Life in the Fast Lane: All About Accelerated Online College Degrees

Reach Your Professional Goals Faster

As the name implies, accelerated programs offer a way for students to complete a certificate or degree program in a shorter period of time than traditional programs. These truncated programs can help participants save time and money, as well as get a head start on career pursuits. These programs are designed for motivated, energetic students who want to complete their education and move into their careers quickly.

However, accelerated degrees may not be the best choice for students who need extra time with schoolwork or those who must balance personal or professional responsibilities. The work in these programs is often nonstop, and it can be difficult to catch up once a student falls behind. However, pursuing an accelerated degree may be a good choice for students who are eager to tackle their education head-on.

This guide provides background information on accelerated programs, along with popular degree tracks, pros and cons, and resources to help prospective students decide whether or not an accelerated degree program is right for them.

Why Choose an Accelerated Degree Program?

Accelerated online degree programs are designed for working professionals who want to achieve their career goals quickly, while also saving money on school. These programs require students to adhere to demanding school schedules and balance heavy course loads. Accelerated bachelor's programs do not suit every type of student -- especially those who can only take classes on a part-time basis or students who need extra time to study. To learn more about what you can expect from accelerated online degree programs, keep reading this guide.

What Are Online Accelerated Programs?

Fast-track programs are…
  • A potential way to save on tuition costs by reducing the amount of time spent in school.
  • Well-suited for those who are organized and able to stay on top of things.
  • A means to get through college quickly.
  • Useful for students who can devote most of their attention and effort to school.

 

Fast-track programs are not…
  • Conducive for long-term recall of topics learned in class (when compared to traditional programs).
  • Good for those who tend to procrastinate and are not very organized.
  • For those who want to have the full "college experience."
  • For students who must juggle several other obligations, such as taking care of a child or working full time.

Pros and Cons of Online Accelerated Degrees

Pros:

Cohort structure Many online programs offer a cohort structure. This encourages students to learn together as a group, rather than individually.
Defined plan Sticking to a plan is crucial to making an accelerated program work. There are many ways a degree can be expedited, such as arranging classes so they are taken in an efficient order or maximizing the number of credits earned per class/term.
Money savings Spending less time in school can result in substantial savings. Students can return to work sooner, and they might save on tuition and academic fees.
Get the degree faster Getting a degree is often a means to an end. The sooner a student reaches graduation, the sooner they can advance their professional goals.
Focused learning Instead of learning 3-5 subjects at once, students in some programs focus on just one or two subjects at a time. Many students prefer this learning arrangement.

Cons:

Time might be tight With such an intense course load, it may be difficult to continue working while in school. Students may find they have to drop to part-time work or take a break in order to complete their accelerated degree.
Fewer program options Not every academic field can be accelerated, which means some degrees or concentrations may not be available in an accelerated program.
Prior college credit may be necessary While not always the case, many accelerated programs require students to enter with a certain amount of college credit.
Lots of studying Students may spend 20-30 hours per week studying, and they'll probably have a full course load during the summer term. Most accelerated degree programs require a large amount of intense study time.
A quick study Some accelerated programs compress classes into a shorter period of time. This means students must work harder to learn a large amount of material over a short amount of time.

How Do Accelerated Online Degree Programs Work?

To earn their degrees in a shortened time frame, students must study at a faster pace. Semesters are usually 15 weeks in length, whereas an accelerated online degree program may feature eight- or 10-week terms. This accelerated pace lets students complete a degree months or years earlier than traditional degrees. However, students enrolled in accelerated online degree programs complete the same number of credits as traditional degrees. Therefore, programs may compress classes into shorter terms, and students should expect more demanding class requirements.

Examples of Popular Online Accelerated Programs

Nursing: RN-to-MSN

How It's Accelerated

An RN-to-MSN accelerated program is designed for registered nurses who already have some nursing experience. These programs allow students to take courses that provide dual credit for BSN and MSN degrees, receive credit for prior degrees/experiences, and take classes year round.

Classes Taken

The exact curriculum depends on the specific program and a student's prior professional and educational background. There is also an opportunity for students to specialize in certain areas, such as nursing education. However, the following classes are usually found in the MSN component of an RN-to-MSN accelerated online program:

  • Nursing Technology And Data Management
  • Evidence-based Nursing Practice
  • The Modern Healthcare Environment
  • Nursing Research

On-campus Requirements

Even though most courses are offered completely online, due to the hands-on nature of the nursing practice students usually need to complete in-person clinical or practicum requirements. These might be completed at a student's place of work, at a local clinic or hospital, or as an on-campus intensive.

