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Comparative Essay on Two-Year vs. Four-Year Colleges

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In an era of soaring tuition costs and loan debts, today's aspiring college students face a slew of pressing questions as they mull over whether or not it would even be a wise investment of time and money to pursue a college degree. Chief among these concerns are questions asked in this sample esay is  about the respective potency of various degree programs. More specifically, which type of degree will lead to a more lucrative set of prospects in tomorrow's job market: a two-year associate degree or a four-year bachelor's degree? 

Associate's Degree vs. Bachelor's Degree: two versus four years

Over the course of a given degree program, students often wonder whether or not their efforts will pay off in terms of employment and living wages. As Congress makes budget cuts left and right, the following questions linger in the minds of many Americans:

  • Will there be job openings available that match each student's field of study, or will most of them get stuck working for minimum wage at coffee shops and fast-food joints? 
  • Will next year's graduates be able to earn livable incomes with degrees under their belts, or will they have to move back in with their parents for some indefinite length of time? 
  • If a temporary lull in opportunity is inevitable for a majority of graduates, how long is this lean period supposed to last? 
  • When exactly can a given influx of newly trained prospective workers expect to finally savor the fruits of having earned a two or four-year college degree?

The answers to some of these questions are less obvious than one would imagine, because some degree programs are more lucrative in the short term, while others lead to careers with greater overall earning potential in the long run. 

High pay for two year degrees

As concerns mount among students and parents about the continued viability of college degrees, states are beginning to examine the salaries of graduates over select spans of time within the workforce. 

The earnings of postsecondary degree-holders Colorado, Indiana, and Texas paint an especially mixed picture regarding the benefits of college. In many cases, the immediate earnings of two-year-degree holders outstrip those of four-year graduates, particularly in the technical professions. If anything, current job trends challenge the age-old notion that an associate degree is merely a bachelor's meager, hillbilly cousin.

The trend has played out among millennials in Indiana, where graduates from Ivy Tech Community College have out-earned their counterparts from Indiana University within the first 12 months of graduation (Peters and Belkin).

A similar pattern has transpired in Colorado, where associate degree-holders like Tessa DeVore have landed starting salaries that more than twice earn back the cost of an education. In 2010, upon finishing her degree in nursing from Front Range Community College, she found a job that began on $53,000 annually; her two-year degree had cost a mere $23,000. According to DeVore, the choice of an associate over a bachelor's is "absolutely the way to go" since "the salary doesn't increase any faster" with a four-year degree at her hospital (Peters and Belkin).

Return on investment for college degrees

Still, many would argue that both degree types are valuable investments over the long run, especially when compared to the prospects of people who choose not to deal with the tremendous stress of getting a college degree. As economists Jaison Abel and Richard Deitz observed in a New York Federal Reserve study, college grads over the past decade have earned a 15% annual return on investment (ROI) for degree costs since entering the workforce. That number exceeds the annual percentage of returns on stocks and bonds ("Benefits of College"). Most encouragingly, the ROI for two and four-year degrees has been relatively equal for the past few decades. 

Overall, however, long-term earnings are significantly different between the two degrees, with four-year grads averaging $65,800 annually and associate holders earning roughly $46,300 (Peters and Belkin). Likewise, degree costs have seen little change for associate and bachelor's seekers; the former incur expenses in the $40,000–$60,000 range when tuition and workless class-time are factored together, while four-year students tally up $110,000–$130,000 in costs while pursuing their studies (Peters and Belkin).  

ROI vs. starting salaries per degree type

For graduates of four-year colleges, the ROI is often less immediate than it is for those with two-year degrees. In its first ROI report on post-college earnings, the Indiana commission found that the average entry level salaries for people with two-year degrees have surpassed those of people with bachelor's degrees, but that the latter group has consistently taken the lead within five years of joining the workforce. Within 10 years of graduation, four-year students annually rake in $7,000 more than those who'd only spent half as much time in college (Peters and Belkin). 

In a study coordinated between Colorado's College Measures and the American Institutes for Research and Matrix Knowledge, it was found that salaries generally start at levels higher than $60,000 for two-year degree holders in nursing, engineering, production, and fire-safety ("Associate vs. Bachelor").

Contrastingly, starting salaries hover at around $38,860 for graduates of four-year colleges in Colorado; comparable levels have also been found to be the case in Arkansas and Texas. As College Measures President Mark Schneider quipped to the Wall Street Journal, 

"if you know how to fix something or to fix people, you're going to do well with a two-year degree."

He particularly emphasized the prospects for associate degree-holders in the fields of "construction, IT, high-tech manufacturing [and] health," (Peters and Belkin).

Forecasting prospects: The dilemma for incoming students

The stats that Schneider has pointed to are being challenged by spokespeople in the  four-year college sector, who argue that the emphasis on entry level salaries is a short-sighted approach, and that students should also consider a school's focus and whereabouts—as well as the long-term prospects of a given specialty—before making a choice about one type of school over another.

