These questions will help you decide

By James Militzer

1. Did you have less than a 3.0 GPA in high school?

If so, says Lynn O’Shaughnessy, you might have trouble tackling a bachelor’s program. “To evaluate whether you’re ready to handle a four-year school, the main criteria you should use is your GPA. And there’s just something about that 3.0 mark that’s important-studies suggest that people who get a 3.0 or higher in high school do better in college.”

2. Are you willing to practice a specific trade for your entire career?

If you are, an associate or trade school degree should be sufficient. “If there’s something very specific you want to do, the vocational route works,” says Jason Rich. “But your career path is going to be very focused. If you go to school to become an electrician or a plumber, that’s what you’re going to do for the rest of your professional life. Whereas if you go to a four-year school and pursue business, for example, you could learn as you go and mold that into a lot of different things.”

3. Do your life circumstances require you to launch your career quickly?

If you’re in a hurry to start working, a community college or trade school might be preferable to a longer program. “Because they’re so occupationally targeted, community colleges are a good way to learn a highly saleable skill in a fairly short amount of time,” says Laurence Shatkin. “And they usually have a good rapport with the local industrial base, who encourage them to offer programs that will provide the workforce that employers are going to need. So they’re not likely to offer programs that lead to unemployability.”

4. Do you want a professional career, but are unsure about which profession?

If so (and if you can handle the tuition bills) the flexible structure of a four-year degree could help you find your calling. “Spend the first two years learning as much as you can about what’s out there,” Rich says. “Take electives that go out in totally different directions, pursue internships in different industries, just to figure out what your interests are. Then when you find something you like, spend the next two years building up your skill set by focusing on the classes you need for your major.”

5. Do you want to acquire diverse skills that will prepare you for a variety of job opportunities?

According to Shatkin, a bachelor’s can provide the general knowledge and thinking skills that will help you continually evolve in your career. “Lifelong learning is becoming more and more important, because technology and market conditions are going to change. For example, if your company starts dealing with a foreign market they haven’t dealt with before, language skills will suddenly become really important. And if a new technology or computer application comes along, you need the critical thinking and self-discipline to learn it. You might not get those things with a two-year degree.”

6. Does your dream career require highly specialized knowledge and strong research or teaching skills?

If so, says Shatkin, a graduate degree could be for you. “Basically, unless it’s a professionally oriented school where you learn the tools and techniques of a particular occupation, most graduate degrees teach you how to do research. If you’re going into college teaching, those research skills are useful, and the demand for college teaching will be huge. But there are a limited number of occupations for which those are useful skills.”

7. Are you willing to spend significant time and money in the short term to improve your career prospects in the long term?

Graduate-level classes are considerably more expensive than undergraduate classes-and they require a lot more work. But in Rich’s view, “That relatively short commitment will pay off big later on, when you get the degree and it translates into a much higher-paying job. You’ve really got to think long-term, and focus on what your career goals are, both immediately and in the next five or ten years. Ultimately I really recommend you get as much education as you can, as long as it’s relevant to the work you want to pursue.”


Questions 1-3: If you answered yes to two or more of these questions, an associate’s or trade school degree might be your best bet.

Questions 4-5: If you answered yes to both of these questions, you probably should start with a bachelor’s degree.

Questions 6-7: If you answered yes to both of these questions, a graduate degree could help you achieve your goals.