Shorelight helps international students attend top universities in the U.S.
Shorelight helps international students attend top universities in the U.S.

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The US Higher Education System Explained

US colleges and universities offer life-changing opportunities for international students. Our definitive guide to higher education in the USA answers all your questions.

Three students wearing graduation caps and gowns sitting while the woman in the middle smiles at the camera.

If you want to study abroad in America, understanding the US higher education system is vital. Whether you plan to get a bachelor’s degree or a master’s degree from one of the many universities in the USA, it is important to learn how it works. Read on to make the most of your opportunity to pursue post-secondary education in the United States.

What is the structure of the US higher education system?

As an international student, you may be wondering how colleges and universities fit into the larger US higher education system. Students in America are required to go to school between the ages of six and eighteen in what are called grades, which run from 1st through 12th. (There is also an earlier option, called kindergarten, for the year before 1st grade, but it is not mandatory in most US states.) 

Primary, or elementary, education lasts until 5th grade, middle school or junior high school covers 6th through 8th grade, followed by secondary education in 9th-12th grades. Secondary education can cover both college-preparatory curriculum or vocational training.

After 12th grade, students have two options for post-secondary education: vocational training (typically a year or two, designed for immediate employment in a trade) or higher education (typically a two-year associate’s degree or four-year bachelor’s degree in an academic program). 

For international students in British-style education systems, you may have had thirteen years of education before entering post-secondary studies. Other countries may only have eleven years of pre-university level studies. Typically, for students enrolled in post-secondary education in the United States, US colleges and universities require twelve years of education.

What are the different types of higher education institutions in the US?

College vs. university

In many countries, post-secondary institutions are called universities. However, in the US, the words college and university are often used interchangeably. Some are even called institutes (e.g., Massachusetts Institute of Technology, California Institute of Technology). Within larger universities in the United States, there are different colleges or schools that represent different academic areas of study (e.g., College of Engineering, School of Business).

State colleges and private colleges

Depending on where you are from, the best colleges or universities may be public or run by the national or regional/state government. But in the United States, the federal government does not manage any college or university. Instead, the governments of the individual 50 states, the District of Columbia, Puerto Rico, and other US territories have the authority to operate, fund, and (in some respects) control public colleges and universities within their boundaries. 

Alternatively, private colleges can operate on their own, without direct control from state or national governments. For instance, hundreds of private colleges in the US were founded by religious denominations or churches, such as the University of Dayton (affiliated with the Catholic church) and University of the Pacific (a Methodist university). 

According to U.S. News & World Report, in 2017 there were 4,298 post-secondary colleges and universities in the United States: 1,626 public, 1,687 private, and 985 for-profit. Among the top twenty US universities with the most international students (according to the 2019 Open Doors Fast Facts report), thirteen are public and seven are private. So, remember: quality is not determined by whether a college or university is public or private. 

Tech colleges and community colleges

While most international students come to the United States for academic programs, some students enroll in technical or vocational colleges designed for job training, like flight school or air traffic control programs. 

Additionally, another option in American post-secondary education is community college. Community colleges offer low-cost education in local communities and provide workforce preparation or credits toward completing a bachelor’s degree. According to the American Association of Community Colleges (AACC), there are almost “1,200 2-year, associate degree-granting institutions and more than 12 million students” enrolled in these colleges. Approximately 100,000 international students currently attend community colleges in the United States.

What are the different education levels and degree types at US colleges and universities?

Undergraduate 

Undergraduate studies can start immediately after secondary school. There are two main options: a two-year associate’s degree and a four-year bachelor’s degree. 

Generally, associate’s degrees are granted at two-year US community colleges, while bachelor’s degrees are awarded from four-year colleges and universities. In both cases, students choose a focus for their academic studies called a major. In addition to courses in a major, students take required core curriculum or general education classes that develop critical thinking and communication skills.

