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How to Earn a Bachelor's Degree in Less Than 4 Years

Feb 15, 2012 Jennifer Williamson, Distance Columnist | 0 Comments

College is expensive—and many students are looking for ways to reduce that cost. Others want to get into the job market earlier rather than later. Whatever the reason, plenty of people are asking the question: does a four-year degree really have to last four years?

The answer is yes—usually. But not always. It is possible to earn a Bachelor’s degree in less than four years. Here are a few steps you can take to do it.

Go to a college that offers a three-year degree program

Voters are frustrated with rising college costs—and state governments are responding. One of their strategies is to make development of three-year Bachelor’s programs mandatory in state schools. Rhode Island and Indiana have already taken this step, and Arizona, California, and Illinois are considering it. In addition, a handful of private colleges offer three-year programs.

In these programs, you typically earn the same amount of credits as you would in a Bachelor’s program. Summer studies are often required, and students often take only the courses that are necessary to graduate—no non-required electives. The cost savings comes in room and board; students in these programs pay approximately nine months less.


If you want to graduate early, talk to your academic advisor as soon as you get to school.

Take Advanced Placement

Advanced Placement tests will earn you credits at participating colleges—so if you pass the tests, chances are you could enter college with a handful of credits that could help you skip some classes. The most efficient way to do this is to pick your Advanced Placement classes and tests based on which classes are required your Freshman year in the colleges you plan to apply to. It’s likely Advanced Placement credits could help you skip more than one basic pre-requisite class your first semester.

Double up on your credits

Most colleges have basic class requirements for graduation in areas such as English, science, and math, as well as requirements specific to your major. However, in some cases, a class may count toward both your major and your basic requirements. If you can find classes like this, take as many as you can. It’s possible they could reduce the time spent earning your major.

Think outside the semester box

Most colleges offer summer classes. Some offer highly accelerated courses during winter and spring breaks as well. Take classes during your breaks if you want to shorten the time spent in college. You could potentially shorten your stay in college by an entire semester this way.

Take online classes

Online courses are flexible, which can make it easier for students to fit an extra class around traditional class schedules, work obligations, and other commitments. Many colleges offer online courses or classes that take place partially online, partially in the classroom. Some colleges offer entirely-online programs.

Test out

Some colleges will allow you to test out of certain requirements, particularly basic graduation requirements. Speak to your advisor to determine whether or not your college offers this option—and then take as many tests as you can. If you pass the tests, you could save yourself a significant number of credits.

Less time in school doesn’t automatically mean less work—in fact, usually it means more. Colleges usually require students to earn the same number of credits in a three-year as a four-year program, and fitting it all in can be grueling.  The steps you can take to reduce the number of credits you earn—such as testing out of some classes and earning Advanced Placement credits—are plenty of work in themselves, although they can be worth it in the time and money saved.

If you want to graduate early, talk to your academic advisor as soon as you get to school. Tell him or her your goal and enlist your advisor’s help in finding ways to meet it. If you do, you’ll be better able to identify which classes count for more than one requirement, which have test-out possibilities and online components, and your plans for taking classes over break and throughout the school year.


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