The United States is composed of 50 states, 5 territories, and the District of Columbia. As a result, education in the U.S. is highly decentralized. Each state has the authority to implement its own educational policy as long as that policy does not violate
the U.S. constitution or federal law.
Unlike most other countries, the federal government does not have responsibility over educational requirements or recognition or authorization of institutions at any level. There is no national system of education. The federal government's primary
responsibility with respect to education is making available federal funding to those institutions that qualify based on accreditation, which is described briefly below and detailed in the Glossary. Education in the United States is extremely diverse
and autonomous, with public and private institutions at all levels.
The academic year runs from August to May or from September to June. Education in most states is compulsory until the age of 16, with variations of 17 or 18 in some states. The language of instruction is English.
The U.S. education structure also differs from many others in that there is one secondary leaving credential, the high school diploma, and one major credential representing completion of each of the three stages of higher education: Bachelor, Master,
and Doctoral degrees.
The philosophy of liberal arts education is unique to U.S. higher education. It focuses on a well-rounded academic education, developing the student's verbal, written, and reasoning skills. It includes courses in a wide variety of studies, including
liberal arts and humanities, languages, social sciences, and physical sciences. Students must complete courses from a wide range of subjects regardless of their major area of study.
Most U.S. colleges and universities assign credit hours or units to each subject, whereby a theoretical course in an academic subject which meets for 3 hours per week, for a 15-16 week semester, is assigned 3 semester hours of credit. Credit for
laboratory or performance subjects is assigned as 1 credit for every 2 hours of laboratory or practice time. A full academic load per semester is typically 15 semester credit hours at the undergraduate level and 9-12 semester credit hours at the graduate
level. Detailed information concerning the academic year, semester system credits and the quarter system (an alternative to the semester calendar) follows.
Types of U.S. Educational Institutions
Vocational or Technical Colleges: Post-secondary technical and vocational education prepares students for employment in a specific occupation and leads to a certificate, diploma, or applied Associate degree. The majority of these institutions
are private and for-profit. They are approved and regulated by state governments and may also have national or programmatic accreditation.
Community/Junior Colleges: Community colleges are typically public, comprehensive institutions offering a variety of educational programs from adult and community education to post-secondary career and technical studies and academic or
professional programs leading to university transfer. Some community colleges have even begun offering accredited bachelor degree programs.
Colleges and Universities: Colleges and universities in the U.S. represent those higher education institutions offering degree programs. Historically, college referred to institutions offering only undergraduate studies, while universities
were those institutions that also engaged in graduate-level education, but that distinction no longer exists. Within the category of colleges and universities, there exists some delineation. Baccalaureate colleges typically offer education
that focuses on undergraduate programs, with some limited graduate study. Master’s colleges and universities are those that award undergraduate and graduate degrees, but few of their graduate degrees are doctorates. Research or Doctorate-Granting
Universities are those higher education institutions that have extensive research activity and award a significant number of doctoral degrees. Higher education institutions in the category of colleges and universities may also include professional
schools, which are typically (but not always) graduate-level programs offering professional degrees such as law, medicine, dentistry, and others.
Military Academies: Military academies, junior colleges, colleges and universities in the U.S. offer education at the secondary, Associate, and Bachelor degree levels. Post-secondary military institutions in the U.S. are also recognized
by one of regional accrediting bodies.
Primary (Elementary) and Secondary Education
Prior to enrolling in the formal 12-year system of primary and secondary education, students in most states are required to enroll in kindergarten at age 5. This system is often referred to as K-12.
Pre-university study consists of grades that are numbered sequentially after kindergarten from 1st through 12th grades. These grade levels may be grouped in a variety of combinations of elementary (primary), middle/junior high (lower
secondary), and senior high school (higher secondary), depending on the state and school district, including the following structures:
Regardless of the arrangement or grouping of the various levels of K-12 education, secondary education begins in the 7th grade, when students begin receiving instruction by individual subject-specific teachers. There are no formal graduation
diplomas for completion of elementary/primary or middle/junior high, though some school districts may issue a certificate of completion.
The high school diploma is offered in general, technical/vocational, academic college-preparatory, and also honors tracks. All students who successfully complete the graduation requirements are awarded a high school diploma. There are no national leaving
examinations for the completion of high school.
Students who leave the education system before graduating from high school do not receive any kind of certificate of incomplete education, but they may pursue the General Education Development (GED) tests. The GED exam is comprised of 5 sections: Language Arts: Writing, Language Arts: Reading, Mathematics, Science, and Social Studies. In order to pass, test-takers must meet minimum passing scores in each section and earn a minimum overall
total. Since 2002, test-takers have to pass the entire battery of tests in one sitting. GED test scores typically appear on an official report that is attached to a state-issued Certificate of High School Equivalency. Successful GED test scores are
accepted at most U.S. colleges and universities as completion of high school, though additional test scores or measures of success may also be required for undergraduate admission.
