US Education System- Higher Education, Degrees Offered, Level of Education

    Aishwarya Bhatnagar logo

    Aishwarya Bhatnagar

    Study Abroad Expert

    The Education system in the USA in one of the most diverse education systems in the world. It has public institutions as well as private, large organizations as well as small, secular and religiously affiliates institutes, urban, suburban and even rural institutions. In short, a good fit for all types of students. International students aspiring to study in the US can get a good reason as to why choose the USA over other countries for higher education.

    As compared to other education systems in the world, US higher education systems are independent of the Federal government to a large extent. It is also highly decentralized.

    Distinctive Characteristics of US Higher Education System

    Since US higher education system is quite diverse, it is nearly impossible to tap each and every attribute of every institution. But there are a few characteristics common to a large number of schools and colleges in the USA.

    Limited Federal Involvement

    The constitution of USA does not mention education as a federal responsibility that is why the US never had an education ministry.

    The federal government played almost no role in education sector until World War 2. Since then, the federal government has become the primary financier of both scientific research and Student Financial Aid.

    Despite the growing influence of the federal government in terms of finance, its role is still limited and has not yet been given entry into core academic decisions, which are generally taken by the institutions and, in the case of some public institutions, the states.

    Multiple Sources of Finance

    The US Department of Education plays a very important role in financing, American colleges and universities get further support from diverse revenue sources that improve the competition in the market of education. This also affects the choices of students and parents as well as other consumers of the goods and services that these institutions provide.

    The major sources of revenue include tuition and fee payments from students and families (including the financial aid provided by federal government that students use to pay tuition); appropriations, grants, and contracts from federal, state, and local governments; private gifts; endowment and other investment earnings; and sales from auxiliary enterprises and services.

    American colleges and universities are carrying out many efforts to diversify and increase their revenue streams. Since a primary source of additional revenue is still student tuition and fees, they have risen at twice the rate of inflation over the past 20 years, outstripping increases in both family income and financial aid resources.

    University Administration

    The internal organization and structure of U.S. institutions keep changing with size and mission govern most college and universities.

    According to the Association of Governing Boards of Universities and Colleges (AGB), the mean number of public boards members is approximately 10 and the mean number of members among independent institutions is 30.

    Most of the administrative responsibility to manage the institution is delegated to the president (sometimes called a chancellor). Although the president is primarily responsible for the institution, most of the important decisions rely upon a system of shared governance between faculty and administrators.

    On-Campus Student Life and Athletics

    U.S. residential colleges and universities are inspired by British Education system. These residence halls, along with food service and sleeping rooms, also provide programme students on a variety of social topics such as AIDS awareness, alcohol abuse, and study skills.

    Besides all these services, colleges and universities have various student organizations and clubs. These clubs include academic groups such as the National Society of Black Engineers or the Public Relations Student Society of America, as well as athletic clubs such as rugby and water polo clubs, cultural and religious groups such as the Muslim Student Society or Association of Asian Students and social organizations

    Curriculum and Degrees Offered

    Five types of degrees are offered in the United States. Community colleges and a few four-year institutions offer associate degrees, which requires completion of 60 credits.

    The bachelor’s degree is the most common type of degree offered, most jobs require a college degree and a bachelor’s degree is also required for graduate study. Three degrees are offered at the graduate level.

    The master’s degree is the most common type of graduate degree. According to US department of Education, about 75 percent of graduate students are enrolled in master’s degree programs in education, business administration, and all other fields.

    A professional degree is required to pursue advanced professions in fields such as law and medicine.

    The doctoral degree allows a graduate to conduct independent research. The most common doctoral degree is the doctor of philosophy (Ph.D.), and also includes the doctor of education (Ed.D.)

    Levels of US Higher Education System

    There are main 3 levels in the US Higher education system. These are

    • Undergraduate Level
    • Graduate Level
    • Post Graduate Level

    Undergraduate Level- Bachelor’s Degree

    Earning a Bachelor’s degree typically takes 4 years to complete. In the USA, one can pursue a bachelor’s degree by admitting to a 4-year college or starting from community college and later can transfer to a 4-year college.

    Students have to study a number of subjects in the first two years of their bachelor’s degree such as Literature, science, art, history etc. The focus is on attaining general and basic knowledge about each subject before attaining specialization in a specific subject in the following 2 years.

    Majors in which one wants to attain a degree in is chosen at the beginning of 3rdyear. American Education system is quite flexible. Students can change majors multiple times during their graduate studies. This might mean spending more money.

    Graduate Level- Master’s and Professional Degree

    A master’s degree is very important to attain higher-level positions in career fields such as library science, engineering, behavioral health, and education. Also, international students from some countries are only permitted to study in the USA at a graduate level after completing the required credits in their home country.