Graduate

Graduate studies are only available to students who have completed a bachelor’s degree. In many countries, graduate studies are called post-graduate studies and can take up to five years or more. In the US, the term post-graduate studies can refer to work after a master’s degree program, including studies for a doctoral degree. 

International students who have finished bachelor’s degrees in their home countries, the United States, or third countries have two options for graduate studies in the United States: master’s and doctorate (or doctoral) degrees. 

Master’s degrees can require one to two years of study. In the final term of most master’s programs, students must complete a thesis (a large, well-documented essay) or a project before they will be awarded the master’s degree.

The length of doctorate programs will depend on two things: 

  1. whether students must first complete a master’s degree in a related field, and

  2. how long it takes to complete a dissertation

Generally, if you have finished a master’s degree and are then admitted to a doctoral program, the coursework will take two to three years. After finishing doctoral classes, you typically begin work on a dissertation or research paper/project that serves as the focus of your degree studies. With any paper or project, a faculty member will serve as a director or adviser.

In addition to these degree programs, international students may take various other continuing education or certification courses. Some are in addition to degree studies, while others may count toward meeting licensing requirements to work in certain fields. 

What should I know about courses of study and choosing a major?

The US education system is designed to teach life skills that will serve students well, no matter which career they choose after graduation. So, students enrolled in colleges or universities will take a variety of courses in order to get a degree. 

For many international students, taking courses outside their intended academic field of study is a foreign concept. But US colleges and universities value liberal arts classes in subjects like history, English literature, and foreign language as well as mathematics, social, and natural sciences. These courses are considered important foundations for critical thinking, logical thought, and communications skills.

Majors, minors, and concentrations

When starting college or university, international students should not expect to have more than half their total classes in their intended major. Majors represent what students are most interested in learning to prepare for a career in a related field of study or to go on to graduate school. 

Minors are other academic focus areas in addition to a major, and typically require half as many classes as a major.  

Concentrations are specializations within a given major that allow students to explore a more specific area of study. For example, at the University of South Carolina, the department of history offers regional concentrations (i.e., Latin America, Middle East/North Africa, etc.) as well as thirteen different subject areas such as political history, history of slavery, or history of religion. 

BA vs BS vs BFA Degrees

When it comes to bachelor’s degrees in the United States, the three most common are BA (bachelor of arts), BS (bachelor of science), and BFA (bachelor of fine arts). BA degrees focus on liberal arts majors in humanities and social sciences, while BS degrees cover business, math, sciences, engineering, health sciences, and other tech fields. BFA degrees align with the creative arts, such as music or dance.

Accreditation

International students may wonder which US colleges and universities are government-approved. Remember, in America, there is no Ministry of Higher Education, and the federal government does not determine which colleges or universities may operate. 

In the US education system, there are six regional accreditation groups that enable nearly all public and private nonprofit colleges and universities to operate. (Most for-profit private colleges are accredited by national accrediting groups.) Within each institution, there may be several academic programs that also have a national program accreditor as well (e.g., ABET, which focuses on the quality of science, technology, engineering, and math—or STEM—programs). Program accreditations are signs of academic quality as well. 

To research the accreditations of the US colleges you are considering, visit the U.S. Department of Education’s online database. When in doubt, only choose accredited US colleges and universities for your academic studies.

As international students, you also will need to check that these universities and colleges are legally able to enroll students who want to study abroad in the USA. The Department of Homeland Security (DHS) requires all US colleges and universities to apply for certification (and recertification every two years) in order to issue the I-20 forms that international students use to apply for student visas. You can research certified colleges on the DHS website

What do I need to know about college applications and applying to university in the USA?

When applying to US colleges and universities, be ready for a fairly complex, lengthy, and sometimes confusing process. But with the right approach and appropriate guidance, you can find the right place that meets your needs. (Check out our How to Study in the USA article for all the specifics.) 

College application forms

While most colleges have their own application forms online, prospective undergraduate international students may also be able to use the Common Application to apply to one (or more) of nearly 900 US colleges and universities. If you are applying to Shorelight partner institutions, you can use one online application to apply to multiple institutions for both undergraduate and graduate programs. Whichever form you use, be aware that each college sets its own application deadlines. Additionally, beyond an application form, each university or college will have its own required application checklist.

