Student Resources

U.S. System of Education

The chart below overviews the different levels in the U.S. Education system.

US Education System Levels

Primary and secondary education

  • Education is free through high school and is compulsory to age 16.
  • Primary/elementary and middle/junior high school take eight years total to complete.
  • Secondary/high school takes four years to complete.
  • The "high school diploma" is the name of the certificate given to students who successfully complete the 12 years of primary, middle and secondary school. Nearly 65% of U.S. students continue to colleges and universities.
 

Associate degrees

  • Associate degrees can be completed in about two years of full-time study. These degrees are offered by two-year colleges, also known as community colleges, as well as by some colleges and universities that also have four-year undergraduate study programs.
  • Two-year/community colleges often charge lower tuition fees than four-year institutions.
  • Some associate degrees are designed to allow graduates to join the workforce immediately in technical/administrative positions. Others allow graduates to proceed directly into the third year of a bachelor’s degree. Students considering an associate degree need to look at the goals of the particular programs that they are considering.
 

Bachelor’s degrees

  • Most bachelor’s degree programs can be completed in four years of full-time study. Each year, over one million bachelor degrees are granted at almost 2,500 colleges and universities across the United States, in many different fields of study.
 

Master's degrees

  • A master’s degree can be completed in one or two years of study following the bachelor’s degree. Master's programs often require a major research paper in addition to coursework.

 

Doctoral degrees

  • Doctoral programs require an additional three to five years of study beyond the master’s degree. They are the highest degrees awarded and require coursework as well as original research and a dissertation.
 

Professional degrees

  • Medicine, dentistry and veterinary studies are four-year programs following the four-year bachelor degree course. Law school requires three years of full-time study after the bachelor’s degree.
  • Admission to first professional degree programs in medicine or veterinary medicine is extremely competitive—it is almost impossible for non-U.S. students to enter. First professional degree programs in law are also competitive and are strongly focused on preparation for U.S. legal practice. If you are interested in these fields, we encourage you to work toward licensure at home first and then come to the United States for advanced studies.
  • Professional degrees in engineering, pharmacy or architecture can be earned through undergraduate study (though degrees in these challenging fields often require five or six years to complete rather than the typical four years). It is also possible to enter these professions through graduate study.
 

Unique Features of the U.S. System

Accreditation
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.

Credit System
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.