American Education System: The US Higher Education System Detail Explained

Let us help you find your best fit university ! Find Your school

For international students, US colleges and universities present opportunities that can change their lives. All of your questions about higher education in the USA are addressed in our comprehensive guide.

Understanding the American higher education system is essential if you want to study abroad in America. It is crucial to understand how it operates whether you intend to obtain a bachelor’s or master’s degree from one of the numerous universities in the USA.


Continue reading to learn how to make the most of your chance to pursue post-secondary education in the US.

What Is the US Higher Education System’s Structure?

You might be wondering how colleges and universities fit into the larger US higher education system as an international student. Between the ages of six and eighteen, students in America are required to attend school.These students are divided into first through twelfth grade groups.

(Kindergarten is an earlier option for the year prior to first grade, though it is not required in the majority of US states.)

Fifth grade marks the end of primary or elementary school, followed by middle school or junior high school for grades six through eight and secondary school for grades nine through twelve. Both vocational training and courses that prepare students for college can be found in secondary education.

Following high school, students have two options for post-secondary education: higher education (typically a two-year associate’s degree or four-year bachelor’s degree in an academic program) or vocational training .

In educational systems modeled after those in the United Kingdom, you might have completed 13 years of secondary education before beginning post-secondary coursework. There may only be 11 years of pre-university education in other nations. US colleges and universities typically require 12 years of education for students enrolled in post-secondary education.

What Kinds of Higher Education Institutions Are There in the US?

University vs. a college

Universities are the name given to post-secondary institutions in many nations. However, the terms college and university are frequently used synonymously in the US. The Massachusetts Institute of Technology and the California Institute of Technology are two examples of those that are even given the name institutes. There are various colleges or schools that represent various academic fields of study within larger American universities (for example, the College of Engineering and the School of Business).

State Universities and Private Institutions

The best colleges or universities may be public or operated by the federal, state, or regional government, depending on where you are from. The federal government, however, does not oversee any colleges or universities in the United States. Instead, it is up to the governments of each of the 50 states, the District of Columbia, Puerto Rico, and other US territories to run, finance, and (in some ways) control public colleges and universities that are located within their respective jurisdictions.

As an alternative, private colleges may run independently of local, state, or federal governments. Examples include the University of Dayton, a Catholic university affiliated with the church, and the University of the Pacific, a Methodist college, both of which are among the hundreds of private colleges founded by religious organizations or churches in the US.

According to the National Center for Education Statistics, there will be 5,916 post-secondary colleges and universities in the United States in 2022, including 1,892 public, 1,754 private, and 2,270 for-profit institutions.
According to the 2022 Open Doors Fast Facts report, 13 of the top 20 US universities with the most international students are public institutions, while seven are private. So keep in mind that a college or university’s quality is independent of its status as a public or private institution.

Tech Colleges and Community Colleges

While most foreign students come to the United States for academic programs, some enroll in technical or vocational schools that offer programs like flight school or air traffic control that are intended to provide job training.

Community college is also a choice for post-secondary education in the United States. Community colleges provide low-cost instruction in the area and can be used to earn credits toward a bachelor’s degree or to prepare students for the workforce.

There are almost “1,200 two-year, associate degree-granting institutions and more than 12 million students” enrolled in these colleges, according to the American Association of Community Colleges (AACC). In the United States, community colleges currently enroll about 100,000 foreign students.

What Degree Levels and Degree Categories Are Offered at US Colleges and Universities?


The start of undergraduate studies is possible right after secondary school. A two-year associate’s degree and a four-year bachelor’s degree are the two main choices.

In the US, two-year community colleges typically award associate degrees while four-year colleges and universities typically grant bachelor degrees. Students select a major, or area of specialization, for their academic studies in both situations. Students take required core curriculum or general education classes that promote critical thinking and communication skills in addition to courses in their majors.


Only students with a bachelor’s degree are eligible for graduate studies. Graduate studies, also known as post-graduate studies, can last for up to five years or longer. In the US, work done after completing a master’s degree program, including doctoral studies, is referred to as post-graduate studies.

The master’s and doctorate (or doctoral) degrees are the two options available to international students who have earned bachelor’s degrees in their home nations, the United States, or third countries.

One to two years of study may be needed to earn a master’s degree. Most master’s programs require a thesis (a lengthy, thoroughly researched essay) or project to be finished in the final term before students can receive their master’s degree.

The following two factors will determine the length of doctoral programs:
  1. whether graduates in a related field are required to first complete a master’s degree, and

    2). length of time needed to finish a dissertation

What should I understand about major selection and course of study?

No matter what career path students take after graduating, the US educational system is set up to teach them life skills that will be helpful. In order to obtain a degree, students who are enrolled in colleges or universities must take a variety of courses.

Taking courses outside of one’s intended academic field of study is a foreign concept for many international students. However, liberal arts courses in subjects like history, English literature, and foreign languages, as well as those in math, the social sciences, and the natural sciences, are valued by US colleges and universities.

These courses are regarded as essential building blocks for enhancing one’s capacity for logic, communication, and critical thinking.

Majors, Minors, and Concentrations

International students should not anticipate taking more than half of their total classes in their intended major when they first enroll in college or university. Majors reflect the subjects that students are most eager to learn about in order to get ready for graduate school or a career in a related field of study.

Minors, which are additional academic concentrations outside of a major, typically call for half as many classes as majors.

Concentrations are specializations within a particular major that let students delve deeper into a particular subject.

For instance, the history department at the University of South Carolina offers 13 different subject areas, including political history, the history of slavery, and the history of religion, in addition to regional concentrations in Latin America, the Middle East/North Africa, etc.

BS, BA, and BFA Degrees

The three most popular bachelor’s degrees in the US are the BFA (bachelor of fine arts), BS (bachelor of science), and BA (bachelor of arts). While BS degrees cover business, math, sciences, engineering, health sciences, and other tech fields, BA degrees concentrate on liberal arts majors in the humanities and social sciences. BFA degrees are related to the creative arts, like dance or music.


The question of which US colleges and universities have government approval may arise for international students. Keep in mind that there is no Ministry of Higher Education in the United States, and neither does the federal government decide which colleges or universities may operate.

There are six regional accreditation organizations that allow almost all public and private nonprofit colleges and universities to function in the US educational system. The majority of private for-profit colleges are accredited by national accrediting organizations. There may be a number of academic programs at each institution that are accredited by a national organization as well (such as ABET, which concentrates on the caliber of STEM programs).

Accreditation of programs is another sign of high academic standards.

Visit the U.S. Department of Education’s online database to learn more about the accreditations of the US colleges you are thinking about. If in doubt, only enroll in US colleges and universities that have been accredited.

You must confirm that these universities and colleges are legitimately permitted to accept students who want to study abroad in the United States as international students as well. All US colleges and universities must apply for certification (and recertification every two years) in order to issue the I-20 forms that foreign students use to apply for student

The Department of Homeland Security (DHS) claims that visas. On the DHS website, you can look up accredited colleges, or you can use the Shorelight School Match tool.

What Should I Know About College Applications and University Applications in the USA?

Be prepared for a fairly involved, drawn-out, and occasionally perplexing application process when applying to US colleges and universities. However, if you take the right approach and follow the right advice, you can locate the ideal location for your needs. (For complete details, see our article on How to Study in the USA.)

Application forms for colleges

Prospective undergraduate international students may also be able to use the Common Application to apply to one (or more) of the nearly 900 US colleges and universities, even though the majority of colleges have their own online application forms.

Applying to Shorelight universities allows you to submit a single online application for both undergraduate and graduate programs at numerous institutions. Whatever application you choose, keep in mind that each college has its own deadlines for submissions. Each university or college will also have its own list of prerequisites in addition to an application form.

Standardized Tests

Applicants from abroad will need to take at least one English proficiency test (such as the TOEFL, IELTS, PTE Academic, Duolingo, or iTEP). Undergraduate students might need to submit SAT or ACT test results, whereas graduate applicants might need to submit a GRE or GMAT score. When it comes to the SAT/ACT or GRE/GMAT, a growing number of undergraduate colleges and graduate programs are now test-optional (including Shorelight universities).

Student Records

Your academic records (translated into English) will be the most significant component of the evaluation process for the majority of colleges in the US educational system. For undergraduate applicants, this entails submitting transcripts from each previous institution you have attended, including your entire secondary school academic transcript, any results from external exams, and (for transfer students) any previous colleges or universities. For graduate applicants, this entails delivering certified copies of all completed coursework for undergraduate and graduate degrees.

Essay and Suggestions

More selective colleges and universities will request letters of recommendation in addition to an essay (for undergraduate applicants) or a statement of purpose (for graduate applicants). There are many possible essay topics, from the general “What do you want to do with your life?” to the more focused “What event has had the biggest impact on you?

A professor who can attest to your academic prowess or an advisor who can provide a more thorough assessment of your character should write your letters of recommendation.

Whatever route you take, you shouldn’t attempt the college application process by yourself. You can get help from a committed college guidance counselor or advisor as you navigate the application process.

How Do Credit Transfers Operate?

You might be regarded as a transfer student if you have completed some undergraduate coursework, which could alter the requirements for applying to study in the US.

Particularly with regard to deadlines and standardized test requirements, the application process for transfer students is slightly different. While other colleges and universities permit transfer students to begin in the spring or even the summer, some only accept transfer undergraduate or graduate applicants for the fall semester.

