, these credits can come from your employment, military service, volunteer work, civic activities, independent study, or certifications. Referred to as prior learning assessment (PLA), these credits can apply toward associate, bachelor’s, and master’s degree programs. Be sure to ask your school what kind of PLA credits they accept.

Through your employment, you can earn college credits from the practical knowledge you’ve acquired in a professional setting. However, these credits do not necessarily focus on the theoretical knowledge you would normally gain through the program. To earn these credits, your college or the American Council on Education (ACE) will evaluate training you received in the workplace. Additionally, if you have earned any certifications throughout your career, they may be recognized as college credit as many national certifications meet professional and industry standards.

If you have served in the U.S. military, your military jobs and training can be evaluated for credit by your school or ACE. These credits are generally based on skills, knowledge, and training you gained through military service.

Another way to transfer life experience credits is through a portfolio assessment. If you don’t have any formal training or certifications, creating a portfolio helps show the college-level material you have learned from your work experiences. After you have submitted your portfolio to the school, college faculty evaluate it to determine how many credits can be applied toward your online program.

Earn Transfer Credits Through Exams

You may be able to earn transfer credits through various exam programs. These PLA programs award college credits based on your knowledge of different subject areas.

Commonly accepted for undergraduate programs, the College Level Exam Program (CLEP) consists of 33 single-subject exams and five general exams. The single-subject exams focus on material that is covered in college courses (for example, calculus or introductory business law). The general exams cover freshman-level knowledge, including college mathematics, English composition, humanities, natural sciences, and social sciences. If you pass all five general CLEP exams, you can earn up to 30 college credits.

Some college credits may be earned through Advanced Placement (AP) exams. Most colleges and universities accept credits from AP exams. Earning AP credit can help you skip introductory and general education courses, allowing you to both save money and earn your online degree sooner.

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Credits earned through DANTES Subject Standardized Tests (DSST) exams may be transferred into your program, too. A DSST exam costs only $85 — significantly less than tuition for a semester-long college course — and takes less than 90 minutes to complete. If you pass the exam, you’ll earn three college credits.

Of course, always make sure that your school accepts credits from any of these PLA programs before attempting to transfer them.

Factors that Can Increase Online Completion Time

Even if you have transferred previously earned credits, there are certain factors that may increase the time it takes to earn your degree. Some of these include required internships, clinical experience, or field work. However, if you are employed, you may be able to have those hours of professional experience count toward your program’s requirements.

If you have earned credits in the past that weren’t accepted for transfer, you might lose them. This may be because they didn’t meet conditions for transferring, such as minimum grade requirements. Or maybe the school accepts those credits, but your program doesn’t.

Taking the wrong courses can also extend how long it takes to earn your degree. Keeping in touch with your adviser ensures that you are on the right track and enrolling in the right courses. If you’ve taken a wrong course, have failed a class, or missed a course that is offered one semester each year, you can get stuck with having to tack on another semester.

Additionally, changing majors at any point throughout your program can add on to the online degree completion time. When you change your major, you change the program’s course requirements. However, some of the credits you have already earned through your original major may apply toward your new area, depending on which department each is in and how your school will apply them toward your degree.

Finally, if you are enrolled in classes part time rather than full time, it will take longer to graduate. While the estimated time to completion for a bachelor’s degree is typically four years, enrolling part-time means it could take six years to earn your degree.

Stay on Track

There are many factors that influence how long it takes to earn your degree online. Transferring credits you have earned in the past, enrolling in classes full time, and taking an accelerated program can help you earn your degree sooner. On the other hand, changing your major, enrolling part time, missing courses, and pausing to complete field work or acquire clinical experience can delay online degree completion time.

The best way for you to graduate as soon as possible is to stay on track. Keep in touch with your advisers and professors to ensure that you are enrolled in the correct courses. They are there to help you follow the right path.

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