Higher Education

Universities, qualifications and fees

Higher Education

Higher education in the US is recognized worldwide for its quality and variety. There are three main levels of higher education: undergraduate studies (bachelor’s degree), graduate studies (master’s degree) and postgraduate studies (doctor’s degree). Here you will find everything you need to know about attending college in the US. 

The minimum age for enrolment at university is usually 17 or 18, and some 40 percent of college students are 25 or over, many of them completing advanced degrees.

Degree level courses are offered by over 4000 accredited colleges and universities, with a wide variety of admission requirements and programs. Of the total college population of 19 million students (14 million in public colleges and 5 million in private), around 1 million are international students, roughly half of which are working on graduate level degrees. Hundreds of American colleges recruit students from countries such as China, the UK, India and South Korea. Although the terms ‘college’ and ‘university’ are often used interchangeably, a college may be independent or part of a university (both colleges and universities are also referred to simply as schools).

Educational standards

An American university typically offers a blend of natural and social sciences, technical, and humanistic studies. IN undergraduate programmes, students are usually 18 to 22 years old and attend college for four years to earn a bachelor’s degree in arts or science (BA or BS). On the other hand, a university is usually composed of an undergraduate college of arts and sciences, plus graduate and professional schools and facilities. The four years of undergraduate study for a bachelor’s degree are referred to as ‘freshman’, ‘sophomore’, ‘junior’ and ‘senior’ year (also used in high schools). 

One of the most surprising and unique aspects of the US education system is that many of the most prestigious universities are private foundations and receive no federal or state funds (their main source of income, in addition to fees, is endowments). The most famous universities include the Ivy League universities (called as such because they’re old enough for ivy to have grown on the walls): Brown, Columbia, Cornell, Dartmouth, Harvard, Pennsylvania, Princeton and Yale. The Ivy League, together with the ‘heavenly seven’ or ‘seven sisters’ (Barnard, Bryn Mawr, Mount Holyoke, Radcliffe, Smith, Vassar and Wellesley) of once all-female colleges, are some of the most prestigious American universities.

Although some people claim their fame rests more upon their social standing than their academic excellence, attending one of these colleges usually pays off in the job market, particularly at the executive level. Other world-renowned American higher education institutions include the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) in Cambridge (Massachusetts), the California Institute of Technology (Caltech) and Stanford University in California, all of which have earned distinguished international reputations for their research and academic excellence.

The academic standards of American colleges and universities vary greatly, and some institutions are better known for the quality of their social life or sports teams than for their academic achievements. Establishments range from vast educational ‘plants’ (with as many as 50,000 students) offering the most advanced training available, to small private academies emphasising personal instruction and a preference for the humanities or experimentation. Major universities are like small cities with their own shops, banks, police and fire departments, and are usually renowned for the excellence of their teaching, research facilities, libraries and sports facilities.

What makes American universities different

The main difference between higher education in the US and that in many other countries is that in the US, the system is designed to keep people in education rather than screen them out. Some 70 percent of American high school graduates (57 percent of whom are female) go on to some sort of higher education (a total of over 19 million). Many Americans see a bachelor’s or master’s degree, rather than high school graduation, as the natural completion of school life. With certain exceptions, American colleges and universities are geared to the average rather than the brighter student. 

The academic standards required to earn a bachelor’s degree in the US are lower than in many other countries. Some colleges accept almost any high school graduate and are disparagingly referred to as ‘diploma mills’ (which has diminished the value of degrees). It’s at the graduate level (where students study for a master’s degree) that American universities are seen at their best and where students receive an education rivalling that of any country.

The generous salaries American universities can offer professors enable them to attract the best brains (many from abroad). Professors have a much higher social standing than school teachers and are permitted a high degree of autonomy in their teaching methods.

