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U.S. Higher Education

Understanding the education system in the United States can be challenging. There are differences between colleges and universities, as well as in the degrees they are offering and the academic cycle.

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Key Takeaways

  • The terms college and university are used interchangably
  • Undergraduate education is either 2-year junior college or 4-year bachelor
  • Graduate education usually refers to a masters degree or a PHD

1) Colleges vs. Universities

In the United States, the terms university, college, and school are often used interchangeably. However, it’s important to understand the differences.

Colleges are typically smaller institutions that offer undergraduate degrees, including four-year programs for earning a bachelor’s degree and two-year programs for earning an associate’s degree.

Universities, on the other hand, are typically larger institutions that offer both undergraduate and graduate degrees, including master’s and Ph.D. programs. In some cases, a college may serve as the undergraduate institution of a university. Both colleges and universities may have different professional schools, such as business, journalism, or medical schools.

2) Undergraduate Education

2.1) Two-Year Programs

    • The US has more than 1,000 junior or community colleges
    • Associate of Science (A.S.) – Prepare for a job after their two-years study
    • Associate of Arts (A.A) – Prepare to transfer to a four-year college or university

In the United States, there are more than 1,000 two-year colleges known as junior or community colleges that offer students the opportunity to earn an associate’s degree. These institutions provide a variety of academic options, including degree programs in the arts, sciences, and vocational fields.

To obtain an associate’s degree, students must earn 60 semester credit hours, which typically takes two years of full-time study. The degree provides students with a strong foundation in their field of study and the opportunity to transfer their credits to a four-year program at a college or university. The Associate of Science (A.S.) and Associate of Arts (A.A.) degrees are two common types of associate degrees that prepare students for transfer.

Some community colleges have established partnerships with local universities to facilitate credit transfers and allow students to complete their bachelor’s degree. This option can save students a considerable amount of money while providing them with the same educational opportunities as those who attend a four-year institution from the start.

Alternatively, the Associate of Applied Science (A.A.S.) degree is designed to prepare students for entry into the workforce after two years of study. This degree provides students with the practical skills and knowledge needed to succeed in their chosen career path.

2.2) Four-Year Programs (Bachelor)

    • The US offers more than 2,000 four-year undergraduate programs
    • Students pursue a Bachelor of Arts (BA) or Science (BSc)
    • The four years are called freshman, sophomore, junior, and senior year

In the United States, there are over 2,000 colleges and universities offering four-year programs leading to a Bachelor’s degree, either a Bachelor of Arts or a Bachelor of Science. To earn a bachelor’s degree, a student must complete 120 semester credit hours, with up to 60 semester credit hours transferable from an associate degree earned at a junior or community college.

The four-year program at a college or university is divided into four years: freshman, sophomore, junior, and senior. During the first two years, students have the opportunity to explore a wide range of subjects and fields of study before selecting a specific major.

It’s worth noting that some fields of study, such as law or medicine, require advanced degrees and are not available at the undergraduate level. These programs can only be pursued after obtaining a bachelor’s degree.

In summary, four-year programs are widely available at colleges and universities in the U.S. and offer students the opportunity to earn a bachelor’s degree in a variety of subjects. Freshman, sophomore, junior, and senior years make up the four-year program, with students able to explore different fields of study before selecting a major. However, certain professional programs require advanced degrees and cannot be pursued until after earning a bachelor’s degree.

3) Graduate Education

3.3) Graduate (Master’s) or PHD

While undergraduate programs lead to associate’s or bachelor’s degrees, graduate programs lead to master’s or doctoral degrees. A graduate program is a 1-6 year program for students who have already received a bachelor’s degree.

In contrast to undergraduate programs, graduate programs are very specialized and more advanced regarding their subjects. In graduate programs the class sizes are usually much smaller and students work closely with the professors. Furthermore, graduate programs are much more research oriented and prepare students by engaging them in work in the specific field.

College Graduation Statistics, 2022

  • 49.8% of all college graduates earn bachelor’s degrees.
  • 23.5% of bachelor’s degree-earners take more than four (4) years to complete their program.
  • 24.9% of college graduates earn associate’s degrees.
  • The total number of graduates has increased at an annual rate of 2.8% over the last 10 years.
  • 4.090 million or 20.4% of all college students graduated in 2020.

Source: College Graduation Statistics

4) The U.S. Academic Year

    • The year is divided into semesters or quarters
    • Semesters are divided into spring, fall and optional summer semester 
    • They last about 15 weeks, while quarter systems are 4×10 week periods

The academic year in the United Sates is commonly divided into one of two systems, either semesters or quarters, which varies across different colleges. In a semester system the year is divided into a spring and fall semester, as well as an optional summer semester. Each semester lasts approx. 15 weeks. The fall semester is the beginning of the academic year and starts around late august and ends in December for a winter break. While the spring semester starts in January and ends in May for a summer break. New student admissions as well as the chances of aid and assistantship is usually higher in the fall semester. Some universities won’t admit new students for the spring semester. Nearly 95% of all institutions of higher education operate on the semester system.

Quarter systems, on the other hand, are four 10-week periods of study each year, consisting of fall, winter, spring, and optional summer. The academic year begins in the fall typically around mid-September and the academic year goes until early June. The optional summer quarter allows students to take more classes to either catch up on credits or get ahead to graduate early.

5) The Credit System

    • Students take 15 credit hours per semester to graduate on time
    • Taking advanced classes in high school can reduce the credits needed

In the U.S. course work is measured in units or credit hours. Typically to remain on track to graduate on time a full-time student will take 15 credit hours per semester. As an undergraduate student one credit hour requires one hour of class and two additional hours for preparation and homework per week. However, students that have received college credit through advanced placement classes in high school will be eligible to take less credits if they have achieved a high enough score on their A.P. tests.

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