Standardized tests

International student applicants will need to take at least one type of test to determine English proficiency (e.g., TOEFL, IELTS, PTE Academic, Duolingo, iTEP). SAT or ACT test scores may be required for undergraduate students, while graduate programs may need a GRE or GMAT score to submit an application. Ask in advance: a growing number of undergraduate colleges and graduate departments are now test-optional (including Shorelight partner institutions) when it comes to SAT/ACT or GRE/GMAT. 

Academic records

For most colleges in the US education system, your academic records (translated into English) will be the most important piece of the evaluation process. For undergraduate applicants, that means submitting transcripts from every institution you have previously attended: your complete secondary school academic transcripts, external exams, and (for transfer students) any prior colleges or universities. For graduate applicants, it means submitting official copies of undergraduate (and any graduate) degree transcripts of coursework taken. 

Essay and recommendations

More selective colleges and universities will require an essay (for undergraduate applicants) or statement of purpose (for graduate applicants) and letters of recommendation. Essay topics can be as broad as “What do you want to do with your life?” or as specific as “What event has had the biggest impact on you?” Letters of recommendation should be written by someone who has either taught you in a class and can speak to your academic abilities, or by an advisor who can provide a more well-rounded perspective on the kind of person you are.

Whichever path you choose, the college application process is not meant to be done alone. A dedicated college guidance counselor or advisor can assist you through the college admissions process.

How do transfer credits work?

If you have already done some undergraduate coursework, you may be considered a transfer student, and this can change application requirements for study in the US. 

Transfer students have a slightly different application process, especially with standardized test requirements and deadlines. Some colleges and universities may only take transfer undergraduate or graduate applicants for the fall term, while others let transfer students start in spring or even summer. 

The classes you have already taken may count toward your bachelor’s degree requirements. These are called transfer credits. Transfer programs at US colleges and universities are designed for students who have not taken more than two years of study and, at many colleges, no more than two years of course credit can be applied toward fulfilling degree requirements. 

How is the academic year set up in the USA?

Semesters, trimesters, quarters

In the American education system, the academic year typically begins in August or September. Depending on the university, the academic year may be divided into quarters, trimesters, or semesters, and will run until May or June. For colleges that follow semesters, the fall term runs from late August or early September to mid-December, and the spring semester runs from January through May.

When to apply

For new international undergraduate students considering US colleges and universities, applications are generally accepted as early as a year before the academic term you wish to join. For example, if you want to start at the University of Illinois at Chicago in late August 2020, you could have applied for admission as early as September 2019. 

While many selective universities in the USA have regular admissions application deadlines in January or February, some colleges also offer early decision or early action deadlines in November. These earlier deadlines give students the chance to get a decision as far in advance as possible, although it often requires a commitment to enroll if admitted. Other colleges have rolling admissions policies and will accept applications throughout the year for the next academic term (or year).

Typically, early decision or early action applicants find out if they are accepted within a month of the submission deadline. For January or February application deadlines, students will learn if they are admitted in March or early April. International students who apply to rolling admissions colleges, like many of the Shorelight partner universities, generally find out as early as a few days to three to four weeks. 

How to enroll

After admission, you will be told what your next steps are to accept an offer from a college or university. Many American universities will set a deadline date for admitted students to send in their deposit (the amount varies by college) to hold their place for the next academic year.

What is the classroom experience like in the US?

The undergrad classroom

In US colleges, class sizes can be as large as 400 students in an auditorium or as small as four students around a table. At larger state universities, you will likely find big class sizes in the first two years of study. At liberal arts colleges, smaller class sizes (10 to 20 students) are standard. Colleges and universities must list on their websites their average student-to-faculty ratio (i.e., how many students are on campus for every faculty member and the average class size), so you can easily get a sense of the class sizes at the colleges that interest you.

