Should You Attend a 4 Year College?

Compared to the Alternatives

A four-year college is characteristically distinct from a university, community college or technical school. Part of your decision surrounding college depends upon your understanding of the differences and commonalities, as well as an up close and personal look at the particular campuses to which you are applying.


A four-year college offers students an undergraduate degree in a wide range of academic majors. Programs of study often follow a rather traditional corpus of academic curricula sometimes boiled down to “liberal arts.” Majors are offered in social and physical sciences, the classics, humanities, and the arts. Colleges might confer a Bachelor of Arts degree or a Bachelor of Science, depending on the major and their model.

Outstanding Characteristics

Distinctions can be immediately drawn between colleges and universities in size and degrees conferred. The biggest difference is a perceptual one—size. Most colleges are significantly smaller in student body, as well as campus size. And while most colleges are limited to a four-year degree, a university delivers Bachelors, Masters and Ph.D. degrees across a huge spectrum of majors and specializations.

The limitations inherent in a four-year college environment include the degree and academic limitations. Students that choose to pursue advanced degrees must apply to graduate programs at a larger university. In the process they lose the faculty familiarity that might have earned them respect in their academic field.

Official Differences

Officially the Carnegie Classification delineates the differences between four-year colleges and universities, or among all manner of collegiate institutions. Traditional Carnegie rules have chunked up institutions along lines of degree level and expanse of academic research, as well as student body size. Recently however, the antiquated classification is renovated to allow for more flexible self-assessment by individual institutions. New classifications make it reasonable that a small private college might coexist in the same category as a large public university based on a large range of criteria.

Versus Community College

Colleges differ from community colleges in degree type and academic majors. A community college confers two-year Associate degrees and offers majors more akin to professional careers or technical careers. However most also offer a transfer program that is designed to present students with college preparatory courses so they can then transfer to the four-year college. In fact quite a number of four-year college-community college partnerships have been formed to facilitate the transfer process.

Freedom of “Private”

A large number of four-year colleges are private institutions. They have founders and traditions and deep pockets lined with the contributions of their typically active alumni associations. Financial wealth also makes for quite a bit of freedom in the academic realm. Private colleges are exempt from the government requirements that affect public universities and institutions. For example, private colleges may offer scholarships to whatever categories of students they would like. They may provide an exclusive educational environment such as those provided by women’s colleges or historically black colleges.

Cost of Private College

Cost, unfortunately for some students, becomes the deciding factor in a choice between colleges and public universities or community college. It doesn’t have to be that way, though. However, it’s impossible to downplay the price-tag of today’s private colleges: $20,000 is modest and most cost thousands more.

College Environment

Colleges, because they tend to be smaller than universities, are limited in some realms. We’ve already compared their academic differences, but colleges feature smaller athletic programs, smaller classes, fewer social events choices and they may or may not promote the Greek system. While these may sound like disadvantages, to some students they are the biggest advantages.

Socially students that thrive in a more intimate environment find college campuses more suitable for their personalities. Smaller class sizes mean a much better professor to student ratio, which leads to more hands-on personal attention. A college may also afford a more controlled environment for those with study problems, time management concerns and the need for privacy. What’s more colleges may be found in rural, urban and suburban environments, another consideration. It’s not just a weekend getaway. It will be your home away from home for four years.

Choose Carefully

I speak from experience when I say that college is a subjective and personal choice. Unfortunately, most high school students lack the insight and maturity to objectively weigh the pros and cons. Even more reason to proactively make your college hunt part of your everyday life no later than your sophomore year of high school. Make sure to consult with your guidance counselor. While family and friends will try to exercise their opinions, keep it personal. Your choice between college, university or community college may matter much more than you realize.