By Susan Ott
Not so long ago, the only options for adults who wanted to go back to college (or perhaps go for the first time) were night school or weekend classes, given that most grownups can’t afford to quit work and go to school full-time. That could mean that a bachelor’s degree could take far more than the traditional four years to earn.
But online schools have now evolved to the point where they not only make school more widely available, but also potentially a lot faster too. Adults can now earn an accelerated online bachelor’s degree in about half the time of a traditional program, allowing them to enjoy the career benefits of a degree much sooner. The one caveat is that, in order to earn an accelerated online bachelor degree, you’ll need commit to working at a high pace to get through your program quickly.
Exactly How Long Do They Take?
A good rule of thumb in calculating the length of an accelerated degree program is that it will take roughly half the time of the same program in traditional form. Therefore, the average time it takes to complete an accelerated online bachelor degree program is between 18 months and 2.5 years. There are many factors that go into this calculation, from the specific school and major to how many classes you’re willing to take at one time. If you’re looking to complete your degree in the shortest time possible, expect to use most of your free time year-round for school until you’ve finished.
Program length can vary depending on your major. For example, this calculation changes a bit for an accelerated online bachelor degree program in education. Any degree that equips you to become a teacher will require a 12-20 week term of student teaching, in addition to your accelerated academic program. The student teaching component can’t be done online or in an accelerated format — it has to be done in-person, in a real classroom.
How Do They Work?
Most accelerated bachelor programs require you to take classes year-round with only very short breaks along the way to complete your degree quickly. While the formats vary by school, many that advertise a true accelerated degree offer intense 6- to 8-week terms, 48 weeks out of the year, in which you can take several classes at once. However, this format can vary. Some schools, which still subscribe to a traditional school calendar, advertise an accelerated degree which can be completed in four traditional semesters plus two summer terms. And finally, an online school such as Western Governors University has intense six-month terms in which you can take as many classes as you wish for one flat fee. One format is not necessarily better than another; the issue is finding the accelerated degree schedule that best fits your lifestyle, and the amount of stamina you have for concentrated study.
Keep in mind that this approach really means that you must complete more work in less time — your workload per class can be up to double what you would experience in a traditional-paced class. You’ll have more frequent tests and papers, more intense reading assignments, and any projects or added requirements will also need to be done in a shorter amount of time.
Many adults consider this a fair tradeoff for getting a degree quickly. But others can start to feel overwhelmed with such an accelerated pace. You should assume that you will need to spend 20-30 hours a week on school to for the fastest of these progarms. Some students are definitely able to accomplish this while still working a day job, but others may find it necessary to temporarily cut their hours at work or leave their job all together to earn their bachelor’s degree at this pace. It’s also true, however, that most online schools offer a good deal of flexibility. If you get half way through an accelerated program and need to either slow down or take a slightly longer than normal break, many schools will allow you to do so.
What Can I Do To Complete My Degree in the Shortest Time Possible?
Here are some keys to think about as you research accelerated bachelor’s degree programs in your career specialty:
- Set Aside The Time
Be realistic about how much effort an accelerated degree will take. Don’t expect to be able to take on extra projects at work, juggle a family, keep up with hobbies and have a lot of leisure time while completing your degree. What used to be “free” time will be taken up by school. Start out with a low full-time course load (usually 12 credit hours per term) and then decide if you can up the pace. Obviously, the more you take, the more quickly you’ll finish. Keep in mind, however, that you have to actually pass your courses to earn your degree!
- Transfer In Any Credits That You Can
Many adult students have already completed some college work. If that’s the case with you, use it to your advantage by working with your new school to transfer in as many of those previous credits as you can (see this list of online schools that accept lots of credit transfers). Some online schools also offer credits for life and professional work experience, so look into that option as well. The more credits you can start with, the less coursework you’ll have to complete in your program, shortening the time it takes to earn your degree.
- Stay Committed To Your Major
To succeed at earning an accelerated degree, you’ll want to be sure of exactly which major you want to study in, and to stick to that track. Changing majors or even concentrations within a broader major after you’ve started can waste time and money. You may find that a previous class now doesn’t count towards your new major, meaning you have to circle back and take more credit courses. Don’t pick your major lightly. Before you go back to school, talk with some professionals in your field to find out which major has the potential to get you the job you really want. You may learn in the process that the career you originally had in mind isn’t as attractive as it once was, and that you need to reconsider your degree major.
Accelerated degrees require a serious commitment, but they’re growing in popularity because they offer real benefits. Earning a degree in half the typical amount of time can get you moving toward your career goal faster, and help you avoid a syndrome that occurs with many adult students where earning a bachelor’s degree becomes an almost endless process.
John O’Brien has been a writer, editor and consultant in higher education for over 14 years. His background includes writing for insidehighered.com and The Chronicle of Higher Education. As editor of College Degree Complete, he has advised hundreds of adult students on how to transfer colleges without wasting the credits they’ve already accumulated, to finish their degree programs in the fastest and most affordable way.