• To earn a fast online degree, you need a clear idea of what you want to major in.
  • AP courses, transfer credits, prior learning assessments, and work/life experience credits can expedite graduation
  • Accelerated programs have pros and cons; they may not be a good match for all learners
  • Certain academic disciplines, such as business, nursing, and education, typically offer more accelerated program options

A bachelor's degree increasingly functions as the minimum degree required for entry into well-paid career paths with strong growth potential. Data published by the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) shows that the median earnings of bachelor's degree-holders are 40% more per week than those with only associate degrees and nearly 65% more than workers with only high school diplomas.

Still, many people lack the time and money needed to complete four years of study in college. Fortunately, several bachelor's programs that reduce typical graduation timelines — including accelerated degree programs — can be found in today's academic landscape.

The Importance of Having a Plan

Students seeking to earn a degree fast need a plan informed by research and guided by timely decisions. Admissions counselors and career planners stress several factors that support prompt degree completion: researching educational requirements for career paths that interest you, seeking online degree programs that match your interests, and digging into those schools' admission requirements so you can tailor your pre-application preparations to meet them.

Committing to a major early — ideally, before you begin to apply to colleges — can also help you graduate faster. High school students and adult learners can take advantage of resources designed to help individuals pick a major. Students in high school can take college-level courses to gauge their interest in different topics and expedite graduation, while adult learners can enroll in free online courses that engage their intellectual and academic interests and help narrow a broader list of majors.

Four Ways to Earn a Degree in Less Time

Learners with a well-designed plan can take advantage of several options that lead to faster graduation timelines: advanced placement courses, prior-learning assessments, transfer credits, and college credits granted on experiential grounds.

AP Courses

Advanced placement (AP) courses help students earn college credits while still in high school. AP courses deliver an educational experience akin to what a learner would encounter in a first-year college class. These classes culminate in exams; if you earn a sufficiently high score on your exam, you can apply AP course credit toward your college degree.

AP classes also look good on college applications, as they signal a commitment to learning and a student's ability to succeed at the postsecondary level. AP courses also save students money. Colleges increasingly calculate tuition on a per-course basis, and receiving credit for AP classes may reduce the number of courses you need to take to complete your degree.

AP courses often help students meet some of their general education requirements. Adult learners returning to school may also be able to transfer AP credits into their degree programs.

Prior-Learning Assessments

Some colleges grant advanced standing in degree programs based on the results of prior-learning assessments (PLAs). These assessments evaluate a candidate's extra-institutional experiences for potential college credit. Policies vary among colleges, but adult learners returning to school may qualify for college credits based on experiences like employment training and military service.

The College Level Examination Program (CLEP) consists of 33 standardized examinations designed to assess the learning experiences of college candidates. Likewise, the Council for Adult and Experiential Learning evaluates portfolios that demonstrate knowledge of a particular academic subject for potential college credit. Subject-specific exams, including DSST tests and the International Baccalaureate program, provide other options.

Not all schools accept CLEP or non-CLEP PLAs. Check with your target schools to arrange any examinations or portfolio evaluations.

Transfer Credits

One of the most common ways to earn advanced program standing is to transfer in credits from community colleges or other accredited higher education institutions. College applicants with existing credits or degrees can significantly reduce their completion timelines and save money. Students may be able to use transfer credits to meet elective and core course requirements, depending on the school's standards and the content of the eligible classes.

Learners may also apply existing credits toward different types of degrees. For example, credits earned as part of an associate degree usually transfer into bachelor's programs. If you hold a master's degree and wish to supplement it with a bachelor's in another area, you may also be able to apply some of your graduate-level credits to your new undergraduate program.

As with other methods of securing advanced standing, schools differ in their transfer credit policies. The most generous policies allow learners to transfer in up to 75% of their program's requirements, theoretically making it possible to earn a bachelor's degree in less than one calendar year. Other schools implement tighter limits, restricting transfer credit maximums to half of the typical graduation requirements (or less). Check specifics with the academic department or school that hosts your target program before you apply.

Work and Life Experience Credits

Some colleges expand the range of credit-eligible experiences beyond schooling into professional and experiential areas. Thus, you could also earn advanced standing for work and/or life experiences, depending on the type of learning you have accrued and the transfer credit policies of your target college.

Standards and processes for earning work and life experience credits vary between schools. Common examples include portfolios that document your career experience and relevant abilities, corporate training, non-degree professional programs, professional licenses and certifications, and military experience.

Competency-based education represents another way in which colleges may respond to the unique proficiencies and abilities of their students. In this format, students can advance in their programs when they demonstrate mastery of essential knowledge and skills, rather than proceeding according to fixed timelines.

The combined power of experiential credits and competency-based learning can dramatically reduce the amount of time required to complete a degree.

Accelerated Degree Programs

Accelerated degree programs offer another way to earn a fast online degree. Schools structure these programs in various ways, but one of the most common approaches takes advantage of compressed course schedules. Instead of typical 15-week semesters, accelerated programs feature terms as short as four or five weeks. These programs do not achieve time savings by eliminating academic content. Rather, they reward students willing to work harder to earn their degrees in less time.

Instead of typical 15-week semesters, accelerated programs feature terms as short as four or five weeks.

