The U.S. Higher Education System Explained


What May be the Structure of the U.S. Higher Education System?

As an international student, you may be wondering how colleges and universities fit into the more extensive U.S. higher education system. Students in America are required to attend school between the ages of six and 18 in grades ranging from 1st through 12th. (There can also be an early on option, called kindergarten, for the year before 1st grade, but it is not mandatory in many U.S. states.)

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

After 12th grade, students have two choices for post-secondary education: vocational training (typically a year or two, created 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 might have had 13 years of education before entering post-secondary studies. Other countries may only have 11 years of pre-university level studies. Typically, for students enrolled in post-secondary education in the United States, U.S. colleges and universities require 12 years of education.

What Are the Different Types of Higher Education Institutions in the U.S.?

College vs University

In several countries, post-secondary institutions are called universities. However, in the U.S., language colleges and universities are used interchangeably. Some are even called institutes (e.g., Massachusetts Institute of Technology, California Institute of Technology). Within more prominent universities in the United States, you can find different colleges or schools representing different academic regions of study (e.g., College of Engineering, School of Business).

State Colleges and Private Colleges

Based on where you stand, the best colleges or universities may be public or run by the national or regional/state government. However, in the United States, our government does not manage any college or university. Instead, the governments of the average person 50 states, the District of Columbia, Puerto Rico, and other U.S. territories have the authority to use, fund, and (in some respects) control public colleges and universities within their boundaries.

Alternatively, private colleges can operate independently, without direct control from state or national governments. For example, hundreds of private colleges in the U.S. were founded by religious denominations or churches, including the University of Dayton (affiliated with the Catholic church) and the University of the Pacific (a Methodist university).

Following 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-profits. Among the top twenty U.S. universities with international students (according to the 2019 Open Doors Fast Facts report), 13 are public, and seven are private. So, remember: quality isn’t determined by whether a college or university is public or private.

Tech Colleges and Community Colleges

Many international students arrive in the United States for academic programs. Some students enrol in technical or vocational colleges created for job training, like flight school or air traffic control programs.

Additionally, another choice in American post-secondary education is a 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), you can find almost “1,200 2-year, associate degree-granting institutions and over 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 U.S. Colleges and Universities?


Undergraduate studies will start immediately after secondary school. You can find 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 U.S. 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 an important, students take required core curriculum or general education classes that develop critical thinking and communication skills.


Graduate studies are merely offered to students who’ve completed a bachelor’s degree. In several countries, graduate studies are post-graduate and can take around five years or more. In the U.S., post-graduate studies can refer to work following a master’s degree program, including studies for a doctoral degree.

International students who’ve finished bachelor’s degrees in their property countries, the United States, or third countries have two choices 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 last term of most master’s programs, students must complete a thesis (an extensive, well-documented essay) or a project before being awarded the master’s degree.


What Do I Need to Know About College Applications and Applying to University in the USA?

When applying to U.S. colleges and universities, prepare for a reasonably complex, lengthy, and sometimes confusing process. But with the best approach and appropriate guidance, you can find the best place that fits your needs.

College Application Forms

Many colleges have their application forms online. Prospective undergraduate international students can often use the Common Application in one (or more) of nearly 900 US colleges and universities. If you are applying to Shorelight partner institutions, you should use one online application to use multiple institutions for both undergraduate and graduate programs. Whichever form you utilize, know that each college sets its application deadlines. Additionally, each university or college could have its required application checklist beyond a software form.

How Do Transfer Credits Work?

If you have done some undergraduate coursework, you may be considered a transfer student, which could change the application requirements for study in the U.S.

Transfer students have a somewhat 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 come from spring and summer.

The classes you’ve already taken may count toward your bachelor’s degree requirements. They’re called transfer credits. Transfer programs at U.S. colleges and universities were created for students who’ve not taken more than two years of study and, at many colleges, only two years of course credit can be applied toward fulfilling degree requirements.

How Maybe the Academic Year Set Up in the USA?

In the American education system, the academic year typically begins in August or September. To the university, the academic year may be split 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 U.S. colleges and universities, applications are often accepted as early as a year before the academic term you wish to join. For example, if you intend to start at the University of Illinois at Chicago in late August 2021, you may have applied for admission as early as September 2020.

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

How Successful Are International Students Studying in the USA?

More international students choose to examine in the USA than in any country. According to the Institute of International Education (IIE) 2019 Open Doors Report, international students make up 5.5% of college students in the U.S… For the fourth year in a row, multiple million students from the overseas study at American colleges and universities.

Of international students who complete degrees in the United States, roughly 60-65% choose to stay in the U.S. for work opportunities. For F-1 student visa holders, which 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 enrol 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. During the last five years, the number of F-1 students on OPT has increased by more than 85%.

Brian Santiago

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