Examine Alternative Routes to a 4-Year Degree

Students should consider the potential pitfalls of the 2 + 2 path to a college degree.

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As economic uncertainty continues to linger, more families are taking stock of potential alternatives to the traditional path to a four-year college degree. A popular option is one that involves taking the first two years of college at a less expensive two- or four-year college and then transferring into a higher profile (and higher priced) four-year institution from which the degree is granted.

On the surface, this strategy seems very practical as a cost-savings measure. It becomes even more so if the student is able to avoid residential expenses by living at home for the first two years. Upon closer examination, however, the net impact—financially and educationally—might not always match expectations.

The following are common reasons for taking the "2 + 2" route to a four-year college degree—and the potential pitfalls that accompany each:

1. "Since she doesn't know what she wants to do, she can explore at the community college or a local state university where the cost per credit isn't nearly as high." In other words, "we don't want to pay for her to find herself."

This would seem to be a very pragmatic approach when dealing with academic and/or career uncertainty, especially if money is tight. After all, why pay top dollar for an educational experience when the student isn't focused on a specific career interest?

Educators, on the other hand, would argue that this uncertainty—quite normal in nature—is precisely what a college education should address. In fact, their curricula are designed to help young people find a sense of direction and purpose in life. At liberal arts colleges in particular, the exposure students have to a breadth of disciplines during the first two years is critical to the process of learning how to learn.

[Get advice from U.S. News on finding the right school.]

2. "Four years of college is quite an expense. He can go to the community college at a fraction of the cost he'd pay at a four-year college and then transfer for his last two years to complete his degree."

This may be a valid point from a financial perspective; however, look for evidence that the classroom experience at the community college will prepare the student to move comfortably and seamlessly into the third year at a four-year college. In particular, be sensitive to differences in the style of instruction as well as the level of rigor that can be found between two-year and four-year educational sequences. Make sure the respective sequences are consistent with each other (course sequences don't always match up well across institutions) and are good matches with your learning style and levels of ability and preparation.

In addition, be alert to the transferability of credits into the destination colleges. The presence of honors or scholars programs and/or articulation agreements with four-year colleges is a good tip-off. Most articulation agreements will ensure a transfer of completed credits and often will provide assurances of need-based financial aid for transferring students.

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3. "He really struggled academically in high school so community college would be a good place for him to start fresh and begin to build his confidence."

This is perhaps the best reason to consider going the community college route. Students with marginal academic records coming out of high school can "wipe the slate clean" with a fresh start at a two-year college. And they can do so in an environment that is much more forgiving without the prospect of costing their families tens of thousands of dollars in the process. The trick is to achieve an academic record during the first two years that will warrant an offer of admission at a destination college.

If you are considering a 2 + 2 route to college for any reason, do so with your eyes wide open. Visit the four-year (destination) colleges that interest you. Inquire about their involvement with articulation agreements and ask for an evaluation of the curriculum you are considering at other two- or four-year colleges to find out which courses will eventually transfer for credit.

The last thing you want is to transfer into a four-year college that doesn't recognize all of the credits you accumulated during the first two years. And, if you need financial assistance, make sure the destination colleges under consideration routinely make need-based financial aid available to transfer students.


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