More education is always better, right? Well, the answer’s not as clear as that. Here’s what you should know about the choice of two-year degrees vs. four-year degrees.
The Cost Of Getting An Education
Over the last few decades, the cost of getting an education has skyrocketed, and many older people don’t realize how big the difference is. It used to be that you could plausibly work part-time and pay your way through college as you went. Now, though? Many people could be working full time and still go tens of thousands of dollars into debt.
Given that, it makes sense to look at other options for your education, and many two-year degrees are surprisingly cost-effective. College Board, the company that runs the SAT, has some insights into published tuition costs here. At a public, two-year college in your area, you can expect to pay around $3,440 each year. That goes up to $9,410 for a four-year college or $32,410 for a private school.
This doesn’t include other costs, such as housing, food, and transportation. The important point remains, though: a two-year degree is affordable on most budgets.
Another factor to consider when deciding between programs for your career is the admissions policy of your school(s). Put simply, most locations offering two-year degrees are significantly easier to get into. Some community colleges even have open admissions, which means they’ll accept anyone who’s graduated from high school (or earned the equivalent).
Admissions policies for universities can vary widely. Some schools emphasize grades, others look for diversity, and some just charge a lot of money. In many cases, the reasons for rejection are outside of your control.
That said, many two-year locations can help you transfer to a four-year school. Even if you’d have trouble getting admitted normally, an existing arrangement for transfer students can get you through the door and towards a better degree.
(Since you’ll be able to save money and improve your odds of getting into the school of your choice, many people choose this route when pursuing a four-year degree.)
This is an aspect of two-year degrees vs. four-year degrees that most people don’t think about when applying. Community colleges tend to have smaller classes, usually around 30 people (give or take). That’s small enough for teachers to provide personal attention and guidance.
On the other hand, the Integrated Postsecondary Education Data System (part of the U.S. Department of Education) reports that some classes at universities can exceed 300 students. At that point, there’s no practical way for a professor to provide one-on-one instruction or help people with material they find challenging.
If you want (or need) extra help, you’re only likely to get it with a two-year degree. Otherwise, expect to spend significantly more to hire a tutor whenever you need them, which could put you further in debt.
Four-year colleges tend to have significantly more diverse programs than two-year institutions. If you’re looking for a single, specific degree, then it’s not as important where you get it. On the other hand, if you’re looking for an unusual combination of major and minor degrees, you may be forced into a four-year program.
For example, based on the needs in your area, you may decide to major in Decision Sciences with a minor in Fire Science. This puts you in the position of intimately understanding how firefighting works, and you can use that information to make decisions that improve the efficiency of local fire responses and save lives.
If you have the funds, you may also get an associate’s degree in nursing or law enforcement (essentially a second minor). Instead of limiting yourself to firefighting, this could put you in a good position to be hired by a city and improve all of their emergency services.
This is the sort of education that’s hard to get at a two-year school. Community colleges are available and affordable, but they can’t do everything.
Here’s the part that really matters to most people, and the results may surprise you. For a long time, people have associated the Bachelor’s Degree with “real” high-paying jobs. However, it’s the Associate’s Degree (long dismissed as the worse alternative) that’s currently producing better results.
The big driver of this is the STEM fields – science, technology, engineering, and math. Companies have a great need for positions like web developers, network support specialists, physical therapists, and dental hygienists. All of these have median wages above $50,000, and they’re available with an associate’s degree.
In contrast, many graduates with a Bachelor’s degree will earn less than $40,000 when they start their career. This usually goes up over time, but it’s not a lot to work with when you owe about as much as you’re making. Between housing, utilities, food, and transportation, though, many students struggle to pay back even the minimum amounts on their debt.
Workers with an associate’s degree will have less debt and, in many cases, a higher starting salary. This allows them to pay off their debt sooner, pay less in interest and get started on saving for homes and retirement.
Eventually, a bachelor’s degree has a good chance of outpacing the value of an associate’s degree. That won’t happen over the first few years, though, and you’ll have to live every day of the path you choose.
For context, student loan payments average a bit more than $400/month for people less than 30. That’s more than 10% of their average monthly income, and that’s a significant burden when the rising costs of housing are considered.
You Sound Pretty Harsh Towards Bachelor’s Degrees
It’s true, we may sound like we’re leaning to one side when discussing two-year degrees vs. four-year degrees. We have no problem with the degrees themselves, but we are concerned about the ways those degrees are earned and how they affect people trying to improve their lives.
The rising costs wouldn’t be so bad if incomes were increasing at the same pace, but unfortunately, the costs of education have been rising considerably faster than what people are earning. It demands a bigger and bigger part of a very limited pie… and with one of the most aggressive marketing pushes.
What students are told is that they need a college degree to be successful in life. If they don’t, they’re going to be broke and miserable. What many of them aren’t told is that they’re still going to be broke and miserable after they graduate thanks to the heavy burden of debt, but they may eventually rise above it.
It doesn’t help that an increasing share of the economy’s jobs are expected to require higher education as time goes on, leaving fewer options for those without the means to obtain an associate’s or bachelor’s degree. For many people, it’s the choice between low income all their lives or low income, heavy debt, and the chance to establish themselves in the middle class.
We don’t think this is a sustainable path for the country’s needs. Employees who are losing their houses and moving to more-affordable areas aren’t the kind of focused, productive workers many companies want. That leads to more money spent just finding people to higher, lowered productivity, and perhaps even lower salaries as a way of offsetting the problem.
That said, we don’t want to sound too grim about this. There are definite problems within the system, but there are also solutions.
Financing Your Degree
For many people, the biggest problem of getting a Bachelor’s degree is the cost. Most students don’t realize how hard things are going to be after they graduate, especially if they can’t immediately begin work at a job that pays enough to cover their bills. If you can reduce this burden, regardless of your degree, then you should.
The first step to this is looking for non-loan financial aid. Many scholarships go unclaimed every year, and if you can get a few of them, they could cover most or all of your tuition. Similarly, many colleges and universities offer other forms of financial aid, such as grants and work-study programs.
Don’t be afraid to shop around and look at your options. Most employers don’t care what school you went to as long as it offered a reasonably good education. There’s prestige if you’re in the Ivy League, of course, but that’s a tiny fraction of the workers our country’s economy needs. Businesses aren’t likely to dismiss you just because you went to your local university or community college.
Your goal is this: Get an education in a field that has a lot of job openings in the fastest and most affordable way. You may have to go with your second, third, or even your tenth choice, and that’s fine. What’s important is finding out the best path for your future. Don’t hesitate to talk to counselors or seek advice – help is available, and you’ll be better off if you use it.