According to the American Association of Community Colleges, a 2-year college program enrolls almost half of all undergraduates in the United States each year. That means 13 million students pursue their future careers by obtaining an education at one of these institutions each year. These programs will go on to graduate about 25% of all the first-time, full-time students that take classes each year.
The two-year college is a vital pathway toward the more advanced educational opportunities that a four-year university offers. Students receive access to enhanced employment opportunities with this choice as well. By earning an associate’s degree, it is possible to advance toward a better job or the eventual bachelor’s degree that someone desires. Most programs require at least two years, but less than four years of full-time college work.
A 4-year university provides a larger institution for students to gain an accredited degree. Universities are different than colleges because of their size and potential availability of graduate programs. Some might have a medical or a law school that allows for the pursuit of a professional degree. Community colleges can get students started on that process, but they can’t lead to a completion of them.
There are several additional 2-year college vs. 4-year university pros and cons worth considering as well.
List of the Pros of a 2-Year College vs. a 4-Year University
1. It costs a lot less to attend a 2-year college.
Financial factors are one of the primary factors that students and families consider when attending a community college. You can get a head start on your career with this option without racking up a lot of debt. According to information published by the College Board, the average cost of tuition per year at a 2-year school in the United States is a little over $2,500. If you decide to attend a 4-year university instead, your costs could end up being 10 times higher than that.
Even if you compare the median costs alone, going to a 2-year college is going to cost nearly one-third less than what you’ll pay at a four-year university.
2. Community colleges can prepare you for a career in public service.
If you already know what career specialty you want to pursue after earning your high school diploma or GED, then a community college can help you to try out several vocational fields. If your dream is to work in public service, then your classes can help you to pursue an EMT path, firefighting, or law enforcement work.
Up to 80% of the people who serve their communities as police officers, firefighters, or emergency medical personnel take their initial training classes at their local community college.
3. You have the opportunity to improve your grades at a 2-year college.
If you spent your high school career pursuing athletics or extracurricular activities instead of focusing on your grades, then a two-year college can help you to correct that situation. Community colleges allow you to get your grades in order before you finalize the application to the university program you prefer. Although your transcripts will always be part of your paperwork that educational institutions want, the progress you show from high school to the associate’s degree program can give future admissions personnel more confidence in your ability to manage the rigors of an advanced program.
4. Community colleges help you to stay closer to home.
There are thousands of community colleges operating in the United States today. If you live in a community of 10,000 people or more, then there is an excellent chance that you can take classes within 20 minutes of your home. This advantage allows you to avoid the additional expenses of room and board as you start the work of getting your career off of the ground. Even if your parents don’t have room for you, it can be a lot of fun to find a place with a friend from high school to explore the freedom that life can offer as an adult.
5. You can still participate in your favorite sports.
Attending a community college won’t necessarily put you on the radar of a Big 5 power conference university, but you can still play many of the sports you enjoy. There are national programs for baseball, football, soccer, and other sports in the United States so that you can keep up with your athletics if you prefer. You can then transfer to a 4-year university to finish your career without being forced to sit out a year thanks to the current student-athlete rules that exist.
6. There is a lot more flexibility at the community college level.
Imagine that you’re attending a private 4-year university. After you put in a full year of classes, you come to the realization that the major you initially declared isn’t the direction that you want to take in life. Even though you can make this change, several of the classes that you took during the year won’t count for credit toward your new pursuit. You’ve just wasted a lot of time and energy.
When you attend a 2-year college, then you’ve got a chance to test the waters of advanced education without as much risk. You can explore different classes, try different careers, and see if there is something that feels like a good fit. You might even realize that a technical college is a better choice – or you can pursue a job that doesn’t need a degree in the first place.
7. It is easier to balance a job and classes at a community college.
Columbia University’s Community College Research Center discovered that 69% of students who attend a two-year program while attending school are working at the same time. One-third of students are putting in more than 35 hours per week at their regular job. Most students have children too, which means they’re juggling their parenting responsibilities at the same time.