Community & liberal arts colleges

The US has two unique higher education institutions: the two-year community college and the four-year liberal arts college. Two-year community colleges are mostly locally controlled and publicly funded. They offer studies leading to technical and semi-professional occupations, and studies which prepare students for entrance to a four-year degree institution.

A two-year college awards an associate degree after two years’ study, e.g. Associate of Arts (AA) and Associate of Science (AS) degrees. The four-year liberal arts college may be one of the constituent parts of a university complex or an independent establishment. It provides pre-professional training of four years or less for students who proceed to advanced professional schools, such as law or medicine, and offers a liberal education for students who don’t enter professional or graduate school.

A university college of liberal arts often serves students in parallel undergraduate professional colleges, such as engineering and business administration, by providing them with courses in basic disciplines. In many states, the top 10 to 15 percent of graduating high school students are admitted to four-year universities, the next 20 percent or so go to state colleges, and the remainder attend two-year community colleges.

Terms & Grades

Most colleges and universities have two terms (semesters) or sessions a year of around 14 weeks each: fall, from September to late December, and spring, which extends from late January to late May (some divide the academic year into three sessions: fall, spring and summer). Those who miss or fail a course can catch up by attending summer school, an intensive eight-week course offered between terms.

Most students complete ten courses per academic year and usually take four years (although it can be much longer) to complete a bachelor’s degree requirement of around 40 three-hour courses or 120 credits. Those who achieve the highest grade point averages (GPAs) graduate (or ‘are graduated’) as Summa cum Laude (excellent), Magna cum Laude (very good) and Cum Laude (good).

All other successful students are awarded ungraded degrees. As bachelor’s degrees have become commonplace, more students are pursuing postgraduate studies (almost always called ‘graduate school’), particularly professional degrees in law (JD) and business (MBA), and PhDs.

Fees, grants & scholarships

Tuition fees vary widely among colleges and universities, and no two institutions charge the same fees. Public state colleges and universities charge significantly lower fees for in-state residents (also applies to resident foreign students) and higher ‘out-of-state’ fees for non-residents. One year’s residence in a state is usually necessary to qualify for the resident tuition rate. Higher fees may also apply to out-of-county students at a two-year community college.

The average cost of tuition and fees for public (state) four-year colleges and universities is around $10,000 per year for in-state residents and $25,000 for out-of state residents. For private institutions, the average cost is around $35,000 per year, although you may pay twice as much for tuition at an Ivy League college. Fees for private universities have increased alarmingly in recent years and many colleges have reduced their entrance standards (called ‘dumb-downscaling’) to attract students who can afford the fees.

In addition to tuition, this cost includes fees for registration, health centre, sports centre and parking (all of which must be paid at the start of each semester). Room and board, books and supplies, transportation, and other expenses cost (on average) an additional $8,000 to $15,000 per year (included in the total cost above).

A car is usually not essential, as facilities on college campuses are well connected. Health insurance is compulsory, although students may be automatically enrolled in the university health insurance plan. All in all, paying for a child’s college education is a major investment for parents and students alike. Most families participate in savings and investment schemes to finance their children’s college education, and an increasing number expect their offspring to take an active role in paying for their own education through loans and evening and summer jobs. Many students obtain part-time employment to finance their studies, during term-time and summer breaks (foreign students should check in advance whether their visa allows such employment), while others receive grants, scholarships and loans to help meet their living expenses.

Scholarships are awarded directly by universities as well as by fraternal, civic, labour and management organisations (around a third of students at Harvard receive a scholarship). Although public universities don’t usually give financial aid to foreign students at the undergraduate level, it’s possible for foreign students to obtain a scholarship or partial scholarship for their tuition fees from a private university. Full scholarships covering all tuition expenses are rare, so unless you’re able to contribute at least 50 per cent from your own resources, it generally isn’t worth applying.

