Four-Year Versus Two-Year Students: Are They Really Different?

OrtizBy Jenny Ortiz

As a Freeway Flyer I’ve been able to see the diversity not only within a classroom, but within different colleges, as well. When I think of the differences between students at my four-year university and my two-year community college, the words “traditional” and “non-traditional” come immediately to mind.

I’ve seen the traditional student most commonly in a four-year college; they’re fresh out of high school and are more  concerned with escaping their parents’ control than with preparing themselves for the real world. College, for my traditional students, is a four year bubble where they can make mistakes, find out who they are and, ultimately, figure out what they want to be when they grow up.

Recently, after a discussion of Joyce Carol Oates’ short story “Landfill,” my students at St. John’s University came up with the following concept: college let’s students be jerks. For four years they’re allowed to be selfish, self- centered, and to follow the academic, and non-academic pursuits they deem valuable at the moment.

This viewpoint can’t be said for my students at LaGuardia Community College, who view their two years in college as an obstacle keeping them away from their life. My non-traditional students are coming back after years in the real world. Many have children to raise and mortgages to pay. Most, if not all of them, work long hours and come to class with the sole purpose of finishing as quickly as possible in order to get back home. They’re not going to hang around in the student lounge and talk about local bands or events.

My students at the two-year college have a reason for coming back to school: they want to better their lives. They want to be the first person to get a degree in their family, or they want to get the promotion at work. They tell me all this the first day of class as proof that they are in my classroom to work.

With all this said, is one type of student better than the other, easier to teach, easier to reach? 

At my four-year college, students tend to be more concerned with their Resident Association Meetings than my readings. They also lack life experience, and this can make it tough for them to interpret certain essays and stories we discuss in class. The discussions, while interesting, are not always student led. However, though they may not have life experience, they do good analytical skills. Given a theme, they can argue the point thoroughly and are quick to prove their point via the reading. In addition, even the weakest writer in my class at the four-year college has confidence in her/his writing. However, this confidence at times leads them to believe the first draft is always perfect, but once they are weaned off that idea, they’re willing to learn. They trust me to teach them the craft of writing.

As for my two-year students, I’ve found they have no time to really sit and think about the material. They’re not hanging out in their dorm rooms. They have priorities, and the only time they have to really interpret the reading material is in my class. They’ve allotted this time to learning. My non-traditional students are hungrier for knowledge; they come into my classroom ready to learn. My discussions with them exceed my expectations because they are able to pull ideas and thoughts from their life experience. Writing may not be their strong suit, and many are not confident in their writing, but they come to class prepared with an understanding of drafting, and by the end of the semester, they feel good about the writing process.

What are other Freeway Flyer’s thoughts on this subject? Do you think it’s reasonable to teach two- and four-year students the same materials, or to grade their assignments using the same matrix? Can these students be viewed as intellectual equals? 

About the Freeway Flyer: Jenny Ortiz is a quite serious 23 year old New Yorker, except when unicorns (specifically chubby unicorns) are involved. When she isn’t pleading with Kurt Sutter via Twitter to be her mentor, she is teaching at St. John’s University, Adelphi University, and LaGuardia Community College (see, quite serious). When she isn’t teaching, she’s hanging out with her friends showing off  earth and water bending skills (not serious, but super fun).  When she is alone and it’s raining, she likes to read Haruki Murakami, or listen to the Broken Bells and daydream.  If you want to be a fan, you can read Jenny’s work on fictionatwork.com, Blink-ink.com, Jersey Devil Press, dogeatcrow.com, Eighty Percent Magazine and InkSpill Magazine…or you can follow her on Twitter.com/jnylynn.

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3 Comments
  1. Lance_Eaton says

    Hi Jenny,

    The dynamics of different schools whether 2 year and 4 year or even different socio-economic factors among 4 years (I teach at a private uber-expensive 4 year college and a state university) are challenging and I certainly do see some differences in resources, skills, personal investment and available tools among but I think these categories trade off in similar manners as you discuss. Given that, I tend to have the same syllabi for the same course taught at different schools. The only differences might be where the course itself is considered differently at different schools. For instance, I teach a comics course at one school, where it’s a 100 level course and at another school it’s a 200 level course. The higher level course has more demands (and expectations) of the student’s competence than the 100.

  2. Helene_Matheny says

    Very insightful, Jenny. Since I myself was a non-traditional student who DID take my education very seriously and even went on to grad school in my 30s, I do share some of these experiences with my students and try to instill in them the idea that it is never too late to learn or pursue a new career. I do also find that while my adult, non-traditional students often are more serious about getting their work done and finishing, the traditional students often have more open minds and more easily accept new ideas and varying points of view. Each group has its challenges and rewards with regard to teaching, and I feel that those of us, like yourself, have the pleasure of teaching both groups tend to overall become more well-rounded and versatile instructors.
    Thanks for a very thoughtful topic!

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