Higher education in the United States, or post-secondary education, begins after a student has completed 12 years of elementary and secondary instruction.
After students have received their high school diploma or have passed General Education Development tests (“GED”), they can continue their education by attending four-year colleges, universities, community colleges, professional institutes, and performing and visual arts schools.
Post-secondary institutions in the US differ from their overseas counterparts in a number of ways, including grading systems. Perhaps the most notable difference is the enormous diversity of subjects, programs, and college degree levels offered to students in the United States. Some small, four-year colleges cater to undergraduate, liberal arts studies and issue bachelor’s degrees. Big universities teach liberal arts students as well as undergraduates with specialized majors, such as business, science, technology, engineering, math, pre-med, fine arts, and design. They also offer graduate programs and degrees in these and other majors.
Big universities may also offer combined bachelor/master degrees, condensing, for example, what might normally be a six or eight year course of study into five. These types of programs are especially popular with teaching, law, medicine, and business students.
Other post-secondary institutions that do not grant bachelor’s degrees include specialized professional institutes and community colleges. Specialized institutes offer training courses in fields as diverse as computer technology, fashion design, cosmetology, physical therapy, business studies, fine art, photography, audio/visual technology, and theater arts. Two-year community colleges offer college level courses in everything from philosophy to pre-med. Often less expensive than four-year colleges and universities, community colleges issue associates’ degrees instead of bachelors’ degrees. An associate’s degree is commonly used as a stepping-stone for transferring academic credit to a four-year college or university.
Another difference between US-based schools and those abroad has to do with governance. Some US schools are autonomous, self-governing organizations. Others are affiliated with federal, state, and government agencies. Still others have religious affiliation. That said, most post-secondary institutions in the United States operate as private, non-governmental colleges or universities. Even state-affiliated institutions share some of these same characteristics. Post-secondary schools in the US tend to have presidents and/or chancellors at their administrative and fiscal helms. Presidents and chancellors answer to a board of trustees. Within this system, deans, provosts, and/or vice-presidents are responsible for academic affairs.
Since the United States does not have a central Ministry of Education, academic curriculum at post-secondary institutions are determined on a school-by-school basis. There are, however, private accreditation agencies, which operate on a state and/or regional level.
Accreditation agencies establish academic standards and confer upon institutions acknowledgment of academic excellence. While it is not required for post-secondary institutions in the US to have accreditation, student visas will only be issued to international students coming to the US to study at accredited institutions.
Higher education in the United States is not only a rewarding academic experience, but a rich cultural adventure as well.