The value of a college degree is undisputed. A 2010 report from the College Board estimates that, among full-time workers, high school graduates earned a median annual income of $33,800; workers with an associate’s degree, $42,000; and, workers with a bachelor’s degree, $55,700.

Chapter 6 | Supporting Student Success in College

The information included on this webpage was excerpted from Chapter 6 of College Access and Success for Students Experiencing Homelessness: A Toolkit for Educators and Service Providers, available in its entirety at

Chapter 6, Part 3 | Two-Year vs. Four-Year Colleges: Considerations and Implications for Student Success
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Attending a two-year college, often called a community college, is an appealing option for many post-secondary students for a variety of reasons, including a lower cost of attendance and greater schedule flexibility when compared with four-year colleges. On the surface, these two factors may seem to suggest that community college could be the best higher education option for low-income students, most of whom will need to work during college to pay education and living expenses. A more detailed examination of the pros and cons of the two-year vs. four-year college experiences, however, paints a more nuanced picture.


According to Trends in College Pricing 2012 from the College Board, the total average published charges (including tuition, fees, room, and board) for full-time undergraduate students for the 2012-2013 school year by institution type were as follows:

expenses by institution type

For any student concerned with having sufficient resources to cover education expenses, the lower costs associated with a two-year institution may serve as reason enough to forgo the four-year college experience entirely, or at least initially. The smaller price tag may be even more attractive to homeless students, who may have acquired a heightened level of concern about financial commitments due to the multiple destabilizing effects of the homeless experience. And while cost certainly should figure into a student’s post-secondary education decisions, it is only one of many factors to be weighed.

Admissions Requirements

In general, the admissions requirements of two-year colleges tend to be less rigorous than those of four-year institutions. Many two-year colleges have open admissions policies, allowing any student with a high school diploma or passing score on the General Educational Development (GED) test to enroll and attend. The more inclusive admissions policies of two-year institutions may appeal to high school graduates who may be unable, at least initially, to meet the more selective entrance requirements of most four-year colleges. These students either may choose to obtain their associate’s degree and enter the workforce; or, they may wish to study at a two-year college, then transfer to a four-year college based on a more competitive applicant standing established by higher levels of achievement at the two-year institution.

Academic Programming

Most two-year colleges provide a curriculum focused on liberal arts and sciences, but often also offer certificate programs, and vocational and technical training for direct entry into the workforce. An associate’s degree usually is the highest degree awarded at a community college; however, a few states, including Florida and Utah, have begun to allow community colleges to offer baccalaureate degrees. In contrast, the undergraduate course of study at four-year institutions focuses mainly on liberal arts and sciences, and/or preparation for graduate-level education. Four-year institutions offer bachelor’s degrees; however, many also offer associate’s and graduate-level degrees.

Schedule Options

Two-year colleges tend to cater to a more “non-traditional” student body. Many students at two-year colleges attend part-time, needing to schedule their courses around home and work commitments. As such, two-year colleges often offer more night classes to accommodate this need. In contrast, most students at four-year colleges attend school on a full-time basis. While the option to attend college part-time may appeal to students who want to balance schoolwork with longer work hours, the lower level of student engagement associated with part-time attendance can be detrimental and should be weighed when evaluating which kind of college arrangement is most likely to lead to success for each individual student.

Student Engagement

In terms of student engagement, four-year colleges have a clear advantage. As stated previously, many students at two-year institutions live off-campus and  attend school part-time in an effort to balance their education with home and/or work responsibilities. This is even more likely to be the case for low-income students who, due to a lack of financial resources, often live and work off-campus, and study part-time while working full-time, thus limiting the amount of time they spend on campus. An unfortunate result of lower levels of student engagement is a higher level of attrition. Simply put, students who are less engaged in college are more likely to drop out without completing a degree.

According to a 2002 report from the National Center for Education Statistics, entitled Descriptive Summary of 1995–96 Beginning Postsecondary Students: Six Years Later, the most significant risk factors related to degree non-completion follow:

  • part-time enrollment,
  • delaying entry into postsecondary education after high school,
  • not having a regular high school diploma,
  • having dependent children,
  • being a single parent,
  • being financially independent of parents, and
  • working full-time while enrolled

The common denominator in many of these risk factors is a plethora of responsibilities that compete for the student’s time and attention. The more responsibilities a student must balance, the easier it is for the student to lose focus on her education and either begin to falter academically or feel that the multiple responsibilities are too much to manage. Unfortunately, in these situations, many students choose to set their education aside.

The Verdict

As outlined above, both two-year and four-year institutions of higher education have strengths, depending on the particular goals and needs of each individual student. Two-year colleges may be the best choice for a student who is focused exclusively on cost, needs a more flexible class schedule, desires a certificate or associate’s degree, or needs time to improve his academic record before transferring to a four-year college. Four-year colleges may be the best choice for a student who has sufficient financial aid and/or scholarships to cover expenses; has a strong enough academic record to meet the more selective admissions criteria; wishes to obtain a bachelor’s degree; and, desires a more traditional, full-time college experience. It should be noted, however, that the overall college experience and levels of student engagement at two-year and four-year colleges may differ significantly, which may have wide-reaching effects on student success if students are not prepared adequately. As such, students need to be informed about the potential advantages and disadvantages of each type of institution, understand any potential pitfalls, and be equipped with the support they need to overcome the challenges they encounter as they progress through higher education.

Transitioning Successfully from a Two-Year to a Four-Year Institution

While many students will attend a two-year college to obtain an associate’s degree and enter the workforce, many others will attend a two-year college with plans to transfer to a four-year college and complete their degree there. The College Board recommends that students take the following steps to ensure that
transferring to a four-year college is a smooth and timely process:

  • Plan ahead and ask the right questions
    Since each college has its own requirements, the most important thing students can do to make the transfer process run smoothly is to plan ahead. Students should consult with their high school counselors, college websites, the admissions or counseling office of the two-year college they’re thinking of attending, and transfer advisers at the admissions office of the four-year college they’re considering. Important questions to ask include:
    • Does the two-year college have a special transfer relationship, often called an articulation agreement, with any four-year colleges?
    • Will credits earned at the two-year college be accepted at the four-year college?
    • What grades are needed to get credit at the four-year college?
    • What’s the minimum GPA needed to get into the four-year college?
  • Sign up for a transfer program, if available
    Many states have articulation agreements, which specify exactly what is needed to transfer from one higher education institution to another within the state. Professionals working with students experiencing homelessness may wish to gather information about articulation agreements within the state and share this information with college-bound homeless students.

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