American education offers a rich field of choices for the international student. From abroad, and even from within the U.S.A., there is such an array of institutions, programs and locations that the choices may overwhelm the student. To simplify the choices, a student must carefully study how each program and location can fulfill the student’s goals. In order to make informed decisions, a student will need to know how the U.S. education system is organized.
Let’s start by examining the educational structure.
Most Americans attend 12 years of “primary” and “secondary school.” With a secondary school (“high school”) diploma or certificate, a student can enter college, university, vocational (job training) school, secretarial school, and other professional schools.
Primary and Secondary School
Around age six, U.S. children enter primary school. They attend five or six years and then go onto secondary school.. Secondary school, consists of either two three- year programs or a three-year and a four-year program. These are called “middle school” or “junior high school” and “senior high school” (often just called “high school”). Americans call these 12 years of primary and secondary school the first through twelfth “grades.”
After finishing high school (12th grade), U.S. students may go on to college or university. College or university study is known as “higher education”. You should find out which level of education in your home country corresponds to the 12th-grade in the U.S.A. You also should ask your educational advisor or guidance counselor whether you must spend an extra year or two preparing for U.S. university admission. In some countries, employers and the government do not recognize a U.S. education if a student entered a U.S. university or college before he or she could enter university at home.
Study at a college or university leading to the “bachelor’s degree” is known as “undergraduate” education. Study beyond the bachelor’s degree is known as “graduate” school, or “postgraduate” education. Advanced or graduate degrees include law, medicine, Master of Business Administration (M.B.A.), and the Ph.D. (doctorate).
Where you can get a U.S. higher education
State College or University
A state school is supported and run by a state or local government. Each of the 50 U.S. states operates at least one state university and possibly several state colleges. Some state schools have the word “State” in their names.
Private College or University
These schools are operated privately, not by a branch of the government. Tuition will usually be higher than at state schools. Often, private U.S. universities and colleges are smaller in size than state schools.
A two-year college admits high school graduates and awards an “associate’s degree.” Some two-year colleges are state-supported, or public; others are private. You should find out if an associate’s degree will qualify you for a job in your home country. In some countries, students need a bachelor’s degree to get a good job. Two-year college or “junior” college graduates usually transfer to four-year colleges or universities, where they complete a bachelor’s degree program in two or more additional years.
“Community college” is a two-year state, or public college. Community colleges serve a local community, usually a city or county. Many of the students are commuters who live at home, or evening students who work during the day. Often, community colleges welcome international students. Many of these schools offer special services to international students such as free tutoring. Many also offer ESL or intensive English programs.
Some may provide housing and advising services that an international student might need. Again, find out if a community college degree will be enough for you to get a job when you return to your home country. Most, but not all governments, recognize degrees from junior and community colleges.
A professional school trains students in fields such as art, music, engineering, business, and other professions. Some are part of universities, while others are separate schools. Some offer graduate degrees.
Institute of Technology
An “institute of technology” is a school, which offers at least four years of study in science and technology. Some have graduate programs, while others offer shorter courses.
A “technical institute” trains students in fields such as medical technology or industrial engineering. Although the courses may prepare you for the career you want, the degree may or may not be equivalent to a college or university degree. If you wish to transfer to a university or college, be aware that some colleges and universities do not accept credits from technical institutes. If you are considering a technical institute, find out if your government, and U.S. colleges and universities, accept the school’s degree.
Religiously-Affiliated Universities and Colleges
Many U.S. universities and colleges were founded by religious groups. However, the relationship between the school and the religious organization may be very flexible. Sometimes, these schools prefer to admit students who are members of the sponsoring religious group. Nearly all these schools welcome students of all religions and beliefs.
Traditionally, many religiously affiliated schools have required that students take Bible courses and attend chapel services. But these practices are becoming less common.
Undergraduate (College) Years
Grade and Course
The word “grade” has multiple uses and meanings. It describes a year of education. Americans call the first year of school “first grade.” The word “grade” also means a mark or rank, such as a “grade” of “B,” or a good “grade” on an exam. Thus an American could say, “In the ninth grade, my grades were average.”
The word “course” usually means “subject.” For example, a student would take a course in accounting for one term or semester. A “course of study” is a full program consisting of several courses. Business Administration is a course of study, and accounting would be one of the courses within that program.
Course of study
U.S. students usually study a wide variety of subjects while in college. Many students do not specialize exclusively in one field until graduate school.
The first two years of college are called the “freshman” and “sophomore” years. Students in their first year are called “freshmen,” and they are “sophomores” in their second year. Some schools require freshmen and sophomores to take “prerequisite” courses in different areas of learning: literature, science, the social sciences, the arts, history, and so forth. Freshmen and sophomores are known as “underclassmen”.
