Is there value in Getting a 4 year degree versus a 2 year degree?

Posted by bob on April 8, 2021

Recently I was asked this question and unfortunately, I think I gave a quick answer rather than thinking through the problem. Worse, I gave an answer that only covered one aspect, and did not think about all 4 factors of every project. I did not suggest a solution that is Greater Than or Equal to the problem—in all dimensions.

Perhaps worst of all, I did not ask enough questions to figure out what I didn’t know or understand. (From a later email exchange, I learned that the question actually referred to some complexities of a 3-year degree versus a four year degree in Canada. In the USA, we have some similar issues where some 2-year degrees cannot be applied or transferred to a 4-year program due to the accrediting groups used and accepted by various schools. I was not even aware of the 3-year option in Canada, so my response was off-target.)

First, let’s talk about People. There are two strong emotional components to getting more education, and I only touched on the first: that there is some amount of prestige connected to any degree. So in theory, a 4 year BS (Bachelor of Science) should be more prestigious than a 2 year AS (Associates of Science) degree. Likewise, a Master’s degree (MS) should be better, and a PhD should top all prior degrees. But the second emotional component is your own desire or drive towards a particular degree. Said another way, what do you want to do with that degree?

The notion that advanced degrees carry more prestige is a shallow viewpoint. There is an odd kind of inverse bias that builds up for advanced degrees: some folks will not want to hire someone who has a far more advanced degree than the stated job requirements. I think this is because they might assume that someone with a PhD might be bored to do a job that is described as requiring a Bachelor’s degree. They might fear that person would quickly move on.

There is also an underlying assumption that as you move along the educational scale from AS to BS to MS to PhD you will find people who have increasing skills in academics and research, but equally might find people with diminishing practical skills. I have encountered enough examples that proved both of these assumptions wrong, so I think such generalization is a poor substitute for evaluating the true skills and interest of any individual applying for any job. Nonetheless, many Human Resources departments will apply arbitrary filters that will make it difficult to get hired when your education does not match the job description.

Are there more jobs advertised in the world for AS, BS, MS, or PhD candidates? I don’t know the answer to this question. And maybe number of jobs is the wrong measure, because there might be millions of jobs described as “waiter” that only require a high school education. Maybe you need to multiply the number of jobs offered by the median salary offered to get a better estimate of the opportunities?

Next, let’s talk about the factor of Time. How many years are you willing to spend collecting degrees before you feel compelled to move out into “the real world” and practice your chosen profession? I have heard education described as a marathon, where degrees mostly indicate your academic endurance. I know that in my case, I was totally ready to stop being a poor, starving student and move to what seemed like a major increase in income when I got to that BS level. And I was tired of classes and wanted to practice what I had already learned. (I had no idea how little I actually knew at that point.)

Okay, now let’s talk about the elephant in the room that I had completely ignored in my fast answer: Money. If you don’t have the money to pay for a given education, wishing and hoping will not get you there. Conversely, there are great opportunities for grants, scholarships, internships, and co-operative education (work-study) programs. Those things all exist and you should always pursue them vigorously.

Some folks are lucky enough to have parents who can and will finance their education after high-school. If you are this fortunate, ask your parents about their limits. Make sure that you are not draining their resources at an unreasonable rate.

But there is another far more dangerous aspect often dangled in front of students: loans. “Here, just sign now and sometime in the distant future you will be able to easily pay back this loan with the rich rewards such a job will give you.” But often, it turns out that job markets come and go; and the debt load can be absolutely crushing. In the USA, many student loans cannot be discharged in bankruptcy, which means you are stuck with that debt for life or until you win some kind of lottery. And that last idea makes for a lousy business plan.

So be very, very careful about using debt to finance your education. Taking longer and working your way through school can make more sense than loans. But it can be exhausting, frustrating, and is not guaranteed. Then again, nothing is guaranteed. We just have to make some choices and then work like crazy to make those choices succeed.

That brings us to the last of our four factors of any project: Results. Each person has to balance those other factors (People, Time, and Money) to try to get the best result—for them. In other words, the balance that I chose (many years ago) is very unlikely to produce the results you desire. You are going to find your own path—and that is okay.

There is another idea that young students rarely consider. You are very unlikely to do just one kind of task for your entire career. Students tend to focus strongly on those first few years they will be working in their chosen field. But most people end up changing their career arc—sometimes multiple times—and frequently end somewhere far from where they thought they were headed.

For engineers, there are many, many paths. Although an engineer might think they will do design work, there are far more jobs in other roles. For example:

  • Manufacturing engineering (translate and assure designs can actually be built in a factory)
  • Component engineering, sourcing (identifying, qualifying, and purchasing the parts)
  • Software engineering (everything has a processor today)
  • Marketing and Sales (educating potential clients and selling that bright idea)
  • Project and Program Management (delivering against impossible goals with little or no authority)
  • Management (turning many voices into a symphony)
  • Quality engineering (tracking and fixing real-world problems created by all teams above)

Each of these skill-groups might employ engineers, technologists, or both. The bigger the projects and the larger the organization, the more you will find extreme specialization. The really successful organizations manage to get every contributor to understand and appreciate the value of all of the other contributors.

Some of the stuff you learn can be used in any role:

  • Clear written and verbal communication
  • Common-sense mathematics and statistics
  • Working well with others
  • Showing up
  • Being on time

It will be up to you how you mix these soft-skills with your technical skills for any job.

In summary, you have to find the answer that makes sense for your own finances, your own academic endurance, and your own interests and goals. It is all too easy for other folks to spout advice, but you are going to have to live with your decisions. Lift up your eyes and set lofty goals, but keep track of the path you are actually walking.  Lots of folks are willing to help along way, but ultimately you are the one who has to put in the work to get there.