You might be able to apply the courses you’ve already taken toward your bachelor’s degree requirements. Transfer credits are what they are called. Students who have not completed more than two years of study are eligible for transfer programs at US colleges and universities, and at many colleges, no more than two years of course credit may be applied toward fulfilling degree requirements.

How Is the American Academic Year Structured?

Quarters, Trimesters, and Semesters

The academic year in the American educational system typically starts in August or September.

Depending on the university, the academic year, which typically lasts until May or June, may be divided into quarters, trimesters, or semesters.
The fall term runs from late August or early September to mid-December for colleges that operate on a semester system, and the spring term runs from January through May.

When to Apply

Applications are typically accepted as early as a year before the academic term you wish to join for new international undergraduate students considering US colleges and universities. For instance, you could have submitted an application for admission as early as September 2022 if you wanted to start at the University of Illinois at Chicago in late August 2023.

Some colleges offer early decision or early action deadlines in November, while many selective universities in the USA have regular admissions application deadlines in January or February.

Although it frequently necessitates a commitment to enroll if admitted, these earlier deadlines give students the opportunity to receive a decision as far in advance as possible. For the following academic term (or year), other colleges have rolling admissions policies and will accept applications all year long.

Within a month of the submission deadline, early decision or early action applicants typically learn if they have been accepted. Students will be informed of their admission status for January or February application deadlines in March or early April. International applicants who submit their applications to colleges with rolling admissions, such as many of the universities in the Shorelight partner network, typically hear back within a few days to three or four weeks.

How to Enroll

You will be instructed on what to do next to accept a college or university offer after being accepted. For admitted students to secure their spot for the following academic year, many American universities will set a deadline date by which they must send their deposit (the amount varies by college).

What is the US classroom environment like?

A college classroom

In American colleges, class sizes can range from four students seated around a table to 400 students packed into an auditorium. In your first two years of study, you’ll probably find large class sizes at state universities with a larger student body. Smaller class sizes (10 to 20 students) are typical at liberal arts colleges. In order for you to easily get a sense of the class sizes at the colleges you’re interested in, colleges and universities are required to list on their websites

their typical student-to-faculty ratio (i.e., the typical class size and the number of students on campus per faculty member).

Professors and subject-matter experts typically instruct college classes. A professor’s teaching assistants, who are frequently graduate students, may instruct large lecture classes as well as smaller lab or discussion groups. You will also have a faculty advisor (once you declare an academic major) who will help you choose classes and make sure you are on track to graduate in addition to the teaching staff.

Students receive a syllabus from the professor or instructor on the first day of every class at the start of a semester. The syllabus details what they can anticipate throughout the course, including all the scheduled quizzes, tests, papers, and final exam requirements. The syllabus will also include a list of the required readings and textbooks for each class session. The syllabus for many classes will also specify the percentage of the course grade that is made up of essays, tests, quizzes, group projects, midterm and final exams, and even classroom participation. (That’s right, participation in discussions affects your grade in many courses ! )

Jobs and Co-ops on Campus

When you have settled in, you might want to look into the possibility of working on campus. If there are jobs on campus open to international students, you may legally work up to 20 hours per week while classes are in session and up to 40 hours per week while on break as an F-1 student visa holder.

Graduate Student Life

For graduate students, the rules for the classroom and the workplace are the same for coursework toward both a master’s and a doctorate. At the conclusion of a graduate program, graduate students are required to submit a master’s thesis or project or a doctoral dissertation. For a master’s thesis, this could take a few months, but for a dissertation, it might take two or more years.

What Is the US College and University Grading System?

Grades The majority of US colleges employ both a letter grading scale from A to F and a 4.0 grade point average (GPA) scale for grades. Grades frequently resemble:

A = 4.0 Best

B = 3.0

C = 2.0

D = 1.0

Worst F = 0.0

The categories A, A-, B+, B, B-, C+, C, C-, D+, D, D-, and F are also commonly used in American universities, and the +/- will have a different value on the 4.0 scale (for example, A- = 3.7, B+ 3.3). Classes with Pass/Fail or Satisfactory/Unsatisfactory grades are offered by some universities, but they have no bearing on a student’s GPA.


Each class has a specific number of academic credits, and students typically take between three and six classes per academic term. You will receive full credit for a course as long as you pass it (i.e., earn a D or higher).

The majority of university courses are worth three to five credits. The number of credits per class varies according to the weekly number of instructional hours. For instance, a course that meets for a grand total of three hours each week for a 16-week semester will typically be worth three credit hours. The course will probably be four credits if you have three hours of lecture and an hour-long lab each week.

So, over one semester, let’s say you have five classes worth three credits each. You will earn 15 credits if you pass each course. You would have 120 credits at the end of your program if you took the same number of credits each term over eight semesters (or four academic years) and passed every class. Depending on the field of study, 120 to 133 credits are typically needed for bachelor’s degrees.

Leave a Comment