Episode 2: Two-Year Colleges, Four-Year Colleges, and Universities

This episode is part of our series on understanding the world of college. In this episode, we talk about the differences among two-year colleges, four-year colleges, and universities.

For detailed show notes including links to all the colleges mentioned in this episode, visit http://usacollegechat.org/2.

NYCollege Chat is a weekly podcast for parents and high school students about the world of college brought to you by Policy Studies in Education.

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This episode is part of our series on understanding the world of college and is focused on the differences among two-year colleges, four-year colleges, and universities.

NYCollegeChat Episode 2 - Two-Year Colleges, Four-Year Colleges, and Universities1. Types of Two-Year Colleges

There are over 1,100 two-year colleges in the U.S., with almost 1,000 of them being public colleges, usually referred to as “community colleges.” Some two-year colleges might still carry the name of “junior college,” which was more popular 100 years ago. Today, some two-year colleges have dropped the word “junior” or “community” from their names altogether, such as Montgomery College in Montgomery County, Maryland.

2. Costs at Two-Year Colleges

As tuition increases across the U.S., more and more students are considering attending a public two-year college first—before transferring to a four-year college to finish a degree. Because two-year colleges have lower tuition rates than four-year colleges, this strategy saves family money for use later at a more expensive public or private four-year college.

Just like public four-year colleges, public two-year colleges can be funded by local (city or county) governments and state governments.

3. Students at Two-Year Colleges

Although more and more students are choosing two-year colleges as their first college step, the average age of two-year college students is in the mid-twenties. That is because many adults returning to college also choose two-year colleges.

So the atmosphere in classes can be a bit more serious than an 18-year-old’s recent high school classes. Plus, most two-year colleges are commuter colleges; students do not live on campus in dorms, but rather commute to classes from their homes. That can make the atmosphere on campus different from a traditional four-year college.

4. Degrees Awarded by Two-Year Colleges and by Four-Year Colleges/Universities

Two-year colleges award associate’s degrees for two years’ worth of completed courses, usually totaling about 60 credits. Students can study part time at a two-year college and take three, four, or even more years to complete those credits and earn an associate’s degree.

Only four-year colleges and universities can award bachelor’s degrees. A bachelor’s degree indicates a higher level of college study, which is preferred by many employers and which is required by universities if a student wants to pursue a graduate or professional degree, like a master’s degree or a doctoral degree in any field of study.

5. Transferring to Four-Year Colleges/Universities

Credits earned at a two-year college can be transferred to a four-year college or university. But some four-year colleges and universities will not accept all of the credits that were earned at a two-year college. (Some will not accept all of the credits that were earned at another four-year college or university, either.)

The best way to make sure that all two-year college credits transfer is to earn an associate’s degree. A four-year college or university will accept an associate’s degree (and all the credits that went into it) from a transfer student.

6. Universities Defined

A university is usually a larger institution with more students and more professors than a two-year college or a four-year college. A university offers both undergraduate and graduate degrees. Undergraduate degrees are associate’s and bachelor’s degrees; graduate degrees are master’s and doctoral degrees.

A large university typically is made up of more than one “school” or “college,” which are focused on different fields of study.   One of these components usually focuses on the liberal arts (more about that in Episode 3); others might focus on education, engineering, fine arts, business, health sciences, or other subject fields.

Universities usually award different types of four-year bachelor’s degrees, depending on a student’s major field of study, such as a Bachelor of Arts, Bachelor of Science, Bachelor of Fine Arts, Bachelor of Architecture, Bachelor of Business Administration, and more. Some universities offer two-year associate’s degrees as well.

Sometimes the schools or colleges within a university are only for graduate students who have already earned a bachelor’s degree. Graduate students might attend a university’s medical school, law school, school of theology, journalism school, or others. A university awards master’s degrees and sometimes doctoral degrees to graduate students.

Listen to the podcast to find out about…

  • The pitfalls of trying to transfer college credits
  • Universities as research institutions
  • The pros and cons of large universities and small colleges

Check out these higher education institutions we mention…

In New York State

Outside of New York State

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