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Two-Year vs. Four-Year College

Find Out Whether a Two-Year or Four-Year College is Right for Your Teen

Choosing a college means venturing into a new, unfamiliar world of immense possibilities. An exciting experience stretches before parents and teens – or is it a world of unnerving unknowns? A parent's best gift to her high school student may be to provide gentle guidance and support during the search for a college match, especially when deciding between a two-year college and a four-year university.

Some Things to Think About

Your baby is nearly an adult now – there's no denying it. That's why an ongoing discussion between you and your child is the most comfortable way to approach a college search. Thought-provoking questions about options – big city or rural, close to home or far away, small class or large lecture halls, field hockey or band – are good places to start. Is diversity of student population important? Are challenging classes a draw? Which school provides a particular program or major?

Don't underestimate the importance of standardized tests. "Scores rule," says Dr. Lisa Duke, professor at University of Florida Gainesville. "Taking a specialized class on how to ace the SAT may be a good idea." Additionally, parents and students will want to take advantage of their high school's college information and financial aid nights.

"We choked at the costs," says Peggy, mother of a college junior and a high school senior. But "tuition was not the major factor in our college search. We looked at academic reputation. Did the college have the major that the kids desired?" Her oldest son, Travis, was awarded similar scholarships at his top choices. "So he went with his gut and where he though he would be happiest."

Part of the narrowing of this family's college search included the need that the college be a within a few hours away to save on transportation costs for holidays and long weekends. Craig, currently awaiting financial and scholarship information in order to choose, narrowed his search to schools that had a strong program in his desired major and baseball. "Both kids only considered four-year schools," says Peggy. "We could not say to our kids that you can't go to the school you really want to because of cost. Somehow we would find a way and the kids would take out loans."

With the annual costs of private university tuition averaging nearly $20,000 and a four-year public school adding up to about $4,000, not all families respond to the tuition costs in the same manner. For some, this is a time to be creative.

Exploring the Alternative

One family, overwhelmed by the cost of the colleges that are courting their high school junior, reacted differently. "One college brochure listed its costs at $32,000 per year," says Liz. "That one went right into the recyclables." Liz and her husband were blindsided by the costs of private four-year schools but have worked out a plan their son, Ken, agrees with. The local two-year community college has been on an expansion plan for the last decade and now offers associate degrees in liberal arts, business, computers, languages and culinary arts, for example. As long as Ken keeps his grades up, he will be able to transfer to a four-year school as a junior, saving his family and himself a substantial amount of money. Liz and her husband, Earl, may believe so strongly in this plan because they started their own college years at the same community college. Other advantages cited by Liz: "We won't have room and board costs, since he'll be living at home. It's a great way to go if a kid's not ready to be away from home. I know I'm not ready for it yet."

How well-worn is this path? According to Kent Phillippe, senior research associate at the American Association of Community Colleges, the statistics on community college success rates need some context. "There is a significant percentage of the students that attend community colleges that start there with the intent to transfer to a four-year college; however, this is less than half of the students," he says. "A majority of [the total 5 million] students attending community colleges are there for a variety of other reasons, such as completing a technical or vocational program and enter the workforce, or to upgrade skills and not even complete a program of study. In fact, we have new data that suggest that between 15 percent and 20 percent of the students aged 40 and older attending community colleges already have a bachelor's degree."

A Department of Education publication called "Answers in the Tool Box: Academic Intensity, Attendance Patterns, and Bachelor's Degree Attainment" states, "While only 26 percent of students who began their undergraduate careers in community colleges formally transferred to four-year institutions, their bachelor's degree completion rate was over 70 percent."

There are more than 1,300 two-year colleges that offer transfer or university parallel programs. The annual average tuition for these schools is around $1,700, which explains why they appeal to some families.

The Bottom Line

Professor Duke shares words of wisdom garnered from her students: "If your grades aren't that great, start at the local community college that feeds the university you want to attend. After you establish a good track record, and if a community college won't get you where you want to go, transfer."

Discussions should begin early in a student's high school years; consider the student's personal preferences and be informed about options. A wealth of information is available through colleges, libraries, high school guidance offices and the Internet. The key is to begin the planning and research early.

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CeReality: 5 Families, 5 Stories, 1 Critical Meal

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