A foreign student can apply directly to an American university for aid, a scholarship or work-study option, and can also apply to educational programmes in his home country. American embassies can provide information about the range of scholarships and grants available. A request for financial aid from a college or university doesn’t affect an entrance application in any way, as each is considered independently. Around two-thirds of college students receive some form of financial assistance, and having wealthy parents doesn’t prohibit a student from receiving aid.


Entry qualifications for American colleges and universities vary considerably; generally the better the university (or the better the reputation), the higher the entrance qualifications. Some specialist schools, such as law schools, have a standard entrance examination. Usually, overseas qualifications which would qualify students to enter a university in their own country are taken into consideration.

It’s important for mature students returning to full or part-time college education to provide any diplomas or certificates showing the education level they’ve attained (otherwise they must take basic tests). Whatever your qualifications, each application is considered based on its merits. All foreign students require a thorough knowledge of English and those whose mother tongue isn’t English must usually take a TOEFL test. Some colleges and universities also require all foreign students to take the SAT. Contact individual universities for details of their entrance requirements.


Applications for colleges and universities are usually done online. If you plan to apply to highly popular schools, such as those in California, you must apply in the summer or autumn (fall) for admission to the following fall term (August/September), although you should start the process 18 months in advance. State universities in California are closed to foreign students by December for admission the following autumn. For less popular universities, the latest a foreign student can apply for September admission is March of the same year, as overseas applications usually take at least six months to process.

With changes to student visa requirements, you should factor in extra time for your visa application, which cannot be started until after you’ve been accepted by a school. The number of applicants each university receives per available place varies considerably and you would be wise not to make all your applications to universities where competition for places is fierce. It is best to apply to three universities of varying standards, e.g. speculative, attainable and safe.


Following acceptance by a college or university, students are advised to apply for a place in a university dormitory (dorm) or in other college accommodation. Campus accommodation is limited, although many universities give priority to foreign students. College accommodation and meals (room and board) costs an average of $10,000 per year. Many students live in university housing the first year and then rent rooms in shared apartments or houses the following years. However, in many areas this kind of accommodation is difficult to find and expensive.

Clubs & Facilities

All colleges and universities have a wide variety of societies and clubs, many organised by the students’ union or council, which is the centre of campus social activities. Some universities ban alcohol on campus and there are no student bars. Students found drinking alcohol on campus may face suspension or even expulsion.

American colleges and universities usually have excellent sports facilities and go to great lengths to recruit the best high school athletes. Most colleges provide full academic scholarships to athletes, often risking their academic reputation in the process. There’s an unwritten agreement between college Directors of Admission and potential sports stars that they enrol in college purely to play sports (with luck they will use intercollegiate competition as a springboard to a professional career). Sports teams generate huge incomes for colleges and are a commercial necessity (inter-college competitions are big business), although the situation often embarrasses college administrators and angers other students, who resent the preferential treatment given to athletes. Faced with criticism, some universities have initiated support programmes to improve the academic performance and graduation rates of athletes.

All colleges and universities devote a lot of time to wooing their former students (‘alumni/alumnae’), who are persuaded to keep in touch with their old college (alma mater), and most importantly, send lots of money. Many colleges have annual events called ‘homecomings’ (also held by high schools), when alumni are encouraged to return to college and take part in various activities. Colleges also hold other events such as a ‘fathers’ day’ or ‘siblings’ weekend’, which are often linked with sports events.


American college catalogues are available in high school guidance offices, libraries and book shops. There are also numerous online resources to help you choose a college such as Cappex , Niche  and College Board’s Big Future . You can also compare schools on sites such as the U.S. News Best Colleges , which provides 50 different types of rankings. 

The Fulbright Commission provides an Educational Advisory Service in many countries (www.fulbright.co.uk ) for students planning to study at an American college or university. The United States International Information Programs section of the State Department also provides information (http://educationusa.state.gov ).

This article is an extract from Living and Working in America. Click here to get a copy now.

Further reading

Does this article help?

Do you have any comments, updates or questions on this topic? Ask them here: