Whether a Two or Four-Year College Is Better Depends on a Student’s Goal

Should students wanting to succeed attend a four-year college? Not necessarily.

By Maria Bunkers and Maria DiGiacomo

As high school students, we’re almost pressured into choosing a city, a college, and a degree, normally a four-year one, to set up the rest of our lives.

A common perception is that a four year degree equals success. In a recent poll the Pine Needle conducted of high school and college students, 82% said they believe society portrays success as a four-year college degree. While this was the case, 63% said that a four-year school wasn’t the only way to success for them individually.

Society’s pressure is exemplified by a high school graduate who says, “All throughout high school, they made it sound like going to college was our only option.” However, this is not the case; there are other options that set people up well for the future, some even better than a four-year degree.

For example, statistics from local schools Western Dakota Technical Institute (WDT) and South Dakota School of Mines and Technology (SDSM&T) show that both schools have a placement rate of 96%. For Mines, this placement rate is solely for jobs, but it includes jobs, military, and further education for WDT. Mines is a top ranked school in the nation for value by several federal and national organizations, so SDSM&T is a school to be reckoned with. The fact that WDT—a technical institute—has the same placement rate demonstrates the potential of two-year schools.

When comparing vocational schools to four-year degree programs, the U.S. Department of Education has said that people who are educated through vocational or technical schools have a greater chance of entering the workforce than their counterparts. Occupations that handle heating, plumbing, electricity—all of these are essential to keep communities running—will never disappear. These career fields are often overlooked, but they are in high demand and are continually growing. According to a recent study by EMSI, trade jobs hold some of the highest potential in the work field. This high demand, in accordance with technical schools’ placement rates (like WDT’s), proves vocational schools build successful lives for individuals.

Two-year colleges offer an excellent opportunity for students to quickly complete their education and start working in a good-paying career field and with less overall student debt.

Not only is the job outlook encouraging for trade schools, but so is the cost. The estimated program costs for an individual at WDT ranges from $3,940-$23,631—much cheaper than four-year universities. According to the 2015-2016 WDT placement report, students were making an average salary of $30,800 fresh out of school, setting young adults up well for the start of their future. Tiffany Howe—Vice President for Teaching and Learning at WDT—adds onto this:

Two-year colleges offer an excellent opportunity for students to quickly complete their education and start working in a good-paying career field and with less overall student debt. The majority of WDT’s two year programs are very involved with hands-on learning and also include internships or clinical hours where students gain valuable industry experience.

However, a four-year school can be better depending on a student’s field of interest. Those who desire to enter the medical field to earn an M.D. should definitely attend a four-year university, as should anyone whose desired occupation requires education four-years or beyond. In addition, if a technical school has the same program as a four-year university, the outcome will tend to be better at the university. A comparison between the two-year computer science program at WDT and the four-year computer science major at SDSM&T reveals this:

Total tuition and fees $41,305.20 $21,137
Credits 120 69
Average starting salary $72,152 $40,560


Even though the four-year degree is initially more expensive, it becomes more affordable than the technical institute as time goes on due to SDSM&T’s higher starting salary.

Four and two-year schools have their pros and cons, but both have a purpose. The perception that a four-year degree is the only way to be successful stands corrected; success is defined differently for every person, and a two-year degree can be one of those definitions. Be bold enough to go against society’s norms and follow your interests to where they will best be served.

Photo: Success by Go Digital on Flickr