How to Earn a Bachelor's Degree: Your Complete Guide

How to Earn a Bachelor's Degree: Your Complete Guide

15 minute read

Earning a bachelor's degree is a transformative and exciting journey, but navigating the complexities of higher education can feel overwhelming. If you haven’t been to college yet or haven’t been in school for a while, we can help. 

Whether you're a high school graduate, a working adult seeking career advancement, or someone considering a career change, our guide on how to earn a bachelor's degree can help you navigate your way to graduation.

What Is a Bachelor’s Degree?

A bachelor’s degree is the most common degree people think of when they hear “college degree.” Students typically complete a four-year program at a college or university. At this level, students usually study a broad range of subjects, including general education requirements such as math, science, literature, and social sciences. 

Additionally, students have the opportunity to choose a major that aligns with their career goals and interests.

Not everyone needs to earn a bachelor’s degree straight out of high school. Adults can return to college to finish a degree they started earlier or to earn a whole new degree. Also note that a bachelor’s degree isn’t always the end of an educational journey. Depending on your career path, it might be one of several steps you take, such as earning a teaching certificate or going on to pursue a master’s degree.

Is a Bachelor’s Degree Important?

While a bachelor’s degree isn’t necessary for all jobs and careers, it can boost your earning potential and career opportunities. According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, those with bachelor’s degrees earn, on average, hundreds of dollars more per week than those with only a high school diploma. Throughout your lifetime, that adds up!

Additionally, bachelor’s degrees can open up new career opportunities. That’s because your educational journey isn’t only about studying your major. You’ll also learn essential life skills like critical thinking, textual analysis, effective communication, and time management. All of these are high-demand skills applicable across most industries and fields. Employers want to know they’re hiring people who can solve problems and manage their time.

Finally, going to college itself can be a great way to meet others who share your interests. You’ll likely develop a network of peers as you progress toward graduation. This can be a great way to network with others in the industry, including professors and advisors, as well as develop a cohort of professionals in your field.

How to Earn a Bachelor's Degree

Earning a bachelor’s degree may start before you even officially enroll in your chosen college or university. Many students choose to begin their academic journey by taking online classes that don't require an application. 

These classes allow students to gain a head start on earning college credits, which can be incredibly beneficial moving forward. Earning college credits before applying to college can save you time and money and shows admissions officers that you can handle the workload of college-level courses. It’s just one of the steps you can take on the road to earning your bachelor’s degree.

Choose Your Path

As you explore your college possibilities, work on narrowing down your choices to the best options for your goals, budget, and schedule.

Research and identify potential colleges that align with your academic interests, personal goals, and specific needs. This may involve reviewing college websites, attending college fairs, and seeking advice from guidance counselors or other trusted sources. Look at the school’s culture and activities on offer. What kind of student support do they offer? Where are they located? What are the class sizes? Every college is unique, so choose those that best align with your budget, lifestyle, and academic needs.

If you already know what you want to study or major in, you can take this into account as well when you build your final list of potential schools. If you don’t know what you want to major in, that’s okay, too. You can always try online classes and see which ones “fit” or which ones you most enjoy. Online courses are usually more affordable than the tuition you’d pay at your 4-year institution and can often be taken on your schedule, so they’re a great way to explore different academic paths and see which are the most interesting to you.

But don’t feel pressure to figure out your major before you get to school. Many students start their first year without knowing what they plan to study. 

Apply to College

The process of applying to college requires some planning, but it doesn’t have to be confusing or complicated.

Once you’ve narrowed down your choices, gather all the necessary information, such as admission requirements, application deadlines, and financial aid options. This information can typically be found on the college website or by contacting the college directly. 

Finally, submit your application, which will usually include completing an online application form, submitting transcripts and test scores, and writing an application essay

Some college have their own applications, while others accept the Common Application. The Common App offers students the convenience of applying to multiple colleges and universities across the United States using a single application. By eliminating the need to fill out separate applications for each institution, the Common Application makes the process much more efficient and user-friendly. 

Decide On Your School

You may get accepted to several schools and will need to choose which one to attend. However, it’s also okay if you don’t get into a college right away. This gives you time to take college-level classes elsewhere and start earning credits that will help you later when you do get in.

