For many high school graduates, the big dilemma is the choice between college and university. Often college is perceived as a limited version of a university, a study that does not compare to a traditional bachelor’s degree. This paper examines the opposite thesis: a two-year community college education has many significant advantages and benefits over direct admission to a university. The features of the American educational system, the critical differences between colleges and universities, and, most importantly, the benefits of a primary college education are examined. One of the strongest arguments is that a cheaper college education not only makes it easier to adapt to a new academic environment.
The U.S. educational system is multi-tiered and diverse, providing opportunities for academic growth for a variety of needs. At a general cross-section, the American educational system consists of a compulsory high school phase until the twelfth grade, after which the entrant has the choice of going to college, or university or not pursuing education at all. Such branching out after high school creates the dilemma of what to choose. Each individual’s experience is unique and unrepeatable, which means there are no general rules of how best to go. Nevertheless, it is recognized that a former high school student who decides to pursue an academic career should be aware of all the opportunities, advantages, and challenges that a postsecondary education presents.
This research paper is not intended to provide advocacy for going to college, but it does clearly and thoroughly demonstrate why this option can be a good strategy. Specifically, it refers to the decision to go to a two-year college for special education, after which the individual can step right into a university setting for year 3. To put it another way, the proposed option is a unique combination of college and university as the best alternative to postsecondary education instead of going directly to the university. The research paper discusses in detail the key features and critical points of such a solution so that the interested reader can create for himself or herself the most general and comprehensive picture of the potential possibilities. The work is a relevant read, suitable not only for confused high school students and applicants but also for parents who are interested in the best, but not expensive, academic pathways for their child.
Afterschool Education: A Brief Synopsis
Obtaining a quality postsecondary education is often a predictor of professional success for high-skilled workers. While almost all applicants are hired for basic job positions without limited knowledge, jobs of mental workload require particular competencies from the employee. Skills and knowledge can be acquired in colleges and universities as postsecondary education options, but it is fair to say that this is not the only option. Nevertheless, it is postsecondary education that provides a wide range of career and intellectual opportunities for the professional, combined with the award of a degree, whether associate, bachelor’s, master’s, or graduate. To put it another way, getting a postsecondary education is not a requirement for Americans, but it is necessary to gain more perspectives.
It is interesting to recognize that postsecondary education has only recently gained the public popularity that it has by now. A brief review of history shows that the opportunity for higher education was exclusive to white men from wealthy American classes, while women and ethnic minorities did not have this opportunity (Cohen & Brawer, 2014). The patriarchalism that had led to a more patriarchal society, however, became increasingly irrelevant over time. Women’s voices, as well as those of all other “diversity,” became more important, which eventually led to greater access to higher education.
Education has become more accessible, as expressed in the statistics: the number of degrees earned in the United States in 2020-2021 is about 166 percent higher than it was for the beginning of this century, and about 800 times more than it was even seventy years ago (Duffin, 2021). Figure 1 below provides a clear understanding of this trend: since the second half of the last century, the academic study of postsecondary education has become particularly popular in print. This implicitly suggests that opportunities for post-twelfth grade degrees have become broader for all segments of the population, not just a select few elites.
In turn, the phenomenon of increased accessibility has naturally led to increased opportunities for applicants. When people of different gender, ethnic, and religious backgrounds were able to access colleges and universities, this led to more questions about which postsecondary option was best. While some applicants chose the university as one of the standard academic pathways, and others took advantage of college opportunities, some chose to take a risk by intelligently combining two years of college and two years of university for a four-year degree, as Figure 2 shows. This decision, as the central thesis of this paper postulates, is one of the best for the applicant. It allows for an immediate bachelor’s degree but, more importantly, brings many benefits to the former high school student.
Unlike some other countries, especially European countries, U.S. education has no centralized federal management. Although the U.S. Department of Education is present, local academic issues are determined at the municipal levels (Berry, 2021). Despite the opportunities for diversification, the general picture is accurate for most American states: after high school, a student chooses community college, public or private universities, a combination of the two, or discontinuing education, temporary or permanent.
The breadth of opportunity, the appeal of American culture, high academic achievement, and sophistication make the educational system a leader among all existing world systems. In fact, the U.S. educational system is not only first among all but has held a steady position of 100 out of 100 for the past year, as reflected in Figure 3 (Williams & Leahy, 2020). Thus, it is correct to conclude that in the U.S., the applicant receives many opportunities for quality and recognized postsecondary academic education.
