"The indispensable first step to getting the things you want out of life is this: decide what you want.
Congratulations! You will soon be graduating and have plans to make the next educational step but you aren't sure which option to choose: whether to attend a two-year college first or go straight to a four-year college. Which is the better choice for you? Here is some more information about two-year colleges, as well as list of pros and cons of two-year colleges. I highly recommend the College Board resources that can help you, which are listed at the end of this article, as well as this list comparing two-year and four-year colleges from Northeast High School College Advising.
As you make this important decision, you want to be sure you receive up-to-date information and good advice. Therefore, talk with several knowledgeable adults you trust, such as a guidance counselor and teachers who know your strengths. More information about guidance is available at the end of the article.
About Two-Year Colleges
What is a Community College?
A community college or junior college is the most common type of two-year college. It is a public school run by the state university system. These colleges offer many types of educational programs, including those that lead to degrees and certificates and that serve as job-entry educational experience. Other types of associate degrees are good preparation for transfer to a four-year college where graduates can earn a bachelor's degree.
There are more than 1,300 two-year colleges in the U.S. These include the following kinds of institutions:
- Technical colleges are two-year state colleges that teach knowledge and skills leading to specific careers. You can complete a program in two years or less and be ready for a job.
- Community colleges are two-year colleges that enable you to start on a bachelor's degree. You can take your first two years at a community college and then transfer to a four-year university to finish. Or you can take a career program leading directly to a job.
- Combined community and technical colleges enable you to start on a bachelor's degree and transfer after two years, or you can enroll in a technical program to learn skills that lead directly to a career.
Academic Degrees and Certificate Programs
Depending on your career choice, you may only require a certificate program which can be completed in 12 months studying full time. Terminal Technical degrees are programs that concentrate on a specific field such as nursing or computer networking. These programs consist primarily of the core subject classes with only a few general classes like math and some social sciences. For some careers, the Associate's Degree program is all that is needed. Students who graduate from a two-year college can leave with an associate's degree in liberal arts, business, computers, firefighting, culinary arts, nursing, and more.
Some students don't know what they want to study in college. At a four-year-school, they are considered "undeclared" majors. By the end of their sophomore year, they will need to declare a major. Unfortunately, during those two years of figuring out their path, they might have missed taking prerequisite courses they need to graduate and would have to add on an unanticipated extra semester or two. In this situation, many "undeclared" students decide to study for one or two years at a local community college.
Tip: While attending the two-year college, a student takes care of many of the courses required for any four-year program and can earn an Associate's Degree as well.
For those students who wish to continue their education beyond the college level, they can transfer the credits to a private or public four-year college. In many cases, there are articulation agreements, or standing agreement, with universities so that the student's admission is guaranteed and most or all of their credits will be accepted. Many of these agreements include the university approving the curriculum in advance. In these cases where the university pre-approves the curriculum, all of the student's academic credits will be accepted.
Tip: Planning is the key to making a transfer work! If you anticipate transferring to a 4-yr-college, you will want to plan in advance to ensure that the credits you earn will transfer and be applied toward a bachelor's degree at the four-year college you hope to attend.
Applying to Community Colleges
Applications for admission are straightforward, and acceptance for most programs is guaranteed to students with evidence of a diploma from an accredited high school, or an equivalency diploma. Current high school seniors must demonstrate adequate scholastic achievement based on their junior or latest senior average. To apply, request that your official transcripts be mailed to the college Admissions Office from your high school and any colleges you attended. Once your file is complete, you will receive a decision letter in the mail. Each academic program has specific entrance requirements, established to ensure student success, so some programs may be more selective and require certain classes or test results in high school for entrance. Because most programs are open admission, SAT scores are not required.
Tip: Community colleges do not have unlimited spaces, so plan to get your applications in early!
Tuition and Financial Aid
On average, the annual average tuition for in-state students is much lower than four-year institutions, and financial aid is still available. The Federal Pell Grant is open, so you can even qualify if you go part-time. The Federal government offers grants, loans, and work-study to qualifying students attending any accredited postsecondary institution, and each state has grants and scholarships available to qualified full- and part-time students.
Tip: Tuition doesn't cover the cost of books, fees, and transportation, so you will need to include those items in your budget.
Meeting the Diverse Needs of Students
In order to succeed in college, you need a solid foundation in reading, writing, and math skills. Unless you build them in high school, you may have to take remedial, or catch-up, courses (also called developmental or basic skills courses ) when you arrive at a community college. These courses don't count toward your degree, so graduating will take you longer and cost you more if you're not prepared.
You'll probably take placement tests when you start college. The results will show whether you need to take any catch-up courses before beginning college-level study.
Community colleges provide diverse and non-traditional students with multiple opportunities in which to receive support. These typically include a Writing Center, Peer and Professional tutoring, Academic Support Services, and English language immersion programs. Workshops and programs are usually available during both the summer and the academic year.
Tip: If you know you may need extra support in areas such as reading, math, or English as a Second Language, find out as soon as possible which services are offered at the school where you applying to learn more about your options.
Opportunities for high school students
In order to learn more about two-year colleges, think about the following options:
- Taking a course: In some school districts, students have the option to take classes at a community college to fulfill both high school and college credits. Inquire with the guidance counselor at your school for more information and to see what is available.