However, if you do find yourself in the position of choosing from multiple acceptances, trust your instincts and choose a college that best aligns with your goals, preferences, and needs.

Course & Graduation Requirements

There are usually several courses of study to consider at college. That’s because there are different types of bachelor’s degrees and majors within those types. For example, the Bachelor of Arts (BA) degree covers fields such as English, history, theater, or foreign languages, just to name a few. Some other types of bachelor’s degrees include (but aren’t limited to):

  • Bachelor of Science (BS)
  • Bachelor of Applied Arts (BAA)
  • Bachelor of Applied Science (BAS)
  • Bachelor of Architecture (B.Arch.)
  • Bachelor of Business Administration (BBA)
  • Bachelor of Fine Arts (BFA)
  • Bachelor of Science in Nursing (BSN)

It’s important to note that not all schools offer every type of bachelor’s degree. As you look for colleges, make sure you apply to those that offer the degree you intend to pursue.

Most 4-year institutions have standard liberal arts classes that everyone is required to take for graduation. This is so all graduates, regardless of their major, enter the professional world with a well-rounded education beyond specialized training in specific areas. StraighterLine offers affordable and flexible options for earning these general education credits online, freeing up your time to focus on your major or other classes of interest.

While you don’t need to decide your major before you get to college, it’s required to declare one before you graduate. A major is the specific field you’ll concentrate on during college, and your type of bachelor’s degree will reflect that. Online platforms like StraighterLine can help you fulfill prerequisite courses and earn credit for major classes, such as Microeconomics for business majors or Anatomy & Physiology I for nursing students.

How Long Does It Take to Earn a Bachelor’s Degree?

A bachelor’s degree typically takes about four years to complete. While that’s the standard, there are several factors to take into account when pursuing your degree. For example, some students might take a semester or whole year off for various reasons. Or, if you decide to change majors, you might need to retake a course or take a whole new set of prerequisites.

How Many Credits You Need

Each course at the college level is assigned a certain number of credit hours that represent the amount of time and effort expected from a student to complete the course. Typically, one credit hour corresponds to one hour of instruction per week over a semester (or an equivalent amount of time in a different academic term). For example, the standard three-credit course might involve three hours of class time per week throughout a semester. 

Most schools require around 120 credits to graduate, but this can vary based on your institution.

If you start college with credits already, such as from an AP class, summer program, or online learning, you’ll likely be able to complete your requirements sooner. 

Other Obligations

Jobs, family, and other outside commitments will play a role in how long it takes you to complete your degree. No matter how long it takes, try to persevere. Remember that a bachelor’s degree isn’t a race to see how quickly you can get it. Instead, it’s an investment in yourself that will change your life for the better, even if it takes more than four years.

How Much Does a Bachelor’s Degree Cost?

The cost of a bachelor’s degree varies based on several factors. Each of these should be taken into account as you look for and apply to schools.

Your Choice of School

State schools often come with lower tuition costs, particularly for in-state residents. Out-of-state students might pay more to attend a public school away from home, but it may still prove cheaper than a private institution. Private schools are generally more expensive overall, no matter where you come from. However, most schools offer financial aid and scholarships to help offset the costs.

Keep in mind that you’ll need to factor in costs like textbooks, dorms, and dining plans if you live on campus, commuting expenses if you live off campus, and other fees for things like clubs, athletics, and personal spending.

How Long It Takes to Complete

As we mentioned earlier, the average time it takes to complete a bachelor’s degree is four years. For some students, this isn’t the case. You may need to leave school for a while and return to finish your degree later. You might fail or withdraw from classes and have to retake them later on to keep up with your graduation requirements. If you change your major, especially if you change it more than once, you’ll likely have to start from scratch to meet all of your prerequisites. 

In other words, the longer it takes you to complete your degree, the more it could cost. 

Your Housing Situation

Living on campus will almost certainly cost more than living at home. This is why online learning is one of the most affordable options. It requires no dorms, no meal plans, and no commute. The more transferable credits you earn online, the fewer in-person classes you’ll have to take. You may even be able to graduate early!

How Can I Pay for My Bachelor’s Degree?

There are a variety of ways to pay for a bachelor’s degree. Many students combine at least a few of these methods to cover all the costs associated with college.

Pay For Yourself

While this isn’t a realistic option for everyone, some people pay for college themselves with savings or other income. This is great if you can afford it, as it eliminates future student debt and requires no minimum GPA to maintain.

Scholarships and Financial Aid

Scholarships are merit-based awards that students receive for academic achievements, talents, or other accomplishments. They’re typically granted by institutions, private organizations, or individuals and don’t require repayment, serving as a form of recognition or encouragement. However, there’s usually a GPA minimum and other terms or expectations required to keep a scholarship.

Financial aid, on the other hand, is a broader term encompassing various forms of assistance to help students cover educational expenses. It generally comprises need-based aid like grants, work-study programs, and loans. Students seeking financial aid from the government must fill out a Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA) form. 


Work-study is another type of federal financial aid program that provides part-time employment opportunities for eligible college students. Administered through FAFSA, work-study allows students to work part-time jobs, often on campus, to earn money that can be used to help cover their educational expenses. These jobs are typically related to the student's course of study or provide community service opportunities. Work-study is an excellent option for students looking to offset the costs of college while gaining employment experience.

Private Loans

Private student loans have pros and cons and may not be the right choice for everyone. Unlike federal loans, which are backed by the government and have fixed interest rates, private loans are provided by private lenders, such as banks or credit unions, and their terms can vary widely.

While private loans offer flexibility, they often have higher interest rates and may require a credit check or a co-signer. This makes them less accessible for students with limited credit history or those without a co-signer. Repayment terms may also be less favorable than federal loans, with fewer options for income-driven repayment plans or loan forgiveness.

A College Savings Account

A college savings account, commonly known as a 529 plan, is a tax-advantaged investment account designed to help families save for the future educational expenses of a designated beneficiary, typically a child or grandchild. These accounts are used for college education, including tuition, fees, room and board, and other qualified expenses.

Contributions to a 529 plan grow tax-free, and withdrawals for qualified education expenses are also tax-free. This tax advantage makes 529 plans an attractive option for families looking to save specifically for higher education. They are not, however, usually available to adult learners.

Employer Tuition Assistance

Employee tuition assistance is designed to help working adults enhance their skills, advance their careers, and contribute more effectively to their organizations. Employers may offer tuition assistance in various forms, including reimbursement for tuition and fees, scholarships, or direct payment to educational institutions. If you’re an adult learner looking to return to college, ask your HR department about this benefit.

How to Make Your Bachelor’s Degree More Affordable

In addition to getting help with paying for college, there are other ways to make your bachelor’s degree journey more affordable. If you keep in mind that every course you take at your traditional institution costs money (anywhere from $456 to $1,642 per credit hour for most 4-year colleges), then your plan should be to take advantage of cheaper courses elsewhere. 

Often, community colleges and online platforms like StraighterLine offer the same classes you’d take at a 4-year school but at a fraction of the cost. That means, by fulfilling as many general education requirements as you can via a more affordable alternative, you can save hundreds — or even thousands — of dollars earning your bachelor’s degree.

One caveat: make sure the courses you take online or at community college are transferable to your regular school. Your college’s website should have information about the credits they accept from outside institutions, or you can ask your academic advisor. 

What Comes After You’ve Earned Your Bachelor’s Degree?

You’ve earned your bachelor’s degree. Congratulations! Now what?

Enjoy Your Success!

Earning a bachelor’s degree is a big deal and a huge accomplishment. Be proud of the hard work you put into achieving this goal!

Look For a Job

While your new degree isn’t a guarantee of finding a job, it can certainly help. You’ll probably find all kinds of new opportunities open to you that you might not have had before.

Earn an Advanced Degree

For some, a bachelor’s degree is just one step on a path that will lead to a master’s or even a doctorate. Whether or not you pursue an advanced degree depends on your career goals and personal aspirations.

Get Started on Your Bachelor’s Degree with StraighterLine

StraighterLine has many for-credit college courses that can be taken by anyone at any time — no application necessary. The credits you earn can be transferred to over 150 partner colleges or thousands of other schools through the ACE credit referral program

StraighterLine is a simple and affordable way to earn credits toward a bachelor’s degree. Check out our complete list of 70+ courses you can take on your schedule and get started on your journey toward a degree.

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