Posted by Julia Wasson

Oct 21, 2014 3:37:00 PM

When your teen begins the process of applying to college, it’s important to consider the differences between a two-year and a four-year education. There are benefits and drawbacks to attending either a community college or a four-year college or university.

Benefits of a Community College:

  • Low college tuition and convenient locations
  • Open admissions that require only a high school diploma
  • Two-year programs for job-specific training
  • Flexible schedules to accommodate work and family obligations
  • Local campus options that may not require residence away from home

Benefits of a Four-Year College or University:

  • More choices for college majors
  • Well-rounded collegiate experiences and active student life
  • Academic regimen that expands thinking and encourages exploring new ideas
  • More scholarship options for first-time freshmen
  • In some states, more on-campus residence hall options for an away-from-home experience

Weigh the advantages and disadvantages.

 When it comes to the choice between types of post-secondary schools, one size definitely does not fit all. Some of the benefits outlined above are the same factors that could work against a particular student. As you and your teen work together to select the right school, it’s wise to consider your family’s situation as well as how prepared your student is for independent life and a college-level curriculum.

For example, while a four-year college offers a more robust “campus life” with seemingly unlimited cultural and social opportunities, a larger student body makes some students feel like they’re lost in the shuffle. If this is a concern for your teen even though he is set on going to a four-year institution, encourage him to research colleges and universities with smaller student populations and class sizes.

A possible drawback of two-year community colleges is the lack of on-campus housing; not all community colleges have dorms or apartments, so your child may need to commute to campus. Though she may save money on housing by living at home, her gas and parking expenses can easily add up. On the flip side, dorms and meal plans tend to be costly; commuting from home might be the best financial choice for your family.

If your student needs more academic support and career guidance, two years at a community college — or a college with smaller class sizes — could be just right. The smaller classes and greater teacher-to-student ratio typical of a community college may help your student experience a smoother transition to college-level coursework.

What kind of job or career is your student hoping for after graduation?

Of course, one of the most important determining factors for applying to college is what your teen wants to do after college.

  • Does he plan to have a professional-level career that requires a bachelor’s degree or further education via graduate school?

    A four-year college can give the advantage of on-campus graduate students and high-level professionals teaching and serving as role models. But that doesn’t mean your community college student can’t have a professional career; transferring to a four-year school after community college is definitely an option.

    Four-year schools may offer a wider variety and greater depth of course offerings. If your student is passionate about a given subject, encourage him to take a look at course catalogs before choosing a school. A community college may not allow your teen to explore a field in as much depth as a four-year school.

    Also, though community colleges may have outstanding instructors, the “big-name” professors usually gravitate toward bigger universities. But don’t let their presence on campus fool your freshman into thinking he will automatically get into that famous scientist’s lab or even get recognized by that professor in class. Many of these star professors and researchers focus mainly on their master’s and Ph.D. candidates. At a large university, teaching assistants (some good, some not so good) will often teach your undergraduate student, even if Professor Famous is listed as the class instructor.

  • Does she want to get into the workforce quickly? An associate’s degree is a more direct route to some occupations.

    Community colleges typically offer more hands-on training courses and certificate programs than four-year schools do. Not everyone needs or wants a bachelor’s degree. If your teen wants to be a firefighter, a chef, a solar-panel installer, a dental assistant, or a plumber, for example, a four-year degree may not be necessary, but a certificate program might.

Here’s more to think about.

Community college tends to be considerably less expensive than four-year institutions, and many students choose this route to complete their general education courses before transferring to the college or university where they focus on their major. This way, your family saves money as your student gets her footing in the real world of college academics.

Community college is also great college prep for a four-year institution if your teen would like more time to improve his chances of being accepted. Earning solid grades at a community college in the first two years can help your student overcome low test scores or not-so-great high school grades, and make entrance as a junior much easier.

In recent years, universities have been graduating far more Ph.D.s than they are hiring. It is not uncommon for advertised university positions to have hundreds of applicants, and many excellent academics gravitate toward smaller colleges and community colleges in their search for work in such a tight market. The result is that the quality of instructors at many of these colleges is quite high, offering an opportunity for your son or daughter to get a fantastic education in a smaller setting and at a lower price.

Regardless what career your student is aiming for, the quality of education she receives is most important. While “name brands” on a resume may garner a college graduate an interview, academic preparation, experiences, and knowledge will ultimately get her the job — and help her keep it. Make sure that the school your student chooses offers value in more ways than just low cost or a happy social life, and you’ll help assure a solid start to a promising future.

Don’t rush into a college decision.

Applying to college is a long process. Your student will need to spend a lot of energy filling out college applications and forms for student loans, while also preparing for and taking college entrance exams. If your student applies for financial assistance, you’ll have your own share of financial forms to fill out.

Before you begin taking these steps as a family, first help your teen understand the type of school that is going to work best for him at this stage in his life. Knowing each school’s curriculum, college admissions requirements, and financial/scholarship requirements makes the whole process much easier to conquer. It also sets your student up for a successful pathway to the future.

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