The American higher education system 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.
Types of higher education institutions
The US has over 4,000 higher education institutions. These institutions are either public or private. The fact that an institution is public or private is no indication of the quality or level of the institution. It is important that all institutions are accredited; see Accreditation and quality assurance.
Colleges and universities
The terms college and university are used interchangeably. The quality of education at a college or university can be both good and not as good.
In this description, college is taken to mean a four-year college. Four-year colleges offer 4-year undergraduate programmes (bachelor’s programmes), whereas junior colleges or community colleges generally offer 2-year undergraduate programmes (associate degree programmes) only.
Although there are many exceptions, the main differences are generally as follows:
- A university offers both undergraduate programmes (‘associate and bachelor’s programs’) and graduate programmes (‘master’s and doctoral programs’).
- A college mainly offers undergraduate programmes.
Junior colleges and community colleges
A junior college is an institution that offers 2-year undergraduate programmes. Community colleges are mainly public junior colleges which offer 2-year associate degree programmes and various certificate programmes.
Students who plan to continue in the 3rd year of a bachelor’s programme (undergraduate programme) must complete a so-called ‘transfer program’ offered by community colleges.
Degrees in higher education
Students can obtain an associate degree from a two-year college (junior college or community college), a four-year college or a university.
- Duration: 2 years.
- 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 most ‘transfer programs’. See Admission to higher education.
- 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.
- 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 Science (AS), Associate in Applied Science (AAS).
Students can obtain a bachelor’s degree from a four-year college or a university.
- Duration: usually 4 years.
- Admission requirements: a high school diploma + additional requirements, where appropriate. See Admission to higher education.
- 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.
- Diploma: Bachelor’s Degree; Bachelor of Arts (BA), Bachelor of Science (BS).
Students can obtain a master’s degree from a graduate school of of a college or university.
- Duration: usually 1-3 years; 2-3 years for a professional master’s programme.
- Admission requirements: a bachelor’s degree in all cases, plus additional requirements such as GPA score, required subjects and entrance examinations (GRE/GMAT/LSAT/MCAT).
- Content: research or professionally oriented. Research: a thesis or capstone project (often case studies or ‘program evaluations’). Professional: emphasis on practising a profession (at a high level), programme may include a thesis and/or comprehensive examinations,
- Diploma: Master’s Degree, for instance Master of Arts (MA), Master of Science (MS), Master of Business Administration (MBA), Master of Social Work, Master of Public Health.
Doctor of Philosophy (PhD)
Students follow a PhD programme at the graduate school of a university.
- Duration: 4-6 years.
- Admission requirements: a good master's degree, although the more selective research universities sometimes admit promising students with a bachelor’s degree.
- 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.
- 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).
- 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.
- 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).
- Diploma: Juris Doctor, J.D. (law), Doctor of Medicine, M.D., Doctor of Dental Surgery, D.D.S. and Doctor of Veterinary Medicine, D.V.M.
- In this case, the term Doctor is a professional title, not an academic doctorate as in a PhD.
- 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’.
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.
- Requirement: a High School Diploma obtained following a college preparatory curriculum, plus average scores in the SAT or ACT college readiness test.
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;
- letters of recommendation.