The “junior” and “senior”, or third and fourth years, are the “upper classes.” Students in these years are known as “juniors” and “seniors”- “upperclassmen.” When they enter their junior year, they must choose a “major” field of study. They must take a certain number of courses in this department, or field. In some schools, students also choose a “minor” field. There is usually time for students to choose several other “elective” (extra) courses in other subjects.
Each student is assigned a “faculty advisor” who teaches courses in the student’s major field. This advisor helps the student select a program of study.
An international student will also have an “International Student Advisor.” This person helps international students adjust to U.S. culture and way of life, handles visa and other paperwork problems, and organizes activities for international students.
Classes range from large lectures with several hundred students to smaller classes and “seminars” (discussion classes) with only a few students. Students enrolled in lecture courses are often divided into smaller groups, or “sections.” The sections meet separately to discuss the lecture topics and other material.
Professors usually assign textbook and other readings each week. They also require several written reports each semester (term). You will be expected to keep up to date with the required readings in order to participate in class discussions and to understand the lectures. Science students are also expected to spend time in the laboratory.
The school calendar usually begins in August or September and continues through May or June. It is a good idea for international students to enter U.S. universities in autumn. The majority of new students enter at this time, so they can adjust together. Also, many courses are designed for students to take them in sequence, starting in autumn and continuing through the year.
The academic year at many schools is composed of two terms or semesters. Other schools use a three-term calendar known as the “trimester” system. Still others divide the year into the “quarter” system of four terms, including a summer session, which is optional.
Each course is considered to be worth a number of “credits” or “credit hours.” This number is roughly the same as the number of hours a student spends in class for that course each week. A course is typically worth three to five credits.
A full-time program at most schools is 12 or 15 credit-hours (four or five courses per term). International students are expected to enroll in a full-time program during each term.
If a student enrolls at a new university before finishing a degree, usually most credits earned at the first school can be used to complete a degree at the new university. This means a student can transfer to another university and still graduate within a reasonable time.
Professors give each student a mark or “grade” for each course. The marks are based upon:
A.Classroom participation – Discussion, questions, conversation; Students are expected to participate in class discussions, especially in seminar classes. This is often a very important factor in determining a student’s grade.
B.A midterm examination – Usually given during class time.
C.One or more research or term papers, or laboratory reports.
D.Possible short exams or “quizzes” – Sometimes the professor will give an unannounced “pop quiz.” This doesn’t count heavily toward the grade but is intended to inspire students to keep up with their assignments and attendance.
E.Final examination – Held some time after the final class meeting.
Some U.S. universities and colleges give college credit to students for work they have done in high school. Some schools also give advanced standing to students who prove that they have achieved college level proficiency in a certain subject.
This means that a student who is just entering college, a freshman, can take courses normally only open to sophomores.
The school will probably ask the student to take a test to prove that he or she can do sophomore-level work, or the school will give advanced placement to a student who has scored exceptionally high on college or university admission exams. Students who have completed “A” levels at home often receive advanced placement standing.
Postgraduate (Graduate) Education
Presently, in order to find a professional job, a college or university graduate with a bachelor’s degree may want to consider graduate study.
International students from some countries are only permitted to study overseas at a graduate level. Because requirements are different in many countries, you should inquire about the credentials you will need to get a job in your country before you apply to a postgraduate university in the U.S.A.
Many international students are able to qualify for the jobs they want after they have earned a master’s degree. This degree is usually required in fields such as library science, engineering, or social work. The M.B.A., or Master of Business Administration, is an extremely popular degree that usually takes two years. Some Master’s programs, such as journalism, only take one year.
In an academic master’s program, students study such fields such as history and philosophy. These degrees are considered stepping-stones toward a doctorate (Ph.D.).
Most time spent within a master’s program is spent in classroom study. A master’s degree candidate usually must prepare a long research paper called a “master’s thesis.”
Many graduate schools consider the attainment of a master’s degree the first step towards earning a Ph.D. (doctorate). But at other schools, students may prepare directly for a doctorate without also earning a master’s degree. It may take three years or more to earn a Ph.D. degree. For international students, this time may be as long as five or six years.
For the first two years, most doctoral candidates enroll in classes and seminars. For at least another year, students will conduct firsthand research and write a thesis or dissertation. This paper must contain views, designs, or research that have not been previously published.
A doctoral dissertation is a discussion and summary of the current scholarship on a given topic. Most U.S. universities awarding doctorates also require their candidates to have a reading knowledge of two foreign languages, to spend some required length of time “in residence” attending class regularly, to pass a qualifying examination that officially admits candidates to the Ph.D. program, and to pass an oral examination on the same topic as the dissertation.