Motivation for Choice
Recognizing the aforementioned pathways to further academic development for the former high school student described above, it is worth focusing on motivation in choice. Concretization of the discussion covers the study of college and university choice as two alternatives to postsecondary education. A common belief is that choosing a college is shameful and unprestigious compared to university. The development of this prejudice suggests that colleges are attended by students who lack the grades, initiative, or finances to get into university: the so-called “second-rate” applicants. Reed reinforces this claim with the myth that “most community colleges have open-door admissions policies, which means that anyone with a high school diploma or GED can get in” (Reed, 2012, p. 13).
However, this opinion is mistaken and subjective: a college education is not something shameful or unworthy compared to a university. Forbes 2019 published an article in which Shulman assesses this stigma of entering college (Shulman, 2019). In reality, the social agenda of education is changing all too quickly, and many previously discouraged steps are becoming normal today. The concern for personal mental health is also transforming for students who have already experienced the stress of completing high school and final exams. This makes a college education an altogether good decision, which means one should expect that increased students will be eager to choose this path.
On the other hand, when a high school student faces the choice between college and university, one of the key motivations is related to the desired outcome. For some applicants, it is critical to go straight to university because this path will allow them to obtain the academic degree they desire. If one is genuinely interested in comprehending basic science or desires qualifications that are taught only at the university level, choosing college does not seem appropriate. Alternatively, if science is not an end in itself, but the applicant wants to pursue further study, choosing college as a gateway to higher education is a valid strategy.
The motivation to choose is often realized through examining the current job market agenda. For a high school student who has decided to pursue an academic career, it is clear that the knowledge and competencies he or she has acquired will have to be profitable in the future, and thus the choice of those professions that turn out to be insufficient demand plays a significant role. It is not uncommon for high school students to be dishonest with themselves in their pursuit of the “right” profession. These activities may not be enjoyable for them, which will ultimately affect their grades, attendance, and mental well-being. Consequently, market research is an essential strategy for motivating postsecondary educational choices, but it does not ensure that these choices are correct.
What is clear, however, is that former high school students generally have insufficient knowledge and ideas about what they want to do in the future. After completing secondary education, not all students accurately understand their future academic course of study. The socially promoted need for higher education, the fear of not having a decent job, and parental pressure play an essential role in a high school student’s decision to choose a tertiary education (Labaree, 2017).
In this case, however, the wrong choice is fraught with destructive consequences. The stress of an abrupt change in organizational learning patterns, new surroundings, and lack of friends, in addition to learning entirely new subjects, can be causes of suicide among former students who choose to attend university (Berman, 2020). This underscores the need for an educated and balanced decision, as going straight to university means a four-year education. This could have consequences if the choice were unmotivated.
College vs. University
By now, it is definitely clear that there is an apparent difference between college and university in the traditional sense. This applies not only to the terminological difference — although the semantic differentiation certainly matters — but also to the opportunities, features, and challenges a student faces at each type of institution. Several key distinctions must be discussed in order to give the reader the right idea of how college is qualitatively different from a university. This section provides a foundation for a discussion of the advantages of choosing a combination strategy (college plus university) as the form of optimal study after high school.
The university provides opportunities for strong academic growth, while the college allows for general professional competencies. Although a college education is more narrowly focused than high school, it is still quite broad compared to university training. As it is known, the maximum college degree is associate or specialist. According to the Merriam-Webster Dictionary, the associate should be understood as a member of the entry-level of educational training (Associate, n.d.).
In other words, it is a professional who has just begun professional development. Torpey (2018) points out that having a college certificate is sufficient for many skilled trades in a wide variety of industries, including computer science, finance, clerical sciences, nursing, and service industries. Figure 4 shows only two industries in which a junior professional with a college degree can have a career. In comparison, it is clear that a bachelor’s degree or even a master’s degree as a university degree provides many more career opportunities in higher-skilled industries.
In addition, the difference in length of study — two years versus four years — affects the diversity of programs. Universities tend to provide more academic options and flexibility in the choice of courses taken, while colleges have a universal curriculum that may not always be modified to meet a student’s needs. An additional difference is the diversity index: the data illustrate the fact that student diversity in universities tends to be higher (Espinosa et al., 2019). This is not surprising given the leading position of the U.S. education system worldwide. Many students from around the world come to U.S. universities for valuable degrees, and this is reflected in ethnic and cultural diversity. As an example, Figure 5 clearly demonstrates the trend of increasing racial diversity in U.S. universities. One can see that whites (69.8%) are no longer such a dominant group, and the representation of other ethnic communities has increased over twenty years.
Another difference between the two forms of postsecondary education is the built environment of students. It is known that the choice of a particular university is often based on the desire to engage in a unified, inspiring student culture (CareerVidz, 2020).
U.S. colleges provide opportunities for undergraduates to participate in sports, arts and sciences, and social support programs. Each university usually has its own community service programs, and these opportunities can be a deciding factor in a student’s choice of a particular program. One of the most significant determinants is athletic teams. Professional sports applicants have been known to choose a university-based on interest in specific sports teams, not so much in academic programs and university grade point averages. In other words, student culture appeals to high school students, and it is safe to say that it plays no small part in the decision to choose a particular university.
In contrast, colleges may not always have the same developed environment as universities. One of the main reasons for this lack of formation is the shorter term: the college student body changes completely every two years, so students may not have time to combine learning and extracurricular activities effectively. Given that sports, creativity, and science are proven predictors of better student performance, it can be concluded that colleges are more likely to have problems with student engagement in education (Singh et al., 2019). In turn, this generates lower achievement and interest in learning among college students.
It is also fair to acknowledge the opposite effect of creating a more intimate academic environment in college. The availability of diverse programs at universities and the use of large lecture stream formats (up to COVID-19) are disruptive factors to opportunities for better student achievement (Huxley et al., 2018). Additionally, class size is essential: the average number of students in a single stream by a university can be as high as four hundred in popular courses, whereas community college classes are typically limited to 25-35 students (TSC, 2018). This creates more positive opportunities for closer interaction between college students and faculty, which should theoretically have an impact on a better understanding of the material and, as a result, better academic performance.
Hence, to summarize the comparative analysis, community colleges present more limited academic opportunities than universities. A college graduate cannot hold high-skill positions, unlike graduates of an undergraduate or even graduate school. The environment that an applicant receives in each of the postsecondary education options is also different. Nevertheless, college should not be seen as an unnecessary branch of education because, as will be shown in the next section, a college education has serious advantages for the modern student.
Advantages of the College over the University
It has already been stated that a community college has several significant advantages over a university education. Immediately after graduating from high school, an applicant has a choice of where to enroll. It is fair to say that this dilemma can be challenging, and making the wrong choice can be detrimental to the student. This section argues that choosing a two-year college over a four-year university has practical value as a gateway to the world of postsecondary education.
First of all, it is worth understanding that postsecondary colleges in the United States come in three different categories. These include community, liberal arts, and technical colleges. Community colleges are those two-year educational institutions that are authorized to award associate degrees to graduates. All of the above features of colleges and the benefits listed below are true of community colleges. Humanities colleges are more comprehensive institutions that do not give students a specific career orientation but rather prepare graduates with basic academic skills and competencies in a variety of disciplines.
Finally, technical institutes or vocational colleges are also two-year programs that focus on the intensive training of applicants in a specific professional discipline. They also do not include general education courses. In other words, colleges in the United States are not one-sided either, and the main reasoning and conclusions in this paper are made about community colleges.
The first and one of the most crucial advantages of colleges over universities is their comparatively lower tuition. The average cost of attending a community college in the United States is $7,460 per year or $1,865 per semester (Hanson, 2021a). In comparison, the annual tuition for a university student in the United States is $35,720, which is about five times higher than for a community college (Hanson, 2021b).
It is fair to say that these figures vary widely by region of study, so Figures 6 and 7 are intended to show a side-by-side comparison. The main conclusion is obvious: college tuition is significantly cheaper than university tuition. Considering that college tuition does not necessarily have to be worse, this is a strong argument for using this special opportunity to save money in postsecondary education. This has particular relevance to the fact that the total debt of all Americans keeps breaking records (Davis, 2021; RS, 2021). Saving money is a necessity for most households, so choosing a college is a great decision.
The second advantage of college over university is the opportunity for academic adjustment of the applicant. As has been shown, the learning environment in college tends to be more loyal, and there is more interaction between faculty and students. As a consequence, right out of high school, an applicant is likely to be less academically stressed by the sudden change in environment. College allows the student to gradually adjust to the new rules of learning, unlike a university (Li et al., 2021). This is especially true for those students who are hesitant to pursue higher education but want to try it. College education allows for a more light-hearted taste of the possibilities of a professional academic environment and thus is a kind of “gateway” to exploring postsecondary education.
It is known that college education may not be as challenging as university education, especially from an organizational standpoint. Evidence suggests that about 65% of community college students are enrolled in a part-time program, which means they have more free time to spend with family and friends (AACC, 2021). In effect, this solves a crucial university-associated problem: isolation from society for the sake of learning. In an attempt to perform better academically in the early years, university students may not balance out competently, leading to mental well-being issues (Herbert et al., 2020). In other words, using college is a better option from this perspective.