For instruction, professors and academic experts typically teach college classes. Teaching assistants (often graduate students working for a professor) may teach large lecture classes or smaller lab or discussion sections. In addition to teaching staff, you will have either an academic advisor or faculty advisor (once you declare an academic major) who will help you choose classes and make sure you are on track for graduation.

On the first day of each class at the beginning of an academic term, students receive a syllabus from the professor or instructor, which covers what students can expect during the course — all the scheduled quizzes, tests, papers, and final exam requirements. Additionally, the syllabus will list the required textbooks and the reading that must be done for each class meeting. In many classes, the syllabus will also break down what percentage of your course grade comes from papers, quizzes, tests, group projects, mid-term and final exams, and even classroom participation. (That’s right — in many courses your grade is impacted by your involvement in discussions!)

Campus jobs and co-ops

Once you are settled, you may want to explore the opportunity to work on campus. Legally, as F-1 student visa holders, if there are jobs on campus available for international students, you can work up to 20 hours per week while classes are in session and up to 40 hours per week during vacation periods. 

As you progress into your academic major, there may be internships, co-ops, or other work options off-campus in jobs related to your program. Keep an eye out for these opportunities and be sure to bring this topic up with your academic/faculty advisor and also with your international student advisor, as there are immigration regulations that you will need to be familiar with and permission you will need to receive before working off-campus. Many of these internships or co-ops may also offer credits toward your degree studies.

The grad student experience

For graduate students, similar classroom and work rules apply for both master’s degree and doctorate coursework. Graduate students will have a required master’s thesis/project or doctoral dissertation at the end of a graduate program. These could take anywhere from a few months for a master’s thesis to two or more years for a dissertation.

What is the grading system at US colleges and universities?

Grades

Most US colleges use a combination of a 4.0 grade point average (GPA) scale and a letter grading system from A to F. Grades often look like: 

  • A = 4.0 Best

  • B = 3.0

  • C = 2.0

  • D = 1.0

  • F = 0.0 Worst

Many American universities will also use different categories–A, A-, B+, B, B-, C+, C, C-, D+, D, D-, and F–and the +/- will have a different value on the 4.0 scale (e.g., A- = 3.7, B+ 3.3). Some universities offer classes with Pass/Fail or Satisfactory/Unsatisfactory grades, but these will not impact a student’s GPA. 

Credits

Students usually take between three and six classes each academic term, and each class is given a certain number of academic credits. As long as you pass a course (i.e., a D grade or better) you will get full credit for that course. 

Most university classes are worth between three and five credits. The number of credits per class varies by the hours of instruction each week. For example, if you have a course that meets a total of three hours a week over the course of a sixteen-week semester, that course will typically be worth three credit hours. If you have three hours of instruction plus an hour lab section each week, the course will likely be a four-credit class.

So, over one semester, let’s say you have five classes worth three credits each. If you pass each course, you will receive fifteen credits. If, over eight semesters (or four academic years), you took that same number of credits each term and passed each class, you would have 120 credits and the end of your program. Most bachelor’s degrees require 120 to 133 credits, depending on the field of study.

How successful are international students studying in the USA?

More international students choose to study in the USA than in any other country. According to the Institute of International Education (IIE) 2019 Open Doors Report, foreign students make up 5.5% of all college students in the US, and for the fourth year in a row, more than one million students from overseas studied at American colleges and universities. 

For international students who complete degrees in the United States, roughly 60-65% choose to stay in the US for work opportunities. For F-1 student visa holders, that means one to three years of potential paid employment in your field of study, depending on your major. This work permission is called Optional Practical Training (OPT). If you enroll in a STEM major, you can have three years of OPT for each degree level (bachelor’s, master’s, and doctoral) you complete in the United States. 

Of the million-plus international students in the United States in the 2018-19 academic year, more than 20% were in OPT. Over the last five years, the number of F-1 students on OPT has increased by more than 85%. 

