American Education System Update 2024

US colleges and universities offer life-changing opportunities for international students.  Our definitive guide to higher education in the US answers all your questions.

If you want to study abroad in America, understanding the US higher education system is essential.  Whether you're planning to get a bachelor's degree or a master's degree from one of the many universities in the United States, it's important to learn how it works.

What is the structure of the US higher education system?

As an international student, you may be wondering how colleges and universities fit into the larger US higher education system.  American students are required to attend school between the ages of 6 and 18, called grades, which run from first through 12th.  (There is also an earlier option called kindergarten for the year before first grade, but it is not mandatory in most US states.)

Primary, or primary, education is from fifth grade, middle school or junior high school from sixth to eighth grade, followed by secondary education from ninth to twelfth grade.  Secondary education can cover both college-preparatory courses or vocational training.

After 12th grade, students have two options for post-secondary education: vocational training (usually one or two years, designed for immediate employment in a trade) or higher education (usually a two-year associate's degree or four-year bachelor's degree academic program  . )

For international students in a British-style education system, you have 13 years of education before entering post-secondary studies.  Other countries may only have 11 years of pre-university level education.  Generally, for students enrolled in post-secondary education in the United States, 12 years of education at US colleges and universities is required.

What are the different types of higher education institutions in the United States?

College vs. University

In many countries, post-secondary institutions are called universities.  However, in the United States, the terms college and university are often used interchangeably.  Some are also called institutes (eg, Massachusetts Institute of Technology, California Institute of Technology).  Among larger universities in the United States, there are several colleges or schools that represent different academic fields of study (eg, College of Engineering, School of Business).

State Colleges and Private Colleges

Depending on where you come from, the best colleges or universities may be public or run by national or regional/state governments.  But in the United States, the federal government does not operate any colleges or universities.  Instead, individual 50 state governments, the District of Columbia, Puerto Rico, and other US territories have the power to operate, fund, and (in some cases) regulate public colleges and universities within their borders.

Alternatively, private colleges may operate on their own without the direct control of state or national governments.  For example, hundreds of private colleges in the United States were founded by religious communities or churches, such as the University of Dayton (affiliated with the Catholic Church) and the University of the Pacific (a Methodist university).

According to the National Center of Education Statistics, there were 5,916 postsecondary colleges and universities in the United States in 2022: 1,892 public, 1,754 private, and 2,270 for-profit.  Of the top 20 US universities with the most international students (according to the 2022 Open Doors Fast Facts report), 13 are public and seven are private.  So, remember: Quality is not determined by whether a college or university is public or private.


Graduate studies may begin immediately after secondary school. There are two main options: a two-year associate's degree and a four-year bachelor's degree.

Typically, associate degrees are awarded at two-year US community colleges, while bachelor's degrees are awarded at four-year colleges and universities. In both cases, students choose a focus for their academic studies called a major. In addition to a major course, students take required core curriculum or general education classes that develop critical thinking and communication skills.


Graduate studies are only available to students who have completed a bachelor's degree.  In many countries, undergraduate studies are called postgraduate studies and may take five years or more.  In the United States, the term postgraduate study can refer to work after a master's degree program, including study for a doctoral degree.

International students who have completed a bachelor's degree in their home country, the United States, or a third country have two options for graduate study in the United States: master's and doctorate (or doctorate) degrees.

BA vs. BS vs. BFA degrees

When it comes to bachelor's degrees in the United States, the three most common are BA (Bachelor of Arts), BS (Bachelor of Science), and BFA (Fine Arts).  BA degrees focus on liberal arts majors in the humanities and social sciences, while BS degrees cover business, mathematics, science, engineering, health sciences, and other technical fields.  A BFA degree aligns with the creative arts, such as music or dance.


International students may consider which US colleges and universities are government-accredited.  Remember, America does not have a Department of Higher Edcation and the federal government does not determine which colleges or universities can operate.

Academic record

For most colleges in the US education system, your academic record (translated into English) will be the most important part of the evaluation process.  For undergraduate applicants, this means submitting transcripts from every institution you've previously attended: your complete high school academic transcript, external exams, and (for transfer students) any previous colleges or universities.  For graduate applicants, this means submitting official copies of undergraduate (and any graduate) degree transcripts of coursework.


Most US colleges use a combination of a 4.0 grade point average (GPA) scale and a letter grading system of grades A through F.

  A = 4.0 is best

  B = 3.0

  c = 2.0

  D = 1.0

  F = 0.0 is worst

Many American universities will also use different categories — A, A-, B+, B, B-, C+, C, C-, D+, D, D-, and F — and the +/- will have a different value on the 4.0 scale (e.g., A- = 3.7, B+ 3.3). Some universities offer classes with Pass/Fail or Satisfactory/Unsatisfactory grades, but these will not impact a student’s GPA. 

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