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Last Updated: September 02, 2021

USA - Higher Education System

The U.S has a higher literacy rate when compared to other countries and is ranked among the top in the world for the highest percentage of individuals with degrees. This is primarily because of the high quality of education offered, the rising number of institutes for higher education, highly skilled educators, and an equal emphasis on practical and theoretical learning.

The U.S system of higher education offers ample opportunities for students to gain knowledge, broaden horizons and understanding, gather varied life-enriching experiences while making a significant addition to their employability. The flexibility of the system allows students to choose subjects of their liking, which is one of the reasons why it is a popular destination for numerous international students.

Types of Institutions

Institutions of higher learning in the US are generally categorized as colleges and universities. The educational institution can be public, and private (for-profit and nonprofit). A public institution is funded by the state government and public taxes and is operated under the regulations of the state. Private institutions are those that are operated by non-governmental bodies and are supported through donations, fundings by sponsors, and the fee collected from students. Colleges may be further grouped as community colleges (two-year colleges that offer associate degrees), and liberal arts colleges (colleges that strongly focus on Liberal Arts and Sciences). The Council on Higher Education Accreditation (CHEA) and the U.S. Department of Education (ED) are organizations that regulate accreditation agencies to analyze the educational quality and overall merit of institutions. Accreditations can be categorized into three types, namely, National, Regional, and Programmatic. According to the Carnegie Classification of Institutions of Higher Education, institutions can be classified as Doctoral Universities, Master’s Colleges and Universities, Baccalaureate Colleges, Baccalaureate/Associate, Associate Colleges, Special Focus Institutions, and Tribal Colleges.

Types of Degrees

A large number of public and private universities offer post-secondary education at undergraduate, graduate, and postgraduate levels.

Associate Degree

In case students wish to complete a course and secure entry-level jobs sooner, they may apply for an associate degree. This is a program that generally takes two years for students to complete a course. There is a wide range of courses offered in colleges and universities in the U.S. The students are to choose a major to take up courses related to the field of study.

Undergraduate degrees

A bachelor’s degree is offered in various fields such as Arts, Science, Engineering and Technology, Medicine, and traditionally has a time span of 4 years (Although additional time is provided when deemed necessary). The basic admissions criteria include good high school scores, high performance in standardized tests such as SAT, ACT, etc.(this is applicable for all of the A and B-ranked universities). In almost all institutions, students also have the liberty and flexibility to change their majors and discover fields that bring out the most in them. Common designations for a bachelor's candidate are Bachelor of Arts (B.A), and Bachelor of Science (B.Sc.). Based on the specialization, it can be further categorized into Bachelor of Fine Arts (BFA), Bachelor of Science in Nursing (BSN), Bachelor of Engineering (BEng), and so on.

Master's degrees

These are generally rigorous, full-time, 2 to 3-year courses. A master's degree from a reputed university invariably makes one a master of the field. Depending upon the structure of the program one may have to write a thesis. However, some courses do not require the students to write one. Graduate courses in Law or Medicine may require students to pass the LSAT or MCAT examinations. A master's degree can be professional or academic in nature, and the course duration may vary according to the nature of the degree. Some master programs are aimed at preparing students for a higher degree and credits from such programs could be transferred towards a Ph.D.

Doctorate degrees

These are usually 4 to 6-year programs. Depending on the chosen field of specialization, the time period can also extend to seven years. The program aims at imparting education and training in very specific fields of study. Ph.D. students are expected to do extensive research and are required to file a dissertation to complete the course. Depending on the institute or the area of specialization a student may have to learn two foreign languages. Doctorate degrees in the US are generally funded. Students pursuing a Ph.D. are paid a monthly stipend to cover living and education expenses.

Academic Year

The two main intake seasons of U.S. universities and colleges are Fall and Spring. The fall semester begins around mid of August and ends in December. Spring intake starts in January and concludes in early May. Some universities allow a summer intake where new students can be accepted in May. Fall intakes usually see higher applicants and many of the deserving students choose to apply for the Fall semester.

Fee Structure and Financial Aid

Studying in the USA is not exactly cheap, especially for international students. The higher education system in the USA is highly decentralized. Public and non-profit institutes charge lesser tuition and other fees as compared to private institutes. However, there is a major cost difference in the fee requirement for in-state and out-of-state students (the overall fee is generally double the amount of in-state fees) in public universities, whereas private universities do not follow this pattern. International students are almost always charged much higher than US nationals. However, some universities do have a policy of providing financial assistance to deserving international students. Students may apply for full/part scholarships and educational loans or may choose to work on or off-campus to cover educational and living expenses. Read Scholarships for Higher Studies to get a more comprehensive idea of scholarships in the U.S.
There are also substantial amounts of financial resources available for students who wish to pursue higher education in the US. Check out Types of Financial Resources to understand more about the various types of financial resources for students.

Credit and Grading System

Credits are basically the duration of hours that a student is required to cover during a program. The hours may be calculated based on the lectures taken, student preparation, and other activities included in the curriculum. For example, if an institution follows the semester system, an undergraduate program may require students to cover 120 credit hours. This number will differ if the institution follows the quarterly system. The number of academic credits vary depending on the department, or the duration of the course, and may influence the structure of tuition fee, as well as a student's GPA.

The system of grading can differ depending on the institution or the department. The grading system can be broadly divided into three categories, namely, norm-referenced system, criterion-referenced system, and pass-fail system.

Major Organizations for Higher Education

Given below are the major organizations that play a crucial role in the field of higher education in the USA:

Positive Features of the U.S Education System

The U.S education system has several positive factors that foster thinking out of the box, and thereby, allow students to discover their complete potential. This adds to its appeal making the U.S.A one of the most ideal destinations for higher education.
Over the past two decades, many US universities have been offering individual courses or even full-time degrees at undergraduate and graduate levels online, facilitated through the Internet. Some institutes also offer 'low-residency programs' which are mostly online and require some on-campus attendance. The fact that online courses can be taken while working makes them popular amongst professionals. Students may prefer online courses for flexibility and convenience. Usually, online courses with credits that count towards a degree charge a fee while courses without credits are mostly free. Course fees can vary widely from one university to another but in general online colleges are more affordable than the traditional ones.

In general, almost all of the top universities require candidates to secure good GRE/GMAT scores. International students are required to demonstrate proficiency in English which is to be established through language proficiency tests like IELTS or TOEFL. It is advisable to understand the eligibility criterion of the university one will be applying to, as a few universities do accept applicants without a GRE score. Universities examine all applications thoroughly before admitting the student.

International students require an F-1 visa for attending academic institutions. This visa allows them to stay in the United States while being enrolled as a full-time student. All students with F-1 visas are allowed to work part-time during courses and full-time during vacations to support tuition and other expenses. Other visa types include J-1 visas for exchange students and M-1 visas for non-academic studies.

For Students

Universities in the Country

Understanding the Education System