Colleges and Degrees

Education in the United States will almost certainly be different from the system offered in your country. This article gives you an introduction to the degrees available in the United States, the different types of institutions, and some key terms and ideas you will come across if you want to study at a U.S. university or college.

Bachelor’s and Associate Degrees

The bachelor’s degree typically takes four years to complete, though some students take slightly less time to finish, while others may take longer. The associate degree usually takes two years to complete. Associate degree programs may be “terminal” programs, which lead into specific careers upon graduation, or “transfer” programs, which correspond to the first two years of a bachelor’s degree and tend to be more liberal arts based. Under the latter option you could then transfer into the third year of a four-year bachelor’s degree program. Associate degree programs are offered at two-year colleges known as junior or community colleges.

Colleges, Universities, and Institutes:

The Distinction

Degree-granting institutions in the United States can be called by any of these terms, and colleges and institutes are in no way inferior to universities. As a general rule, colleges tend to be smaller and usually offer only undergraduate degrees, while a university also offers graduate degrees. The words “school,” “college,” and “university” will be used interchangeably.  Within each college or university you will find schools, such as the school of arts and sciences or the school of business. Each school is responsible for the degree programs offered by the college or university in that area of study.

State Universities

State universities are founded and subsidized by U.S. state governments to provide low-cost education to residents of that state. They may also be called public universities to distinguish them from private institutions. Some include the words “state university” in their title or include a regional element such as “eastern” or “northern.” International students, as well as those from other states, are considered out-of-state residents and therefore do not benefit from reduced tuition at state institutions.

Private Universities

Private institutions are funded by a combination of endowments, tuition fees, research grants, and gifts from their alumni. Tuition fees tend to be higher at private universities than at state universities, but there is no distinction made between state and non-state residents.

Community Colleges

Community colleges provide two-year associate degree programs, as well as excellent technical and vocational programs. As the name suggests, community colleges are community-based institutions with close links to secondary schools, community groups, and employers, and many U.S. students live close to campus with their families.

Programs of study at community colleges usually include:

a)Two-Year Associate Degree Programs

  • designed to fulfill the requirements for the first two years of a four-year bachelor’s degree. They may be called transfer degree programs because students who complete them later transfer to four-year universities for the final two years of study.
  • designed to prepare students for immediate employment

b) Certificate Programs

Certificate programs train individuals for positions in areas like social work and human services, health care, building trades, and technologies.

c) Continuing Education

Continuing education programs are for students who wish to enhance their professional or personal skills, rather than to study for credit toward a degree or certificate.

Institutional accreditation of a community college is very important, especially if you hope to transfer from a two year college to a four-year institution, in which case you will want to ensure recognition of your first two years of study. Nearly all the community colleges and private two year institutions in the United States are accredited by the same agencies that assess the four-year colleges and universities in their geographical area. However, prospective students should always verify the accreditation of any two-year college in which they are interested.

In addition to accreditation, the smooth transition from a community college to a four-year institution depends on the strength of the articulation agreement between the two schools. These contracts specify which courses transfer automatically from one institution to the other and, therefore, can be counted toward the four-year degree.

Community colleges operate an “open-door” admissions policy. This means anyone who wishes to enroll and meets the minimum entry requirements can do so. Each institution will have its own set of admission requirements, but the minimum usually includes the following:

  • completed application form;
  • proof of secondary school completion (usually 12 years of schooling);
  • certification of English language proficiency (usually a score from the Test of English as a Foreign Language [TOEFL]);
  • evidence of financial support (required for the I-20 form).

For many international students, a major attraction of community colleges is their low cost. In general, it will be a challenge for international students to secure financial aid at state-supported community colleges. Though you should check with the colleges about any scholarships they offer that are open to international students, almost all of the funds available to students will come from the federal government or local government, and are set aside specifically for U.S. citizens and permanent residents. There is a slightly better chance of acquiring financial assistance at private colleges. Other private institutions such as foundations, corporations, or associations may also have funds for grants and scholarships.

Non-Degree Study at a U.S. College

Do you want to study in the United States at a college or university, but not for a full degree? Perhaps you want to experience life on a U.S. campus, while improving your knowledge of certain subjects. This is certainly a useful addition to your educational experience, and U.S. colleges welcome students such as you. You should write to colleges, explain your situation, and request information on applying for “special student” or “non-degree student” status.