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Education System in USA - Understand How it Works

Let’s find out how the American education system works

Home to the maximum number of international students, the US provides a diverse range of courses for all study levels. Here’s a rundown on the education system of the US.

Study levels in the US

  • Elementary school
  • Middle school/Junior high school
  • High school
  • Higher education

Here's an overview of the qualifications available in the US:

Associate degree2 yearsJob oriented programs that allow a graduate to launch a career, it is also equivalent to first two years of a 4-year bachelor's degree
Bachelor's degree3 - 4 yearsUndergraduate degree that includes core courses, major, minor and elective. The four years are known as Freshman, Sophomore, Junior and Senior.
Master's degree (Professional)1 to 3 yearsLeads students from first degree to particular profession; duration depends on field of study
Master's degree (Academic)2 yearsGenerally awarded in traditional disciplines of humanities, arts, and science; may lead students to doctoral programs
Doctorate or PhD5 to 8 yearsCompleted under the supervision of faculty advisor, PhD is awarded on completion of dissertation and successful defence before a panel of faculty members

Types of institutions

There are various types of institutions in the US that provide quality education. These can be categorised into:


Smaller than the universities, colleges generally provide undergraduate degrees. Community colleges, an affordable study option in the US, offer two-year associate degrees after which you can continue your studies in the university for another two years to gain an undergraduate degree.


Offer research-based masters, doctoral and post-doctoral degrees. There are mainly two types of universities in the US:

  • Public universities: Mostly state universities, established and run by the state government
  • Private universities: A mix of profit and not-for-profit supported by tuition fee and donations; approximately 20% of students attend private universities

Universities may further be categorised into:

Type of universityDescription
Ivy League Ivy League, which is actually a sports conference of eight private colleges in the Northeast includes some of the oldest American institutions. These are perceived to be some of the most esteemed places to study and therefore extremely competitive for admissions.
Public IviesGroup of over 30 state-funded or public universities in the US. Although this is not an official classification of universities, these universities have earned their reputation and are considered prestigious and academically rigorous. Education costs are slightly lower than the Ivy League universities.
Liberal Arts PhilosophyThis philosophy promotes a well-rounded academic education that develops the overall thought process of students. The courses begin with a wide variety of courses in humanities, languages, arts and the social sciences before specialising in a particular field. The primary focus for faculty is on undergraduate teaching rather than research, with a small student population and high student to faculty ratio.
Specialist institutionsUniversities and institutes that specialise in providing degrees in a certain field such a degrees in music, visual and applied arts, etc.
Land Grant Colleges and Universities Large, publicly-funded universities
Research Intensive InstitutionsUniversities offering the highest level of research and are a good starting point for students seeking doctoral degree.

Check your ultimate guide to understanding GPA in American universities.

Fee structure

Tuition fee solely depends on the type of qualification and university or college you choose. Courses in medicine and engineering are likely to be more expensive. As with most other countries, MBA programs are often the most expensive. The tuition fee spent annually can range anywhere between US$ 10,000 and US$55,000.

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.

Financial aid

You can fund your studies by availing various kinds of financial aids available. These can be classified into:

  • Need-based aid
  • Athletic Scholarships
  • Scholarships / Tuition Waivers
  • Fellowships / Grants
  • Teaching Assistantships
  • Research Assistantships
  • Administrative / Residence Assistantships

These aids may be provided by the government, private organisations or educational institutions. Keep in mind that the competition for such aids is high and thus you must apply for them in advance.

Pedagogy in American classrooms

USA universities place great significance on diversity, meaning classes will consist of students of different ages, religions and ethnicities. This provides a stimulating and interesting learning atmosphere that motivates cross-cultural understanding and socialising.

Most classes will have no more than 20 students and the faculty member will take the time to get to know students and their strengths. Interactive and practical learning are the basis of American teaching. Professors are usually willing to spend time outside of class to offer further support. Campuses in the US also offer an active social life with many clubs and organisations for students to meet other students with similar interests and further career opportunities.

Academic year

Most American universities and colleges commence their classes in August/September usually known as the Fall session. A few others also provide a January/February intake, called as the Spring intake that goes on till April. In fact, a Summer intake is also available for limited programs and colleges between the months of May and August.

The duration of each course depends on the university and specialisation. Most bachelor’s degrees take three to four years, master’s take one to two years and doctoral degrees may take four to seven years. The academic year at many colleges comprises of two terms called the semesters. Some may have a three-term calendar where it is referred to as the trimester system.

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USA student visa requirements

You must first apply and be accepted by a U.S. institution that is certified by the Student and Exchange Visitor Program (SEVP). Once accepted, you will receive a Form I-20 from the institution's international student office.


Why study in the United States?

More international students study in the US than in any other country in the world. At the moment, there are more than one million. Let’s look at some of the reasons why.

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