About U.S. Education

There are four aspects to American universities which anyone considering attending school in the U.S. should know. Although there is some variation, almost all American universities share these characteristics:

1) American universities are divided between State and Private. Private schools often have an affiliated religious denomination, although students need not be of that particular religion to attend and this may be historical rather than real – Harvard University, for example, started as a school to train Methodist Ministers. Private schools are generally expensive but do not di fferentiate between international and domestic students. Such schools, because they charge a high tuition, often offer scholarships to talented but less affuent students. State Schools, on the other hand, are largely funded by the state, so education is often paid for in part by state taxes. This means such schools have a higher tuition for international (and out-of-state) students than for in-state students, but even with a higher rate for international students, they typically cost half to one third the cost of a private school. This also means state schools do not generally offer scholarships, especially to out-of-state students – in other words, scholarship money is given to state residents first. State Universities do award performance-based scholarships, based on grade point average (GPA) after the first year in attendance. The above does not mean state schools are inferior to private schools – UCLA and UC Berkeley, for example, are state schools.

2) American universities are performance based (as, indeed, is American society). This means American universities tend to accept students from a wider range of abilities, but acceptance does not imply graduation – one must attain and maintain a GPA (usually a “C” average) to remain enrolled. Scholarships are often based on performance as well, and are awarded to good (“B+ or higher GPA”) students, since good students enhance the reputation of schools and thus attract both more good students and good faculty. The concept of “I’m in, so I’m safe,” which is perhaps more common in Europe and Asia, does not apply to American universities.

3) American universities are transfer friendly. America is a mobile society, and people move from, for example, New York to California. Over time, this has resulted in a system in which a student can start at one school then transfer to another with accumulated credits for completed course work. The same system is applied to students from abroad, if the courses the student has taken are determined to be similar to the courses at the transfer university. This phenomenon has also resulted in a fairly standardized General Education (GE) system, such that a set of classes which most students complete in their first two years has become standard. Classes in U.S. History, U.S. Government, Mathematics, Science, Humanities, etc. are required of all students, regardless of one’s chosen specialization or Major – major classes are generally completed in the 3rd and 4th years of university. Most American universities operate on the two-semester (January-May and August-December) system, and students generally take 15 credits (5 classes) per semester for four years in order to obtain 120 credits, which is the standard requirement for graduation.

4) American universities are transparent. Generally speaking, one can find clear and easy-to-understand details on costs, graduation requirements, housing, and other information on each school’s web site and/or in their catalog. This makes it easier for students and their parents to understand exactly what is required. There are no hidden costs and no surprises. American universities expect parents and students to compare the information of schools and choose the one which is best suited to their situations. In fact, both parents and students must become familiar with the system in order to make intelligent choices on housing, major, classes, and schedules – all of which will affect total cost and efficient completion of graduation requirements. American universities require students to make these decisions and do not make decisions, such as which classes one must take or which living conditions one must choose, for them. Students are expected to take an active role in planning their individual path to graduation – this reflects the “performance based” aspect of American universities as well.

Understanding the above four points will be essential to anyone interested in pursuing a degree in higher education in the U.S.