Nonetheless, reports on starting salaries are impacting the choices that students make regarding postsecondary education. With untold numbers of graduates entering the workforce each year with tens of thousands in college debt, incoming students are more concerned about choosing majors that are likeliest to pay off in terms of financial security. As explained by staffer Mitch Davis of Colorado's four-year Fort Lewis College,

"[p]rospective students and their parents are asking much tougher questions about [ROI] and outcomes," (Peters and Belkin).

Some schools are addressing the dilemma by developing programs that place an equal emphasis on technical skills and problem-solving proficiency. These schools are makng an effort that a student and and/or their parents get their money worth, especially when one considers the ever-rising cost of attending college. Such is the vision of DeVore's alma mater, Front Range Community College, where a new facility is being added to accommodate a welding program, which has grown in popularity as a major because of its generous starting salary, ROI, and longevity.

High and low salaries in the short and long haul

In a College Measures analysis of Virginia's first-year wage earners, graduates of the most frequently chosen bachelor's programs were out-earning their two-year college counterparts, but only slightly. Nursing bachelor's, for instance, have averaged $48,959 starting out, while associate nursing degrees have led to entry level salaries of $45,342. The latter, of course, greatly outshines the average earnings of various other four-year majors, such as political science and history, for which the starting incomes hover at $31,184; just slightly above the $30,230 average that two-year degree holders earn in those fields ("Analysis Finds").

Students who complete two-year college programs tend to earn more if their degrees are geared toward the tech or occupational fields, where salaries are as much as $10,000 higher than in other fields that only require an associate ("Two-Year Degrees").

In some professions, all that's required is the completion of a community college program for an employee to command an upper-middle class salary. For example, people who work in air-traffic control, construction management, and radiation therapy—all fields in which the barrier of entrance is at the associate level—respectively command salaries with a median average of $108,040, $83,860, and $74,980 (Goudreau).

Two and four-year degree types: viability vs. expense

Over the past decade, students have been bombarded with messages about the shifting goal posts for educational standards in the job market. Supposedly, in the eyes of today's employers, a high school diploma is becoming a GED; an associate degree is becoming a high school diploma; a bachelor's is becoming an associate; a master's is becoming a bachelor's; etc. In other words, if conventional wisdom is to be believed, each stripe is moving down a notch. Nonetheless, a growing number of students are setting their end-sights on associate degrees, and the reasons for this are understandable; a two-year degree is less expensive, takes less time to earn, and leaves students with lower amounts of debt.

According to data collected by College Board, the typical cost for a single year of tuition at a four-year college is $8,655. When the basic living expenses of on-campus room and board are added on, the average student spends $17,860 per year in grant money, loan money, and sometimes his or her own earnings in order to attend school. By contrast, for those who attend two-year schools—which are generally designed for commuter students—the yearly cost for classes is merely $3,131; less than half the cost of a single year at a four-year school (Couch). The costs of an associate degree could drop to almost zero if President Obama's vision of free community college becomes policy.


For some people, the two-year college system is a means to a career; for others, it's the stepping stone to a four-year college. In the latter case, students can overcome various roadblocks—both in terms of financial hardship and faulty placement scores—that could otherwise stand in the way of a bachelor's degree. In the end, both two-year and four-year colleges have their respective benefits in a world that, if anything, demands some form of postsecondary education from today's workers.

Works Cited

"Benefits of College Still Outweigh the Costs." NCPA.org. National Center for Policy Analysis. 30 June 2014. Web. 18 Sept. 2015.

Peters, Mark, and Douglas Belkin. "Surprising Findings on Two-Year vs. Four-Year Degrees." The Wall Street Journal. Dow Jones & Company. 24 June 2014. Web. 18 Sept. 2015.

"Associate vs. Bachelor Degrees: Does One Boast A Better ROI Than The Other?" PlazaCollege.edu. Plaza College. 27 June 2014. Web. 18 Sept. 2015.

"Analysis Finds Wide Wage Disparities Among Virginia College Grads." College Measures. American Institutes for Research and Optimity Advisors LLC. 1 Nov. 2012. Web. 18 Sept. 2015.

"Two-Year Degrees Vs. Four-Year Degrees: Sometimes Associate's Beats Bachelor's In Earning Potential." The Huffington Post. TheHuffingtonPost.com, Inc. 9 Jan. 2013. Web. 18 Sept. 2015.

Goudreau, Jenna. "The 10 Best-Paying Jobs For Community College Grads" Forbes.com. Forbes, Inc. 18 Dec. 2012. Web. 18 Sept. 2015.

Couch, Christina. "Two-Year vs. Four-Year Colleges: Which One is Right for You?" College View. Daily Mail and General Trust PLC. n.d. Web. 18 Sept. 2015.



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