    A few entrance tests are required to be taken for entering a graduate program in USA such as GRE for master’s programs, LSAT for Law courses, GMAT for MBA programs.

    The graduate program for a Master’s degree usually takes 1-2 years to complete. For example, the MBA program is about two years long. Other Master’s programs take only one year such as Master’s in Journalism.

    Students pursuing a master’s program in the USA are required to work on a research paper called a Master’s thesis or Master’s project as a part of their curriculum.

    Post Graduate Level- Ph.D. and Research work

    Earning a Ph.D. degree in the USA requires a graduate degree in some schools, but some schools allow pursuing a doctorate degree immediately after the bachelor’s degree. Usually, it takes 3-4 years to complete a doctorate degree. International students, on the hand, might need 5-6 six years to complete the same degree.

    In the first two years, students are expected to attend classes and seminars. In the 3rd year, students conduct independent research and have to write a thesis on the same. The thesis need to be completely original and should not have been published before anywhere.

    Language proficiency test scores play an important role while getting admission in a Ph.D. program in the USA. Students pursuing doctorate are expected to have knowledge of two foreign languages.

    Types of Educational Institutes in the USA

    The US education system consists of three types of universities broadly categorized on the basis of its funding, infrastructure, curriculum and teaching methodology.

    Public Universities

    Most of the public universities in the US are state universities. These are operated by the state government, and are often grouped into “systems”.

    It is mandatory for every US state to have at least one public university. Some of the larger states may have more than one public university. Public Universities offer discounted tuition for the residents of their respective states.

    California and New York are the 2 states that have the largest number of high ranking public universities. Only 20 of the best public universities could make it to the top 100 of the overall US College Rankings in Times Higher Education Rankings.

    Top 5 Public Universities in the US are:

    • University of California, Los Angeles
    • University of Michigan, Ann Harbor
    • University of California, Berkeley
    • The University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill
    • University of California, Davis

    Private Universities

    Most of the private universities in the US are not for profit. The primary source of finance for Private Universities in the US is student tuition fees, which are generally higher than those of public universities.

    Private universities usually have a better staff-to-student ratio and more income for resources. This could be one of the many reasons why they rank higher than the public universities in the country.

    All the universities in the prestigious Ivy League group are private universities. There is an ‘Elite Eight’ group of Universities in the North Eastern Part of US that forms the Ivy League group. These institutions are known for their high admission standards and academic excellence. These ‘Eight Elite’ Institutions are the following:

    Community Colleges

    Community colleges are two-year colleges that offer an Associate’s degrees and certifications. Associate's degrees offered are of many types, but the two important distinctions between these degrees are whether the degree is transferable or not.

    Usually, there are two types of degrees offered. One helps out for academic transfer and the other allows students to enter the workforce straightaway. University transfer degrees include Associate of Arts or Associate of Science. Associate of Applied Science degrees and certificates of completion are usually not transferable.

    Students commonly transfer to four-year colleges or universities to complete their degree after attending community colleges due to the credit transfer system.

    US Grading System

    In the U.S., Students are scored by a letter. Throughout the U.S., the standard grading scale is A-F. Courses are commonly graded using percentages, which are converted into letter grades. Below is the US Grading Policy:

    Grade Percentage point Grade Point Average
    A 93-100 4.00
    A- 92-90 3.67
    B+ 87-89 3.33
    B 83-86 3
    B- 80-82 2.67
    C+ 77-79 2.33
    C 73-76 2
    C- 70-72 1.67
    D+ 67-69 1.33
    D 60-66 1
    F 0-59 1
    I Incomplete 0

    Understanding the grading system and GPA in the U.S. can be a bit of task for international students. The grades can be interpreted in a number of ways. For instance, two students who both have scored 3.5 GPAs, but one of them attended an average high school, while the other attended a prestigious school that was academically challenging. The university might interpret their GPAs differently because of the difference in the academic standards.

    Important Higher Education Organizations in the USA

    ACE (American Council on Education)

    This organization represents presidents and chancellors of Higher Education in the USA. ACE has become one of the strongest voices for higher education in the U.S through its advocacy, research, and innovative programs. ACE advocates the strengthening of international education.

    NAFSA: Association of International Educators

    NAFSA stands for National Association of Foreign Student Advisers. It is a U.S.-based individual membership association for international education professionals. The organization focuses on advocacy and professional development of International students. NAFSA’s mission and membership cover all aspects of the international educational exchange.

    IIE (Institute of International Education)

    IIE works to promote closer relations between the people of the U.S. and those of other countries. The focus is on relations between US residents and people who come to the USA for study and training, educators and professionals.

    The institute collaborates for a number of important programs with the U.S. Department of State, including the Fulbright Program and Gilman Scholarships. IIE also undertakes policy research, provides resources on international exchange opportunities, offers support to international students in need.