Four-year colleges confer bachelor’s degrees on their graduates. The majority of four-year institutions fall into one of several categories: liberal arts colleges, research universities, arts colleges, and conservatories. Each type of school is different and offers unique opportunities to its students, including research positions, extracurricular opportunities, and a selection of academic or artistic programs. Learn the pros and cons of attending a four-year school here.


What is a bachelor’s degree?

Bachelor’s degrees are given to students who complete four years of study (120 credit hours). There is no prerequisite education, besides the completion of high school, required for students to enter a baccalaureate program. Students first complete two years of general education and elective coursework. They then spend the next two years on degree-specific classes after declaring their majors around their sophomore years. Many bachelor’s degree-granting schools are residential, meaning that students live on campus while studying for their degrees. Larger schools, however, may only offer on-campus housing to freshmen, leaving older students to find housing nearby.

What are the different types of bachelor’s degrees?

Students who complete their bachelor’s degrees usually earn either a Bachelor of Science (BS) or a Bachelor of Arts (BA). BA degrees are more common at liberal arts institutions, while research institutions tend to offer both BA and BS degrees. Less commonly, students receive bachelor’s degrees specific to their fields.

  • BS degree: Students who are major in the sciences, math, and engineering will earn BS degrees, provided they are offered by their institution. The curriculum is technical and students may have to take extra courses related to their majors.
  • BA degrees: BA degrees are granted to students studying English, foreign languages, history, and communication. However, BA degrees are not limited to liberal arts tracks, and students may obtain BA degrees in science or math fields as well. While many courses are directly related to their chosen majors, students also complete a wide range of courses and electives outside of their fields.
  • If you study a particular field, you might receive a BFA (Bachelor of Fine Arts), B.Ed (Bachelor of Education), BBA (Bachelor of Business Administration), BSN (Bachelor of Science in Nursing), or BSW (Bachelor of Social Work), among others. These degrees are less common, but they are just as valid in the workplace as any other type of bachelor’s degree.

Neither a BA nor a BS is better than the other one, for graduate school or employment. Your college transcript and your related experience will speak for itself. If your school only offers BAs, you could elect to take extra science classes to strengthen your background, but the nomenclature is unlikely to negatively affect you in the future.

What is a liberal arts college?

Liberal arts colleges are often small schools that offer only bachelor’s degrees. Since liberal arts enrollment is low and there are no graduate students, faculty teach all courses and have the chance to interact with and get to know individual students. Teaching is more of a priority than faculty research at liberal arts colleges, though faculty are often encouraged to continue writing papers and books so as to stay on top of the newest research in their fields. Liberal arts colleges may offer a smaller selection of degrees than research universities. Often there are no law, nursing, or pre-med options, but students can major in political science, biology, or chemistry instead. Students gain the backgrounds necessary to succeed if they are to continue their education after graduation.

What is a research university?

Research universities are large institutions, often comprised of multiple colleges. They offer both undergraduate and graduate degrees. Large introductory courses may be fully or partially taught by graduate students instead of actual professors. At some universities, over 100 students can take any one undergraduate seminar class. Typically, though, seminar classes divide down into small groups of two dozen students that meet separately to discuss the material from the seminar or lecture. Research universities, unlike liberal arts colleges, push out cutting-edge research, and as such, all professors are also active researchers. This means that professors have to split their time between teaching and researching, so the attention that each student gets individually may be minimal. On the other hand, students may have the chance to get involved with the research and could end up with their names on academic articles.

How much research do these universities complete?

The Carnegie Commission on Higher Education began to classify research institutions in 1973. Classifications were based on the degrees conferred and the amount of research that occurred at each school. These classifications continue today, but edits to the system take place periodically, most recently in 2015.

Most commonly, you will hear about R1, R2, and R3 schools. These are institutions that award a certain number of doctoral degrees each year. The number refers to the amount, quality, cost, and fields of research. R1 schools, then, have the highest level of research activity, R2 schools still have a high amount of research, and R3 institutions complete an average amount. Schools with below average research production are not rated. For a list of R1 institutions, click here.

Which schools make up the Ivy League? How competitive are they?

There are eight Ivy League institutions: Brown University, Columbia University, Cornell University, Dartmouth College, Harvard University, the University of Pennsylvania, Princeton University, and Yale University. These schools are all located in the northeastern United States and known for highly selective admissions requirements, academic excellence, and name recognition. Ivy League institutions enroll both undergraduate and graduate students, and enrollment ranges from 6,000 to 30,000 students. Despite the small size of some, Ivy Leagues are all research universities (all except for Dartmouth are R1 institutions; Dartmouth is an R2 institution).

