US University System

Understanding the USA University System

The US higher education system is renowned worldwide for its diverse institutions offering various programs, attracting international students. It follows secondary education, and there are over 4,300 degree-granting colleges/universities, including public/private, research-focused, liberal arts, community colleges, and for-profit schools, to choose from as an international student.

US universities excel globally due to strong research funding, world class facilities and degree awards which are recognised all over the world for their excellence.

US Academic Year

The academic year in the US typically begins in August or September for the Fall session, with some institutions offering a Spring intake from January to April and a limited Summer intake from May to August.

Bachelor's degrees generally take three to four years, master's degrees one to two years, and doctoral degrees four to seven years, depending on the specialization and university. Many colleges follow a two-semester academic year, while others adopt a three-term trimester system. This diverse structure accommodates various student needs and program durations.

US Study Levels

The education system in the United States follows a common structure found in many countries. Once a student has finished formal education, either in the US or in their home country, they can enrol on one of the primary higher education award options in the US:

Qualification Duration
Associate Degree 2 years Job-oriented programs, equivalent to the first two years of a bachelor's degree.
Bachelor's Degree 3 - 4 years Undergraduate degree with core courses, major, minor, and electives.
Master's (Professional) 1 to 3 years Leads to a specific profession, duration varies based on the field of study.
Master's (Academic) 2 years Awarded in humanities, arts, and science disciplines, often a pathway to doctoral programs.
Doctorate (PhD) 5 to 8 years Involves completing a dissertation and successful defense before a faculty panel, leading to a research degree.

US institutions

Universities in the USA

Universities in the United States are esteemed educational institutions that offer a range of undergraduate and graduate programs. Depending on historical, cultural, or structural considerations, some universities continue to use the term "college" in their names. Graduate programs within universities encompass a variety of degrees, including master's degrees like M.A., M.S., M.B.A., and M.F.A., as well as doctorates such as Ph.D.

The American university system is decentralized, with public universities being administered by individual states. There are different sub-types of universities in the U.S., each with its own unique characteristics:

Liberal Arts Colleges

Liberal arts colleges are four-year institutions that prioritize a well-rounded education with an emphasis on interactive instruction. They often have smaller student bodies and lower student-to-faculty ratios than universities. and many are private, but there are also public liberal arts colleges.

These colleges encompass a diverse range of academic areas, including great books, history, languages, mathematics, music, philosophy, political science, psychology, religious studies, science, environmental science, sociology, and theatre. They offer an alternative to specialized education, focusing on critical thinking and communication skills.

Community Colleges

Community colleges are institutions that typically offer two-year programs of study. They practice open admissions, welcoming a broad range of students, often at lower tuition rates compared to other state or private schools.

US institutions can also be categorized as:

Each category represents a unique approach to education, catering to diverse interests and career aspirations.

Grading System

The grading system at the university level in the US employs a letter-based system to evaluate students' academic performance. This system provides a standardized way to assess and communicate students' achievements in their courses. The table below illustrates the common letter grades and their corresponding grade point averages (GPAs) used in the U.S. university grading system:

Letter Grade Grade Point Average (GPA)
A 4.0 Excellent, indicating mastery of the subject material.
B 3.0 - 3.9 Good, representing above-average understanding.
C 2.0 - 2.9 Satisfactory performance, meeting minimum requirements.
D 1.0 - 1.9 Poor, indicating a minimal level of understanding.
E 0.0 Failing, showing an inadequate grasp of the material.

For instance, if a student receives a grade of "A," their GPA for that course would be 4.0. If they attain a "B," their GPA for that course would lie between 3.0 and 3.9, depending on the precise grade assigned. Likewise, a "C" corresponds to a GPA ranging from 2.0 to 2.9. If a student earns a "D," their GPA for the course would range from 1.0 to 1.9, indicating a minimal level of accomplishment. An "F" indicates failure, resulting in a GPA of 0.0. 

These individual GPAs are then used to compute an overall cumulative GPA, offering an encompassing measure of the student's academic performance across their various courses. This grading framework serves as a practical tool for evaluating and comparing students' progress, benefiting both students and educational institutions in making informed academic decisions.

Understanding Majors, Minors, and Concentrations

The US education system emphasizes well-roundedness and life skills, requiring students in colleges or universities to take a diverse range of courses to earn their degree. This approach, unfamiliar to many international students, values liberal arts subjects, mathematics, sciences, and foreign languages as they foster critical thinking, logical reasoning, and communication abilities.


In the US, students shouldn't anticipate concentrating solely on their chosen major. Majors represent their primary area of study, geared towards their intended career path or further education. However, a well-rounded education is promoted and only about half of their courses will be directly related to their major.


Minors are additional academic focal points alongside the major, requiring fewer classes, offering a chance to explore supplementary interests.


Concentrations are specialized areas within a major, allowing students to delve deeper into a specific area of study. For instance, within history at the University of South Carolina, concentrations include regions like Latin America and subject areas such as political history or history of religion.

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