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USA education system

Everything you need to know about the education system in the US

The American college experience is unlike any other. Host to world-class universities and unique specialist institutions, there are a broad range of study options for undergraduate and postgraduate students from around the world.

How it works

Higher education in the US is divided into three main types of institutions:

  • junior or community colleges
  • vocational schools
  • colleges or universities.

Junior or community colleges

Community colleges are an affordable option and offer two-year associate degrees. After graduation, you can continue your studies in a university for another two years to complete an undergraduate program.

Vocational schools

Vocational schools are a great choice for students interested in practical education and job training. They offer relatively short, career-focused programs to prepare you for work in occupations such as dental hygienist, civil engineer, chef or many other vocations that do not require a degree but do require training.

Universities

Undergraduate education in the US is based on the concept of liberal arts and sciences. Students can take classes in a wide variety of subjects in addition to their major field of study and can be awarded a bachelor’s degree after completing a specified number of credits in their selected major field of study.

The term ‘credit hours’ refers to the number of hours spent per week in a classroom. Every program has a certain number of credits that students can ‘earn’, and each school has its individual requirement for the number of credits required to graduate.

The two main types of universities in the US are:

  • public universities – most of which are state universities. These were established and continue to be run by the state government
  • private universities – a mix of profit and not-for-profit; approximately 20% of students attend private universities.

Graduate schools

Graduate schools in the US are typically known as postgraduate schools in other countries. Graduate schools are often associated with a university that also offers undergraduate (bachelor) degrees. These schools offer master and doctorate-level degrees.

There are two main categories for graduate programs in the US: master and doctoral.

Master’s programs in the US are available in many different areas and have two main course types, academic and professional.

The highest degree available in the US is the doctoral degree. Students are required to produce an original piece of research in a doctoral degree. Doctoral students in the US are still required to complete coursework and written examinations rather than just focus on their research.

Academic year

The vast majority of universities and colleges usually operate between August to December and January to April. There are also a variety of summer school studies that are offered between May and August.

Depending on the university, undergraduate degrees can take either three or four years to complete. Master’s programs usually take between one and two years.

Doctoral degrees or PhD programs take a bit longer than in other countries, usually four to seven years. Doctoral degrees typically have several phases including classes, qualifying exams and then the doctoral candidacy when students focus on their dissertation.

Teaching and learning style

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

Because the American education system focuses on practical learning that encourages creative, independent thought and debate, it’s a favourite destination to study.

Your teachers will aim to provide a comprehensive understanding of a topic rather than just teaching by rote learning (memorising through repetition). There’s an expectation that you will develop your own thinking and share your thoughts with the class. There’s an emphasis on learning and thinking skills, not just marks and completing exams.

Classes at university are a combination of lectures and tutorials. A lecture could be attended by up to 200 students from different courses within the area. Tutorials are much smaller, with generally only about 30 students. In tutorials, you’ll discuss the material raised in lectures with each other and the lecturer.

Professors are very accessible and students can talk to them in person and visit them in their office to discuss any issues they may have.

Fees and scholarships

Education costs

There’s a great variance in tuition fees for international students across the different states and programs. Tuition will be the most expensive component of your educational costs. The price of tuition can range from US$10,000 to US$55,000 a year.

English language studies: $700 to $2000 a 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, as can professional programs such as law, medicine, dentistry, some design programs, etc.)

Doctoral degree: $28,000 to $55,000 per year

(Most doctoral degrees are 100% funded through research/teaching assistantships, research aid and bursaries.)

You will need to pay tuition fees before you begin your studies. There could also be additional costs such as specific course materials and access to institution facilities.

Scholarships

Some American universities and schools offer scholarships and awards to international students who achieve exceptional results. The amount and type of award varies from one university or college to another. It’s important to know that competition for scholarships is very fierce.

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