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How Long to Complete a Degree?

Biological clocks, circadian rhythms, the red countdown timer at the crosswalk — we're hard-wired to be aware of the passing of time. No one knows this better than the busy student does. 

Whether you're a planner or a procrastinator, all students must reckon with the timing, balancing and scheduling of academic life. While we have lots of advice for fitting education into your life, it's also important to know how long the whole degree could take you from start to finish. 

So, how long will it take you? The short answer: it depends. 

On average, associate degrees take about two years and bachelor degrees take about four years if you attend full time every session. 

However, those numbers are averages based on traditional student experiences. Online students often have families, are working adults, and/or military service members and may need to take more time to complete a degree. 

Here are the two main factors that affect how long it takes to get to graduation for busy, adult learners. 

Credits and experience you already have

"Students coming to Columbia College who have taken courses or earned military credit previously are often able to shorten the time to degree completion," said Joie Hendricks, senior academic advisor at Columbia College Online Student Services. 

Even if you've never taken college classes before, you might be able to save time by getting credit for experiences. Students with a background in law enforcement may be able to earn college credit for police academy training in the PIC and PiLE programs

Students can also test out of classes by proving they already know the content. College-Level Examination Program (CLEP) exams and DSST exams are common ways to get credit for prior knowledge. 

Hendricks offers this advice for those looking to test out of classes,"Students interested in taking CLEP and DSST exams should always check with their advisor to ensure the exam will transfer in as needed and that taking a CLEP or DSST exam will not interfere with a student's residency requirement," Hendricks said. 

A manageable workload

"It's also possible for students to take advantage of our six-session structure to earn an associate's degree in under two years or bachelor's in as little as three and a half years," Hendricks said. 

If you can handle a greater workload while in school, finding a program with multiple sessions can help. You could graduate faster and start enjoying the benefits of your degree sooner. Shorter class sessions also mean it's easier to set your own pace and continue to adjust your workload as needed every eight weeks. You aren't committed to your class schedule for months, like with traditional semesters. 

"A full-time course load for an online student is two courses per eight-week session," Hendricks said. "With six sessions per year, a student can take 12 courses per year or up to 18 if the student can handle a greater workload. Our flexibility allows students to customize how long it takes to complete a degree."

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Higher Education, Degrees, Columbia College

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