Higher education in the US

American higher education is based on the principle that almost anyone with a secondary school diploma should be able to follow a higher education programme. To establish the value of a degree or diploma from the United States, it is important to establish at which institution and what level the person studied.

There is no distinction between and . American higher education institutions can offer both types of higher education. This often means that for each diploma we have to determine whether it is HBO or WO. On this page, we describe the diplomas that we often see.

Admission to higher education

Since the level and quality of American higher education institutions varies significantly, there are also major differences in admission requirements. These requirements vary from extremely low to extremely stringent.

Low or no admission requirements

Institutions with an open doors admissions policy have low requirements or no requirements at all.

  • No diploma requirements: anyone aged 18 and over is welcome.
  • Low requirements: anyone with a High School Diploma or GED is welcome.

Selection sometimes takes place during the programme rather than during the admissions process. In that case, the institution admits almost anyone but only a small percentage of students actually graduate.

Average admission requirements

Most institutions fall between low and stringent admission requirements.

Stringent admission requirements

A relatively small number of institutions select the best students based on:

  • level, content and performance during the last 4 years of high school;
  • scores in the SAT or ACT college readiness test.

In addition, these institutions take into account:

  • involvement in extracurricular activities;
  • evidence of leadership;
  • essays;
  • letters of recommendation.

Associate's degree

Students can obtain an associate degree from a two-year college (junior college or community college), a four-year college or a university.

  • : 2 years.
  • Content: there are generally 2 types of associate degree programmes: a ‘terminal program’ or ‘vocational program’, which mainly prepares students for employment; a ‘transfer program’ (vocationally oriented or general), which prepares students for admission to the 2nd or 3rd year of a bachelor’s programme.
  • Admission requirements: usually an open doors admissions policy, but there is often some form of selection for specific programmes, e.g. technical specialisations, nursing and usually for a ‘ ’.
  • Function of the diploma: work (vocational program) or access to the 2nd or 3rd year of a bachelor's program (transfer program).
  • Diploma: Associate Degree. The name of the degree is often followed by an indication of whether it is an arts or science programme:
    • Associate in Arts (AA);
    • Associate in Applied Arts (AAA);
    • Associate in Applied Science (AAS);
    • Associate in Science (AS).

We compare an associate degree obtained following a ‘terminal program’ or ‘vocational program’ to an diploma level 4.

We compare an associate degree obtained following a ‘transfer program’ to an associate degree or a diploma in some cases. This depends on the content of the study programme.

Bachelor's degree

Students can obtain a bachelor’s degree from a four-year college or a university.

  • Duration: usually 4 years.
  • Content: usually introductory subjects in various fields (liberal arts), electives, a major (usually starting in the 2nd year) and sometimes a minor. In Year 4, where appropriate, a research methodology module and a research project (occasionally a bachelor’s thesis). Sometimes a work placement or internship, which is often no longer than a few months.
  • Admission requirements: a high school diploma + additional requirements, where appropriate.
  • Function of the diploma: access to master's programmes or work.
  • Diploma: a bachelor’s degree: Bachelor of Arts (BA) or Bachelor of Science (BS).

We compare a bachelor’s degree to an bachelor's degree or a bachelor's degree. This depends on the content and/or aim of the study programme.

Master's degree

Students can obtain a master’s degree from a graduate school of a college or university.

  • Duration: usually 1-3 years; 2-3 years for a professional master’s programme.
  • Content: research or professionally oriented.
    • Research programme: a thesis or capstone project (often case studies or ‘program evaluations’).
    • Professional programme: emphasis on practising a profession (at a high level), programme may include a thesis and/or comprehensive examinations.
  • Admission requirements: a bachelor’s degree in all cases, plus extra requirements such as:
    • score;
    • required subjects; and
    • entrance exams ( / / / ).
  • Function of the diploma: access to PhD programmes or work.
  • Diploma: a master’s degree, such as:
    • Master of Arts (MA);
    • Master of Business Administration (MBA);
    • Master of Public Health;
    • Master of Science (MS);
    • Master of Social Work.

We compare a master’s degree to an HBO master's degree or a WO master's degree. This depends on the content and/or aim of the study programme.

Doctor of Philosophy (PhD)

Students follow a PhD programme at the graduate school of a university.

  • Duration: 4-6 years.
  • Content: at least 1 year of instruction; having passed extensive oral and written examinations (qualifying exams), students are given final approval to conduct research as well as to write and publicly defend a dissertation.
  • Admission requirements: a good master's degree, although the more selective research universities sometimes admit promising students with a bachelor’s degree.
  • Diploma: PhD (written as Ph.D. in American English).

Advanced professional degrees

Advanced professional degree programmes form a separate category. These programmes prepare students for specific careers, e.g. in medical sciences and law.

  • Duration: 1 to 5 years; for example: 3 years (law), 4 years (medical professions).
  • Content: a combination of theoretical subjects (e.g. basic science courses, advanced theory courses, seminars), practical subjects (professional development courses, clinics, mock trials) and work placements (e.g. internship, externship, field experience, clinical clerkships, directed research project).
  • Admission requirements: usually a bachelor’s degree with a number of compulsory subjects, such as a pre-medicine, pre-engineering or pre-law programme, supplemented with entrance examinations and the selection criteria for master’s programmes specified above.
  • Function of the diploma: work. These diplomas are required for admission to a licensing examination, which enables students to obtain a ‘professional license’ in one of the states. Students can only be officially permitted to practise the profession in that state if they have obtained this ‘license’.
  • Diploma: one of the following degrees:
    • Doctor of Dental Surgery, D.D.S.;
    • Doctor of Medicine, M.D.;
    • Doctor of Veterinary Medicine, D.V.M.;
    • Juris Doctor, J.D. (law).
      Please note: in this case, the term Doctor is a professional title, not an academic doctorate as in a PhD.