Business Management (MBA)

It usually takes about two years to earn an MBA, but accelerated programs can be completed in as little as one year. Classes are usually offered year round and in a compressed format, where students only take two or three classes at once. Each class lasts about 6-8 weeks. Accelerated online MBA programs may be especially well-suited for working adults. To further reduce the time of your education, you can also look intoonline MBAs with no GMAT requirement.

Classes Taken

Classes commonly found in accelerated MBA program include:

  • Global Business Strategy
  • Financial Strategy
  • Business Leadership
  • Supply Chain Management

Foundational courses

In order to finish in one year, students need to take certain business prerequisites, such as financial accounting and marketing. However, some new students may have already met these requirements while completing their bachelor's degree.

Bachelor's in Computer Science

How It's Accelerated

Most bachelor's degrees in computer science take four years to complete. However, students who already hold an associate degree can earn an accelerated computer science degree online in just 18 more months. A key element of accelerated programming is asynchronous courses, which can let students speed up their college experience.

Classes Taken

Typical courses students can expect to encounter in an accelerated computer science program include:

  • Project Management
  • Network Administration
  • Cloud Computing
  • Database Systems

Prerequisites

To be accepted into an 18-month accelerated program, students must have either an associate degree (preferably in a field related to computer science) or college credits/experiences equivalent to an associate degree. They may also be expected to have professional experience. Some programs also offer one-year accelerated computer science bachelor's programs to students who have earned a bachelor's degree in another major.

Learn more about
accelerated computer science programs
Master's in Accounting

How It's Accelerated

Traditionally, a master's degree in accounting takes a total of six years to earn: four years to earn a bachelor's degree and two years for a master's degree. However, a joint bachelor's/master's degree can be obtained in just five years. These programs include courses that meet both bachelor's and master's requirements.

Classes Taken

CPA requirements mandate a certain accounting curriculum, and accounting students can expect to take classes such as:

  • Advanced Accounting
  • Auditing Procedures
  • Business Law
  • Global Accounting

Both degrees from one school

Students interested in a joint bachelor's/master's degree in accounting usually need to earn both degrees from the same school. In order to gain admittance into the master's program, students may need to have already completed a certain number of lower-level credits.

Learn more about
accelerated accounting programs
Master of Social Work (MSW)

How It's Accelerated

Full-time students usually take about two years to earn a master of social work degree (after already earning a bachelor's degree). However, an accelerated master of social work program takes about 16 months to complete. Some colleges also offer joint bachelor's/master's programs that allow students to graduate with both degrees in about five years.

Classes Taken

Classes vary depending on the school. However, students in master of social work programs can expect to take classes like:

  • Social Welfare Policy and Services
  • Social Work Practice
  • Human Behavior in the Social Environment
  • Field Practicum

Program requirements

Applicants typically need to hold a bachelor's degree in social work or a related field from an accredited college. For advanced standing, students need a social work degree from a CSWE-accredited program. To apply for accelerated online degree programs, candidates usually submit transcripts, letters of recommendation, and a statement of purpose. Most programs do not require GRE scores, but applicants may need to show proof of experience in the field of social work through internships or volunteer work.

Learn more about
accelerated social work programs

Accelerated Degrees by Level and Life Experience

Why So Fast? Accelerated Degree vs. Traditional Degree

Accelerated programs can work well for those who are focused on the finish line. These programs usually require intense concentration and study -- what might normally take 4-6 years to complete is compressed into a much shorter period of time. Most accelerated programs follow a similar timeline, as outlined below.

Earning an 18-Month Accelerated Bachelor's Degree: A Timeline

Before Enrollment: Research
  • Figure out which school offers the area of study and degree of your choice in an accelerated format.
  • Calculate the total cost of attendance and financial aid options available.
  • Identify admissions requirements and whether you will be able to meet them. For instance, many accelerated online psychology programs require incoming students to have an associate degree or the equivalent.
  • Determine the technology requirements for remote learning, such as software and hardware requirements.
  • Find out if a program has on-campus or in-person requirements, and whether you'll be able to fulfill those expectations.
Enrollment: Apply
  • Complete the application.
  • Include all requirements, such as transcripts, personal statements, letters of recommendation, and/or proof of English proficiency.
  • Prove that you have already earned the required credits/degree to enter into the accelerated program.
  • Pay all fees up front and well before any deadlines.
  • Apply for and arrange financial aid, private student loans, scholarships, etc.
Attendance: Year One

Depending on the specific accelerated program, each academic period is divided into terms. During the first year of an accelerated bachelor's degree program, students take core major courses. There may also be a few general education classes, such as general science and writing.

Attendance: Year Two

The second year takes only six months. Many courses shift away from foundational subjects and lean toward more practical/applied areas. Students can expect to complete internships or practica at this time, if required. Additionally, they should begin their postgraduate job search process.

Graduation: Middle of Second Year

After approximately 18 months, students will have met all the requirements for their bachelor's degree. If postgraduate employment has yet to be secured, the job search process will continue through graduation.

Earning a Standard Four-Year Bachelor's Degree: A Timeline

Before Enrollment: Research
  • Find a school that offers a degree that suits your future career interests. This research process can take months.
  • Take a look at a program's required curriculum to get an idea of what you will learn. Also explore whether the program offers any concentrations that can help you specialize your skills and determine whether it requires field experience hours.
  • Review the admission requirements to see if you need to submit test scores or hold work experience. Many colleges require first-time students to submit SAT or ACT scores. Transfer students who do not have test scores may submit transcripts showing credits earned from an accredited college or university.
  • Find out about program details, such as the degree length, required credits, and residency requirements.
  • Speak with the financial aid office to verify the total cost of tuition and your potential financial aid package. Also look into state, institutional, and program scholarships.
Enrollment: Apply
  • Create an online account and submit an online application by the deadline. Colleges may also offer print applications.
  • Submit necessary residency paperwork along with supplemental admissions materials, including SAT or ACT test scores, transcripts, letters of recommendation, resumes, and/or personal statements.
  • Complete a FAFSA application to determine your eligibility for financial aid. Pay tuition and fees by the deadlines.
Attendance: Year One

In the first year of a traditional bachelor's program, students complete general education requirements. Students may take classes in English, math, social sciences, natural sciences, humanities, and foreign language. The majority of a first-year student's class schedule is comprised of core courses, although they may also take one or two courses in their major.

Attendance: Year Two

Students in their second year of study continue completing general education requirements, including science or communication classes. However, the second year provides students with the opportunity to take electives and classes in their chosen major. At this point in a student's education they have completed at least 50 credits -- nearly half of the credits needed to earn a bachelor's degree.

Attendance: Year Three

Students in the third year of a bachelor's program may need to submit paperwork to apply to their intended major's program. Some schools require students to take a test to gain entry into the program. A junior mostly takes classes in their major. At this point, students may also take an internship.

Attendance: Year Four

By the fourth year of a bachelor's program, students need to file for graduation. Their class schedule is comprised almost completely of major coursework and electives. Students may also take internships, capstone projects, or practicum courses. Learners who want to pursue a master's degree should begin applying for a program early in their fourth year, while students preparing to enter the job market should prepare their resumes.

Graduation: End of Year Four

To graduate with a bachelor's degree a student must earn around 120 credits. Depending on the program, students may also need to fulfill field hours to graduate. To accelerate graduation, students can sometimes take classes in the summer or take heavier course loads during the regular school year. For more information about accelerating your graduation timeline, visit this page.

Things to Consider When Choosing an Accelerated Online Degree Program

Not all accelerated online programs are the same. Each school has its own set of requirements and method of accelerating the learning process, and not all methods work for everyone. Prospective students must carefully research programs before enrolling to find a school that meets their needs. This section provides some helpful questions to consider when looking at different programs.

What are the credit requirements?

Determine how many prior college credits are needed for enrollment and how many credits make up the desired degree track. A school might advertise that a bachelor's degree can be obtained in one or two years; however, to adhere to this timeline, incoming students will need to bring in transfer credits.

How is the program accelerated?

Does the school compress traditional 16-week courses into half that time or does it offer classes year round? Depending on your schedule, you may be unable to commit the time required to one method or the other. For example, if you need to have your summers free, you will need to take compressed classes. However, if you don't have the time to handle the intensity of a compressed course load, taking classes year round may be a better fit. Additionally, maybe you want to start a family, get married, or work full time while attending school. Depending on your time commitments, it may make more sense to attend school part time.

How much will it really cost?

All things being equal, an accelerated degree is usually less expensive than a traditional one. However, the exact cost for tuition, the availability of financial aid, and/or the ability to work during school can mean a program with a higher base tuition might actually end up costing less.

What about in-person requirements?

Certain online degrees -- such as those in nursing -- require in-person clinicals or practica. Even though your degree is technically entirely online, you will need to make sure you can meet these in-person requirements.