A recent international student satisfaction survey from World Education Services revealed that 92% of current international students and 89% of recent alumni believe their US education was a good investment, and 85% of students and 88% of alumni feel positive about their career prospects.

US education system terms to know: a US colleges and universities glossary

  • Academic credits: the unit of measure for a student’s progress toward graduation. A typical university-level bachelor’s degree class is worth three credits. Normally, to graduate with a bachelor’s degree, students need to earn between 120 and 133 credits, which equals 40 to 44 classes.

  • Accreditation: six regional and dozens of program-specific groups, recognized by the U.S. Department of Education, that permit colleges to operate as educational institutions.

  • Associate degree: the first academic degree possible after completing secondary school. This two-year degree program has an academic focus in one area with a number of other classes in the liberal arts. Associate degrees are normally completed at two-year community colleges.

  • Bachelor’s degree–typically a four-year degree completed at post-secondary colleges and universities.

  • College: a post-secondary institution in the United States. It can be a two-year institution for either academic or vocational studies or a four-year academic institution. Within universities, the academic divisions may be called colleges (e.g., College of Arts and Sciences, College of Business, etc.).

  • Community college: a two-year post-secondary educational institution that primarily offers associate degree programs.

  • Doctoral degree: often called a PhD (doctor of philosophy) or EdD (doctor of education), this is the highest academic level of study offered in the United States. Doctoral programs are available to students who have either completed a bachelor’s degree or master’s degree in a related subject. The length of the program depends on whether students already have a master’s before entry and the time it takes after completion of coursework to write a required dissertation (between one and four years).

  • GPA: the academic grade point average students receive from their various classes taken in college or university. Generally, students are graded in each course on a 4.0 scale (4 being high, 0 low). In the US education system, a 4.0 GPA equals an A, 3.0 is a B, 2.0 is a C, 1.0 is a D, and 0.0 is an F.

  • Graduate studies: academic programs that start after completing a four-year undergraduate degree and generally lead to master’s or doctorate degrees.

  • Liberal arts: areas of study covering humanities subjects like history, English literature, foreign language, mathematics, social studies, and natural sciences.

  • Liberal arts college: post-secondary institutions that focus primarily on academic programs in the humanities and social sciences.

  • Major: the primary focus of an undergraduate student’s degree studies. Majors are similar to the term “course of study” for international students. In US colleges and universities, the major represents anywhere from 33-50% of the total number of classes a student takes to graduate.

  • Master’s degree: normally a one- to two-year graduate study degree with an intensive focus in a particular academic subject. A master’s thesis or project is often required.

  • Quarter: An academic calendar variation that divides the year into four 10-week-long periods, with only three required (fall, winter, spring).

  • School: a US institution that educates students; often refers to places with K-12 learners. Within colleges and universities, “schools” can be considered a sub-division of a university’s academic areas (e.g., School of Engineering, School of Business). It can also be used as a slang term (e.g., “How many schools are you applying to?”).

  • Semester: a common measurement for an academic term. Typically, colleges and universities have two semesters (fall and spring) in a required academic year. Each semester is approximately sixteen weeks long. Many universities also offer a summer semester for students who do not start in fall or for those who may want or need to take additional courses to accelerate or stay on track with their academic programs.

  • State university: a public four-year institution, funded in part by the state in which it is located. Public state universities tend to have large student body sizes.

  • Transfer credits: credits for students who have already completed some academic work at a different university that is then applied toward a degree program at a new university where the student is enrolled.

  • Trimester: an academic calendar that follows three terms–fall, winter, and spring. Each trimester is twelve to thirteen weeks long.

  • Undergraduate studies: the first level of academic studies students take after completing secondary school. Undergraduate studies lead to either associate’s or bachelor’s degrees.

  • University: a four-year post-secondary educational institution. These institutions can offer all levels of post-secondary degrees (associate, bachelor’s, master’s, and doctorate).

To learn more about the value of enrolling in a US college or university, get in touch with an education counselor today >