Many students apply to Ivy League schools because of their names and the hopes that having a diploma from one of these eight institutions will lead to better jobs in the future. These institutions, however, have low acceptance rates: Harvard accepted just 5.3% of over 37,000 applicants in 2015, and Yale University only accepted 6.49% of over 30,000. The stakes are high when you choose to apply to an Ivy League school, and these institutions should always be considered reach schools. When you construct your list of prospective schools, be sure to also include safety and match schools. Applying only to Ivies is likely to result in disappointment, no matter how competitive of an applicant you are.

What are art colleges and conservatories?

Students looking to pursue careers in the visual or performing arts may consider art and design colleges or conservatories for their postsecondary education. Both types of schools are stand-alone, four-year institutions that offer mainly arts classes. While some art and design colleges confer degrees to performing artists, the majority of their departments cater to visual artists. Conservatories, on the other hand, train musicians, dancers, actors, singers, and other students involved in the performing arts. Most commonly, art and design colleges and conservatories award Bachelor of Fine Arts (BFA) degrees.

Compared to art majors at research universities or liberal arts colleges, students enrolled at arts colleges and conservatories do not take many general education classes. Degree requirements vary across schools, but some students may only need to take English 101 along with their major coursework to graduate. Due to the limited focus of these programs, students who are not committed to careers in the arts should be wary. There are few opportunities to switch majors, and transferring credits to another school is unlikely. Students interested in pursuing master’s degrees may need to take multiple semesters of additional undergraduate coursework to meet graduate school admissions requirements.

The top arts colleges in the country are selective; in 2013, Juilliard accepted just 6.7% of applicants. To become a competitive applicant, students are encouraged to invest time into artistic training and begin assembling and perfecting their portfolios and audition pieces early in their high school careers. Applicants may have to submit portfolios of work or audition in person while also sending in test scores, transcripts, letters of recommendation, and essays. Students should visit each school’s website to learn what to include in their artistic submissions or audition repertoires.

What are the benefits of attending a four-year college?

  • You’ll be educated in a wide variety of subjects through general education requirements. Shorter programs often don’t require as many (or any) general education requirements. At a four-year institution, you will get a well-rounded education outside of your major.
  • There are more majors for you to pick from. With the exception of art schools and conservatories (where you’d only attend if you’re sure about your choice of major), four-year colleges have a wider variety of majors than community colleges or vocational schools. Two-year programs focus on specific job training, while at a four-year institution you have the option to major in the liberal arts, performing arts, sciences, or something career-focused (like architecture, pre-med, or engineering). Not all majors are offered by all four-year colleges, but the number of options at a four-year institution is large.
  • There are loads of extracurricular options. Want to play a sport, join a theater troupe, volunteer, or DJ for the campus radio station? These, and more, are all options you’ll find at a four-year institution. Two-year programs are rarely residential, so campus offerings beyond academics are limited.
  • You’ll get the traditional college experience. From the dorm room to the dining hall, you’ll have the college experience as shown in the movies.

What are the drawbacks of attending a four-year college?

  • Four-year colleges are expensive. In the 2013–2014 school year, students paid an average of $24,706 for one year of education at a four-year institution. The same year, a two-year college cost an average of $9,888. Four-year institutions then, may cost over twice as much annually and last for twice as long. That’s one massive bill for your education.
  • You won’t join the workforce until your education is complete. Unlike students getting a community college or vocational education, you’ll have to wait four years to enter the workforce full-time. Your peers will have been making money for two or more years before you even get your foot in the door at a low-level, starting position. Unless you’re considering a job that has plenty of openings (nursing, for example), you’ll be playing catch up for a while, and that’s if you manage to get a job straight out of college.
  • Recent graduates have a high unemployment rate. The unemployment rate for college graduates (aged 21-24) in 2015 was 7.2%, and the percentage of graduates working jobs beneath their skill and education levels was 14.9%. The overall unemployment rate in March 2015 was 5.5%. While the unemployment rate has come down since the Great Recession, young, educated people are still having trouble finding employment after graduation.

Are there other factors I should consider when choosing a four-year college?

Yes, if you are a high school student, you should determine your college preferences. Transfer students should look for transfer-friendly schools. Returning or adult students should find programs that fit both their lifestyles and their career aspirations. Those with the added bonus of having college credits who are hoping to decrease their overall time in school should find institutions who are willing to honor previously earned credits.

Page last updated: 04/2017