Other Ways to Accelerate Your Online Program

Enrolling in an accelerated degree program is not the only way to finish a degree faster. By taking certain steps, students can graduate early, even when attending a traditional school. Here's how:

Take AP classes in high school. Not all schools grant college credit for Advanced Placement courses, and the ones that do usually require students to obtain a certain score on the Advanced Placement exam.

Get work experience. Some programs allow students to receive college credits by working or interning while attending school. Colleges may also award credit based on prior work experience.

Take dual-credit courses. Many colleges have special partnerships with local high schools that allow students to take classes that also give college credit.

Try the College Level Examination Program (CLEP). Students can earn college credit if they earn a certain score on a CLEP exam. Not all CLEP exams are approved for all college credits, so students should talk to advisors and school officials to see which CLEP exams will work for their goals.

Turn to outside instruction. External instruction could be from the military, government agencies, or professional organizations. To receive college credit, students should provide proof of their training and fill out an application requesting college credit.

Take extra courses. Whether taking summer classes or adding an extra course during the regular school year, taking extra classes can speed up the graduation process.

Saving Money With an Online Accelerated Program

Saving money is a huge draw for accelerated programs. Shaving six months or more off an education can lead to thousands of dollars in savings. However, earning an accelerated degree can still be expensive. This section discusses a few ways students can find savings and help pay for their accelerated degree.

Take as many courses as possible online. Depending on the school, online courses may be offered at a less expensive rate than traditional, on-campus classes.

Fill out the FAFSA. Nearly all schools require students to complete this form as part of the application process. Though it is a must for undergraduates, graduate students should fill it out, too.

Look for need-based financial aid. Need-based financial aid may be available through loans -- which must be repaid -- or grants/ scholarships, which do not need to be repaid.

Seek out merit-based financial aid. This type of financial aid can be awarded based on many different variables, such as academic merit or a student's area of study. Some aid may also be awarded for certain demographic characteristics, such as a student's race or life challenges they have overcome.

Look into employer tuition reimbursement. Some employers recognize that when their employees do well, the company also does well. These employers might have a tuition reimbursement program in place, where they will help students pay for college.

Advice From an Accelerated Program Graduate

Ashley Watkins Accelerated Program Graduate

Ashley Watkins completed an accelerated program with a concentration in nonprofit management. Here is some information about her experience.

Tell us a bit about your accelerated program.

I completed a graduate post-baccalaureate certificate program with a concentration in nonprofit management. It was housed under the school's graduate political science department. You must apply and are judged on the same criteria as the master's degree alternative. A student could graduate in a year going full time; however, I took my time and paid out-of-pocket and finished in around four years. This track was perfect for me because of the convenience and affordability it offered.

Did you enjoy the speed of the classes?

I liked the pace of my in-seat courses. I found that my graduate school instructors encouraged discussion and analysis so that most students grasped concepts easily. However, I did usually only take one course a semester. Someone going full time will have to dedicate more time to the program than I did.

What did you think of the online aspects?

Luckily, my certificate program was available entirely online, if you wanted. However, many of the classes were offered in-seat, as well. I chose a combination because I prefer in-seat courses, but the online options were great for my schedule as a full-time worker with pets at home. My online courses were also less expensive than my in-seat courses, which is a relief because there's not a lot of assistance available for graduate programs.

My online courses felt more challenging than my in-seat courses because you needed self-discipline to complete required readings and assignments by the deadlines. Also, you had to take the initiative to reach out to the professor or a fellow classmate if you didn't understand the lesson.

Any advice you might like to offer to those considering an accelerated program?

I think it's a convenient and affordable option for working adults. The fact that it's accelerated/abbreviated hasn't hindered my job opportunities. Instead, I've been considered more qualified than someone with just a bachelor's degree. On the other hand, if having a full master's degree is really important to you, consider if you'll be satisfied with an accelerated program degree/certificate.

Online Accelerated Program Resources

  • American Association of Colleges of Nursing: AACN represents the interests of undergraduate and graduate educational nursing institutions. The association provides publications and information about accelerated nursing programs.
  • AP Students: The Advanced Placement section of the College Board's website outlines how taking AP classes can benefit high school students.
  • CLEP: Administered by the College Board, the College Level Examination Program's website explains how students can test out of certain college classes.
  • DSST: An alternative to CLEP, the DSST program allows students -- including military personnel -- to receive college credit for learning acquired outside of a traditional classroom setting.