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Understanding the education system in the US

Here’s everything you need to know about learning and teaching in the United States.

The American college experience is unique. Home to world-class universities and unique specialist institutions, the U.S. offers a very broad range of study opportunities for international undergraduate and postgraduate students.

The Academic Year
The vast majority of colleges and universities operate from August to December and then January to April. In addition to this, there are also a variety of summer schools that run between May and August. 

Depending on the university, an undergraduate degree can take three or four years to complete. A master’s degree will usually take between one and two years.

Doctoral degrees or PhDs take longer than in other countries, in the US they are normally four to seven years. Doctoral degrees typically have several phases including qualifying exams, classes and then the doctoral candidacy when the focus is on the final dissertation.

Teaching and learning style
Universities in the US place an emphasis on the importance on diversity, which means classes are made up of students of different nationalities, religions and ages. This provides a rich and stimulating learning environment for you that encourages cross-cultural understanding and networking.

The American education system focuses on practical learning that encourages independent, creative thought and debate, making the U.S. a popular destination to study.

Your teachers aim to provide you with a comprehensive understanding of the topic rather than just rote learning, or memorising through repetition. The expectation is that you’ll develop your own thinking and share your thoughts with your peers. The emphasis is on learning and thinking skills, rather than marks and completing exams.

At university classes are usually a combination of lectures and tutorials. In a lecture there could be up to 200 students from different courses within the subject area. However, tutorials are much much smaller, with usually around 30 students. In tutorials, you’ll be expected to discuss with each other and the lecturer the material presented in the lectures.

Professors make themselves accessible to students who can talk to them in person or visit them in their office to discuss any issues they may have.

Fees and scholarships

Education costs
For international students there’s a huge range in tuition fees across the various states, study levels and subject areas. The tuition fees will be the most expensive component of your educational costs. The price of tuition can range from US$10,000 to up to US$55,000 a year.


Indicative tuition fees (US$)

English language studies

$700 to $2000 per month

Community colleges

$6000 to $20,000 per year

Undergraduate bachelor degree

$20,000 to $40,000 per year

Graduate programs

$20,000 to $30,000 per year (An MBA degree can cost significantly more than this, as can professional studies such as law, medicine, dentistry, as well as some design subjects)

Doctoral degree

$28,000 to $55,000 per year (Most doctoral degrees in the U.S. are 100% funded through research / teaching assistantships, research aid and bursaries.)


You’ll need to pay tuition fees before starting your studies. In addition to the tuition fees there could also be other costs such as specific course materials or access to some of the institution’s facilities.

Some American schools and universities offer awards and scholarships to international students who are able to achieve exceptional results. The type of award and the value of the award can vary from one college or university to another. It’s important to know that competition for any scholarship is usually very fierce.


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