Such programs function in several different ways. One common configuration sees students limit themselves to 1-2 courses per term so they can focus on material in intense bursts. If students are able to take classes year round, this approach makes it possible to graduate in as little as half the usual time.

Another approach allows degree-seekers to combine competency-based models with course acceleration to compress the typical degree completion timeline. Sometimes referred to as flexible, flex-choice, or hybrid programs, these options offer a path to graduation that may be as short as 18 months, even without transfer credits.

Graduate programs have also increasingly embraced accelerated structures, making it possible to earn an advanced degree in less than 2-3 years. All accelerated programs come with pros and cons that you should carefully consider as you plan your educational path.

Mature, committed, and confident learners seeking to change careers, increase their earning potential, and/or accelerate their entry into the workforce tend to make the best candidates for accelerated programs.

Pros of Accelerated Programs

  • Earn Your Degree Faster

    As stated in this guide's intro, BLS statistics show that bachelor's degree-holders out-earn those with only associate degrees, those with some college schooling, and those with only a high school diploma (or less). Accelerated programs enable students to enter the workforce and qualify for higher salaries faster.

  • Start Your Education Sooner

    Many accelerated programs offer compressed terms throughout the year, making it possible to begin studying every few weeks rather than waiting for the beginning of the fall or spring semester. This alone can help prospective students begin their studies and graduate several months sooner.

  • Set Your Own Schedule

    A majority of online bachelor's programs offer ample scheduling flexibility, but accelerated structures may provide even more. The most flexible programs enable degree-seekers to move through course content as quickly as they like. However, keep in mind that accelerated programs may impose stricter admission requirements than traditional programs.

  • Experience Less Downtime Between Semesters

    Many accelerated programs eliminate downtime between semesters, running on compact terms that continue throughout the calendar year. Learners typically enroll in classes continuously rather than taking summers off. This can help degree-seekers stay in prime learning mode; they won't have to redevelop good study habits after extended breaks.

  • Save Money

    Accelerated degree programs — especially those delivered online — can also offer significant cost savings compared to traditional structures. Since these programs require you to spend less time in school, they may cut your costs accordingly. According to a 2019 Investopedia analysis, you could save more than $9,500 by reducing your graduation timeline by six months.

Cons of Accelerated Programs

  • You Must Be a Self-Motivated Learner

    The intensive structure and schedule of accelerated programs demand that learners display high levels of self-motivation to succeed. Courses and assignments move quickly, and students who prefer to master material at a slower pace may find traditional programs a better match.

  • Shorter Classes Mean Heavier Workloads

    When you earn a degree fast, you do the same amount of work in a much shorter time frame. By definition, this means you can expect heavier workloads. Students seeking to balance full-time studies with existing work or family commitments may have a hard time resolving scheduling conflicts that could arise.

  • Courses Are Paced Faster

    Everyone learns differently. Some people excel in fast-paced learning environments like these, while others feel more comfortable building familiarity with material and taking breaks between semesters.

  • Online Courses Provide Less Face-to-Face Interaction

    A majority of accelerated degree programs feature online delivery formats, meaning that students will not have the opportunity to interact with their instructors face-to-face unless they live close to campus and make an in-person visit on their own time.

Popular Accelerated Online Programs

Accelerated program offerings vary among institutions and cover several academic fields. However, schools tend to offer certain subjects at accelerated paces more often than others. Examples include nursing; education; business; and specialized business fields like administration, accounting, finance, marketing, and industry-specific management programs.

Various factors inform this trend. Many accelerated nursing programs require applicants to hold existing credentials, such as an active nursing license, to qualify for admission. In such cases, accelerated structures reflect students' existing familiarity with the subject matter. Education represents a similar case — many accelerated programs build on an existing knowledge base or a professional license to deliver advanced/specialized teaching credentials.

In the field of business, many working professionals seek degree upgrades to qualify for advancement or higher-paying positions. As such, accelerated learning represents a pragmatic approach that reflects the field's highly competitive nature.

Frequently Asked Questions

What is the fastest way to earn a degree?

Accelerated degree programs with the shortest potential completion timelines tend to combine competency-based learning models with fast-paced structures. These programs may allow participants to graduate in as little as 18 months. However, these are uncommon. For most programs, covering course material in short bursts over accelerated terms is the fastest option.

What are accelerated degree programs?

Accelerated degree programs depart from traditional structures that lock students into a few quarters or semesters per calendar year. Instead, they reduce term lengths to as little as four weeks, allowing degree-seekers to move through material more quickly and graduate ahead of the normal schedule.

What is the difference between accelerated and traditional online programs?

Traditional online programs adhere to a standard quarter- or semester-based structure. Many also use cohort models, which move all students through the program at the same pace. Accelerated online programs empower motivated learners to work at a faster pace, earning credits and moving toward degree completion along rapid timelines.

Are accelerated degree programs more difficult?

The course content, assignments, and learning materials featured in accelerated programs do not generally differ from those in traditional programs. However, some learners may find the pace more challenging, particularly if they must balance their studies with jobs, parenting duties, and/or other commitments.

What are the requirements for taking an accelerated program?

While admission requirements vary from one accelerated program to the next, school officials generally prefer candidates with a demonstrated history of strong academic performance and independent learning. Depending on the program, applicants may also need a strong academic or professional background in a related subject area.