- Attending a college fair: Here you can talk to a college representative and pick up literature on the programs. You may also choose to sign up for a tour of the campus and attend an information session with an admissions counselor.
- Talking with your guidance counselor: You guidance counselor is a great source of information about options and steps to follow the path that you choose. Your counselor will also be able to help you identify what your options are. Many schools offer evening workshops on postsecondary options, applying for financial aid, and much more – take advantage of these opportunities whenever possible!
Pros and Cons of Two-Year Colleges
To help you think about what might be best for you, here's a breakdown of the pros and cons of two-year colleges.
Table 1: Advantages and Disadvantages of Two-Year Schools
Advantages of Two-Year Schools
Disadvantages of Two-Year Schools
Entrance requirements – Most two-year schools have open enrollment policies which is good for students who struggled in high school. SATs are not required.
Majors – There is usually a limited variety of majors to choose from, especially if you want to transfer to a specific college or university in the future.
Costs – Tuition is lower at the two-year colleges, which will save the student or his family a considerable amount of money. Most two-year colleges do not have living facilities on campus, so students will live in the local area.
Prestige – Many people tend to think a university is more prestigious than a community college and provides a better education. You can get an excellent education from either a two- or four-year college, but it is important to find a program that matches your needs and goals.
A degree in two years – If a four-year college isn't right for you, look for associate degrees from community colleges and technical colleges that will help you advance your career.
Higher degree – Students must transfer to another school to pursue a bachelor's degree, which is also a requisite for a master's or doctoral degree.
Transfer programs – Students who are unsure of what they want to do can take general education courses to find out their interests and abilities and then transfer as third year students at the university pursuing the major they desire.
Transferring credits can be very difficult – Sometimes it's easy to transfer your community college course credits to a four-year school, but sometimes it's not. If you plan to transfer to a four-year school (or are considering this), be sure to find yourself a good advisor! The trick is to take classes that you know will transfer easily.
Transition from high school - If you didn't do well enough to get into a school of your choice, a community college can be a great transition. Remedial classes are available to help students prepare, and if you prove yourself with a high GPA at a community college, acceptance to a four-year school will be much easier.
Different atmosphere - These schools are geared to the needs of commuter students, so you won't find the vibrant and fun community life that comes with living on a college campus. It's also harder to get to know your fellow students on a community college campus than at a four-year school.
Faculty – Most two-year college classes are taught by people with a master's degree in their subject area (as opposed to graduate students in many universities) and the teacher-pupil ratio is usually smaller.
Research – Students have less access to research being done by faculty members and virtually no chance to get a job working on the faculty's research because most two-year college professors are adjuncts and don't do research on campus.
Great for nontraditional students – Community colleges offer flexible scheduling, making it possible for students to both work and take courses.
Fewer campus resources – At a community college, you're less likely to have a high-quality college library, student center, and other perks of a university.
Close to home – If you're not ready to leave home or can't afford to do so, look at nearby community colleges.
Too much "home" – For some recent high school graduates, living at home is not where they want to be. Also, being close to home may also mean that you are juggling school, family, and work responsibilities at the same time.
What's right for me?
College Counseling Director Jerome A. Cole offers the following advice in this video from MonkeySee: Think about your goals and what you want to do.
- What careers interest you?
- Which colleges offer the programs that match your goals?
- What is the typical amount of education needed for the kind of career you're interested in?
- Do you want to experience a variety of different classes and participate in on-campus activities?
For more help answering these questions and others, see the College Board's Know Yourself section of their website.
While you may save time and money at a two-year college, as you begin looking at programs, you may also discover that:
- what you want to do requires a four-year degree (or more)
- the kinds of activities you would like to do aren't offered at your local community college
- you are eligible for a scholarship to a four-year college
- your grades are high enough to get into a four-year college.
On the other hand, you may also learn that:
- you need some extra help in a certain area
- what you really want to do can be achieved with courses at a nearby at a local two-year program
- a smaller program at a community college will give you more personal support
- a two-year college fits your budget, schedule, and responsibilities.
That's why it is so important to talk with your guidance counselor and other adults who can guide you through this process. They will help you understand your options and they may also suggest ideas that you hadn't thought of before. They may also help you take steps that you didn't think were possible, such as applying for financial aid or applying for a program you thought was too difficult.
Last but not least, make sure your counselor understands your goals and your strengths. If you need additional support or aren't getting the help you need from your counselor, find a teacher or other trusted adult who knows you well and can help you find the best match. An experienced advisor is more likely to help you find the right fit, and it may be worthwhile to talk to a variety of people who can discuss different options. In addition, you want to make sure that your advisors are willing and able to help you explore the right options for you. A two-year college may be the best fit for you, but you may also have more options for attending a four-year college than you think! If you feel that you are not receiving good advice or that your choices are being limited, look for other counselors, teachers, or adults to help you with this process.
You can get an excellent education from either a two- or four-year college. Which college you choose should be determined by your personal career goals, your academic history, and your available finances. As you begin to understand what your options are, your decisions will become a little bit clearer and you will soon be on your way to the future!