The chart below overviews the different levels in the U.S. Education system.
The U.S. uses a rigorous and complex system of monitored self-study by six regional accrediting bodies to determine whether or not an institution is "accredited." This is the word used in the U.S. to connote "recognized" or "approved." For further information, see www.chea.org.
In addition to regional accreditation, professional accrediting bodies also recognize professional programs in some fields of study, such as engineering and architecture.
College and University
In the United States, colleges and universities are ALWAYS postsecondary (past high school) institutions. Americans use the terms "college" and "university" interchangeably, and a degree from a college is equivalent to a degree from a university. In fact, some of the most selective institutions in the U.S. are colleges; e.g., Amherst College and Swarthmore College.
HINT: Don't let the name "college" make you think your institution is less reputable or qualified than a "university."
The major differences are that colleges tend to have smaller student bodies, focus on undergraduate education and hire professors for their teaching abilities. Universities tend to be larger, offer undergraduate and graduate programs and hire faculty to teach and conduct research.
HINT: Whether U.S. institutions are public or private does not tell anything about their quality - excellent colleges and universities are common in both categories.
Public and Private Universities
The U.S. has a great variety of strong public and private universities. The oldest universities (Harvard, Yale, Princeton) were and still are private. Funding comes from tuition, grants for research, and voluntary contributions. Public institutions tend to be less expensive, but usually assess added out-of-state fees to students from other states and countries.
Progress toward graduation in the U.S. is measured through the accumulation of credits, rather than in years as in many other countries. Each course/class you successfully complete is worth a certain number of credits and a determined number of credits is required for graduation.
HINT: Students transferring from one institution to another need to ask a lot of questions about the amount of credit they will be given and, even more important, how long will it take them to complete their degree.
Ability to transfer from one university to another
The credit system allows students to "take their credits" from one undergraduate program to another, or from a two-year college to a four-year college, and not have to begin over again at the beginning. However, each university determines how much credit they will grant for previous work and how much of that credit will fulfill their requirements.
Ability to change major fields of study
"Changing majors" after enrollment is a common practice among undergraduate students. In the case of very popular or selective programs, another application may be required, but this is unusual. Changing a major may mean more time is needed to complete the requirements of the new field before being eligible to graduate, but it does give students the opportunity to move into the program best suited to their needs and abilities.