Community colleges provide more flexibility to their students than a four-year university typically does. You’ll find classes at night or on the weekend in the two-year program. That makes it a lot easier to manage your schedule so that you can fit in all of your personal, professional, and educational needs into each day.
8. There are smaller classroom sizes at a 2-year college vs. a 4-year university.
The basic courses that every student must take at a 4-year university might have up to 300 students attending the same class. If you need some individualized help to make it through the school year, then the professor or TA managing that course isn’t going to have a lot of time to focus on your request. Attending the same class as the community college level might put you in a room with 30 other students instead.
That means there are more opportunities to ask for help, interact with professors, and have a deeper level of engagement. Your teachers at a two-year school aren’t trying to juggle research or publication responsibilities as often either.
9. The quality of your education is still excellent at a community college.
Some people make the assumption that a professor at a 4-year university with tenure is better than someone teaching at a 2-year college. This idea is a myth. There are several reasons why excellent teachers will decide to work in an associate’s program, including the same levels of flexibility that their students enjoy. If you want to pursue personal opportunities while chasing their love for teaching, then these local programs provide that chance.
There is a higher level of diversity at the community college level as well. If professors are interested in teaching to a broad spectrum of people, then they will find themselves naturally attracted to the benefits of a 2-year college vs. a 4-year university.
10. Financial aid is available at a 2-year college.
Financial aid packages aren’t just for the four-year university programs. If you enroll in a community college program, then you’re eligible to receive this benefit as well. Federal student loans in the United States require students to be enrolled half-time to qualify, so you’ll need to play to take about six credit hours each semester. Then you’ll need to make sure that you don’t drop out of any of your classes or else you’ll risk losing whatever financial aid reward you earned.
11. There are more educational opportunities in STEM fields.
Community colleges have several degree programs in today’s most popular STEM fields. These are the educational opportunities that employers want to see in their applicants, so this work can set you up for a high-paying job in the future. There are specific certification programs that you can pursue at schools that eliminate the need for an associate’s degree too.
If you like the idea of earning a certificate in six months or less to start working in a job that pays pretty well, then look for programs that will certify you as an electrician, physical therapy assistant, HVAC mechanic or installer, carpenter, or commercial truck driver. You won’t believe how much your life can change in just a year when you pursue affordable educational opportunities like these in your own community.
The American Association of Community Colleges reports that over 500,000 professional and short-term certificates are handed out each year to students because of the two-year programs that exist in the United States.
12. You can find more online learning options with a two-year college.
Although there are four-year universities that offer comprehensive online learning opportunities, you’re still more likely to find this educational option at your local community college. The expanded offerings that have come to the Internet over the past decade make it even easier to pursue a degree in a preferred field. It also helps to tailor programs to fit the needs of regional industries. Almost 70% of the students who currently attend a community college program are enrolled in online classes, with many of them qualifying for transfer toward an eventual four-year degree.
List of the Cons of a 2-Year College vs. a 4-Year University
1. A 2-year college won’t provide you with a bachelor’s degree.
If you fulfill all of the obligations of a community college’s two-year program, then you can walk away from that experience with an associate’s degree. That can help you to get into some careers or apprenticeship programs, but it does not carry the same prestige as the bachelor’s degree that a 4-year university provides. If your goal is to get that undergraduate degree so that you can pursue a graduate or doctorate program, then you’ll need to enroll in a college or university by transferring your transcripts to them.
2. You must choose your major right away at a community college.
Almost 50% of college students will change their major at least once while they go to school. If you are going after an associate’s degree at your local 2-year college, then that means you’re locked into a career path almost right away. If you decide to attend a four-year university instead, then you have more liberty to make changes to your career plans as you recognize what your strengths and weaknesses happen to be. You typically have about twice as much time to make these choices when you compare the structure of these two institutions.
3. There are more sports teams available at four-year universities.
Although you can play plenty of sports when you attend a two-year college, you’ll find that there is a larger variety of teams available when you attend the traditional 4-year university. Whether your goal is to cheer for your fellow students or to participate in the athletic endeavors yourself, most people find that attending these games is one of the best moments from their academic career. Going to The Big House at the University of Michigan is a much different experience than watching a basketball game at Skagit Valley College in Washington State.
4. There are more course offerings at a 4-year university.
The Community College Research Center reports that 81% of 2-year college students transfer to a four-year university after their graduation. That means there are a limited number of course offerings at the local institution, with the goal being to find ways to easily transfer the earned credits. This option makes it easier for students who want a bachelor’s degree one day to get the education they need, but there won’t be a lot of field-specific classes from which to choose. If you want to pursue a specific career and know for a fact that your mind isn’t going to change, then attending an in-state university can help to balance some of your tuition costs.
5. You won’t experience campus life at a community college.
Most community colleges lack the university atmosphere that students like to experience when attending classes after high school. That’s because most of the local institutions don’t have any students living on campus. Most enrollees in a two-year program are working jobs, sometimes full-time, and so they attend classes only when they need to be there. Most institutions work hard to create a fun atmosphere, but the experience isn’t the same.
Some community colleges are trying to reverse this disadvantage when compared to 4-year university programs. About 1 in 4 two-year programs are now providing on-campus housing for qualifying students. There are efforts to provide dining halls and other services that replicate the desired culture that drives some students toward a university instead.
6. There are times when credits don’t transfer to a university.
Most community colleges have transfer agreements in place with a local four-year university. This contract reduces the risk that students would lose their credits when it becomes time to switch schools. You’ll need to perform your due diligence before finalizing your enrollment at a local school because you might end up taking some classes that don’t transfer credits. You might discover that there are rules that govern the transfer process too, like the requirement to earn a specific grade or GPA before you can move over to the new school.
7. There are fewer networking opportunities available to students.
Both institutions have career placement centers and programs that students can access to make it easier to find work after graduation. There are some careers where networking is a critical role to one’s future success. Music and art majors often need a recommendation from their professor or advisor to secure their initial engagements. You need a robust relationship to create that result.
If you transfer from a community college to a 4-year program, then you’re losing 50% of the time that the other university students have to create these bonds. That’s not to say that you can’t find networking opportunities at the 2-year program, but you’ll find more local opportunities with this option. If you want national or international exposure, you might consider going to university first.
8. You have a guaranteed level of expertise at a 4-year university.
If you have a specialty field that you wish to pursue as a career, then a 4-year university is your best option because you can guarantee the level of expertise that you’ll receive. It is not unusual for community colleges to rely on the efforts of lecturers that might only hold a bachelor’s degree in your field. Over 40% of public community college freshmen take remedial courses, and almost 80% of them are taught by part-time instructors.
This disadvantage applies to the amount of money that you’ll eventually earn during your career. Although there are some exceptions (i.e., electricians, plumbers, etc.), most people with an associate’s degree only will earn less over their lifetime when compared to someone with a bachelor’s degree for a four-year university program. Some employers still see the two-year option as the “college of last resort,” which means their bias might restrict the number of opportunities that become available to you.
If you want to save money while pursuing an advanced career option, then a 2-year college is going to provide you with several financial benefits when compared to a 4-year university. Even if you graduate with an associate’s degree and transfer to a university to finish your bachelor’s degree, you can easily save $10,000 or more in costs to limit the amount of student debt you must manage after graduating.
The average university student graduates with almost $30,000 in student loan debt today. This debt holds people back for years, preventing them from buying a home, getting married, or starting a family. Going to a community college lets you get a great education without that risk.
You may not have as many options available to you with a degree from a community college, but it can serve as a stepping-stone to that undergraduate degree you want. There are personal certification options available at some locations as well. If you want or need a degree to pursue a career that you’ll love, then comparing the pros and cons of a 2-year college vs. a 4-year university can help you to make the best choice for your life.
Blog Post Author Credentials
Louise Gaille is the author of this post. She received her B.A. in Economics from the University of Washington. In addition to being a seasoned writer, Louise has almost a decade of experience in Banking and Finance. If you have any suggestions on how to make this post better, then go here to contact our team.