Notably, enrollment in U.S. community colleges appears to be easier than in universities. Primarily it concerns the minimum requirements for an applicant to be accepted into a program. To be admitted to the college, one usually needs to have American citizenship and a twelfth-grade high school diploma (CCP, 2021). In other words, admission to college is through an open-door system (Reed, 12). Alternatively, admission to American universities involves, among others, passing the SAT or ACT, as well as having a sufficient GPA for admission (CCP, 2021). Thus, applying to universities is more complex than applying to colleges, which broadens the options for applicants.
At the same time, the lighter format makes colleges a more affordable option for non-classical categories of students who seek to combine study with work. AACC (2021) indicates that today’s community college includes only 29% of first-generation students, while the majority of the student body is represented by other categories: single parents (15%), international (9%), veterans (5%), undergraduate students (8%), and students with disabilities (20%). Consequently, college education, because of its perceived low cost and mode of study, is suitable for a greater diversity of students, including former high school students.
The quality of a college education is not always lower than that of a university. In fact, it depends on a variety of factors, including the leadership of the institution, the faculty, the general motivation of students, and the availability of supportive programs. For example, community colleges have a federal STEM program — it works at universities, too — that allows students to gain competencies in the exact sciences. STEM is highly valued by employers around the world: statistics show that STEM jobs will grow by 8.8% over the next ten years (Zilberman & Ice, 2021). Given that many colleges support STEM standards, it is easy to join this field without going to university.
In addition, the existing stigma against colleges is rapidly disappearing. Colleges have historically been an evolutionary step in the development of high schools, so their public acceptance has not been great (Cohen & Brawer, 2014). However, it is no longer shameful to attend a community college, and administrators of such institutions are taking proactive initiatives to improve the reputation and quality of learning. This includes transforming perceptions of deans as community college leaders: Reed writes that the reputation of deans is no longer associated with “evil, overpaid figureheads who spend their time centralizing power in their own hands…” (Reed, 2012, p. 61). Thus, community colleges are rapidly becoming trendy, modern, and relevant educational institutions that attract students with their sustainable brand and educational benefits.
The timeliness of community colleges, among others, means following the current agenda of the times. One of the clearest examples of this is the use of the pandemic-influenced trend toward distance education. Colleges, like universities, have been quick to adopt a remote format for organizing classes using the latest digital developments like Zoom or Skype (Horvitz et al., 2019). If it is essential for an applicant to ensure that the institution, they are applying to is state-of-the-art, examining the quality of college distance learning classes can be a significant predictor. Once again, a similar advantage makes colleges more convenient for atypical categories of students who do not have much time to attend classes in person.
Significant Advantage: Optimal Strategy
The benefits and features of a college education discussed above seem sufficient for the doubting high school student to have a foundation for more critical thought. However, it is additionally worth saying that a college education has a serious, winning advantage over direct admission to a university. An applicant can enroll in a community college in a program of interest to him, and after completing two years of study, “jump” to the third year at a university. This decision has many benefits that bring the student peace of mind, confidence in decisions, and mental well-being.
First, after a two-year degree, the college graduate knows exactly what postsecondary education all is about. Second, the expectation is that the graduate is already aware of how genuinely interested he or she is in the industry he or she has chosen to study after high school. This solves the problem of rash admissions to universities. In addition, a college graduate does not lose years: enrollment in the third year is not mandatory, but if he wants a bachelor’s degree, he only needs to study two years at a university instead of four. Fourth, this strategy creates a diversity of environments and opinions: the student can compare different forms of study and professors and thus has a more critical mindset. Thus, a two-year college course followed by a two-year university course for a bachelor’s degree has an incredible winning advantage over going directly to a university.
The decision to pursue postsecondary education can be difficult for an applicant who does not know precisely what he or she is interested in. Societal and parental pressures create a “need” to study without regard to the student’s personal interests. Eventually, systematic pressure combined with a lack of interest leads to mental dysfunction, disillusionment with education, and expulsion from the university.
The solution to this problem seems transparent: Using a two-year community college as the first step immediately after high school has apparent advantages. It saves finances, allows a more flexible exposure to the postsecondary student environment, and provides insight into whether the discipline being studied is really important and interesting to the individual. It also allows one to enter the third year of the university immediately upon completion of college to earn a bachelor’s degree in two years rather than four. In other words, taking advantage of this opportunity is extremely promising for American students.
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