College-Preparatory High School Education
High school students enrolled in a college-preparatory academic or honors track also have the option to take Advanced Placement (AP) subjects and subsequent Advanced Placement
exams. The AP program is a cooperative program between U.S. high schools and universities that allow high school students to undertake university-level studies during their high school curriculum. Students sit for a nationally standardized, external
examination in the specific subject(s) which they studied in their high school. The AP subject exams are scored on a range of 1-5, where 5 is the highest. Colleges and universities in the U.S. set their own minimum requirements, and many institutions
have policies for exempting students from university-level courses based on the official AP examination results. Roughly 90% of U.S. higher education institutions accept Advanced Placement credits for college study.
Another option for high school students to receive advanced standing at the post-secondary level is the College Level Examination Program (CLEP) offered by the College
Board. CLEP provides credit-by-exam, allowing students to obtain transfer credit that may exempt them from university-level subjects, depending on the receiving institution’s policies and the test-takers exam results. CLEP offers more than 30
exams in 5 subject areas (history and social sciences, composition and literature, science and mathematics, business, and world languages). The exams are available at testing centers around the world and are accepted by nearly 3,000 higher education
institutions in the U.S.
High school students in the U.S. may also choose to enroll in the International Baccalaureate Diploma (IB Diploma) program offered by the International Baccalaureate Organization (IBO).
The IB Diploma program is aimed at students aged 16 to 19 and is offered in 144 countries. IB Diploma programs are increasingly popular in U.S. high schools. IB Diplomas may be earned by students in addition to or instead of their state high school
graduation curriculum. Over 40,000 U.S. students earn IB Diplomas each year.
IB Diploma students must choose one subject from each of five groups: best language, additional language, social sciences, experimental sciences, and mathematics. Students also choose either an arts subject or a second subject from one of the previous
groups for further study and examination. Grades are awarded on a 1 to 7 scale, with the higher number representing higher marks. Up to 3 additional points may be added for combined results in Theory of Knowledge (TOK) and the extended essay. The
IB Diploma is awarded to students who earn at least 24 points, out of a maximum of 45.
Upon award of the IB Diploma, students will have earned graduation from a college-preparatory high school and may be considered for up to one year of advanced standing, depending on state and institutional policies regarding IB credits. International
Baccalaureate transfer policies may vary from institution to institution, and policies may even be established at the state level. More than 700 colleges and universities in the U.S. and Canada have established a stated policy of accepting the IB
Diploma for university admission.
Undergraduate education refers to post-secondary education leading to an Associate or Bachelor's degree. Graduate studies are those that typically require a Bachelor's degree for admissions, including Master's and Doctoral degrees.
In a 4-year Bachelor degree program, the first year of full-time study is typically referred to as the freshman year, and students enrolled in that year are also referred to as freshmen. The second year is referred to as the sophomore year, and its
students are sophomores. These two years together make up the lower division studies, which typically have few prerequisites and may constitute the majority of the institution's core curriculum. With variations by state, and by institutions within
states, general education studies at the lower division level typically include course work in English composition, foreign language, natural sciences, social sciences, mathematics, and some electives. Electives are subjects not required but that
students choose in order to either round out their education or to supplement and strengthen their major area of study. The third year represents the first year of upper division studies focusing on the specific major field and is referred to as the
junior year; its students are likewise identified as juniors. The fourth or senior year of upper division undergraduate studies culminates in a minimum of 120 semester credits (or 180 quarter credits).
Academic Year, Semester Credits, and Quarter Credits
The academic year is usually divided using two main strategies: the semester system and the quarter system. The most common calendar distribution in U.S. higher education is the semester calendar, which is typically of 15-16 weeks duration. The quarter
system is usually 10-12 weeks. The type of calendar system affects study load (enrollment) and is usually notated on the transcript. An academic year under the semester system is typically divided into the Fall and Spring semesters, while the
quarter system is divided into Fall, Winter, and Spring. Both of these systems also offer optional summer terms.
As a mechanism for quantifying the relative weight of different educational subjects, most higher education institutions in the U.S. assign credit values to each subject. One semester credit represents one contact hour per week for a period of 15 to 16
weeks, in the semester system. Most academic theory classes meet for 3 contact hours per week for the duration of the semester and are therefore assigned 3 semester credits. On the quarter system, one quarter hour represents one contact hour
per week for a period of 10 to 12 weeks.
Practical instruction, such as laboratory work or internships is quantified differently than for theoretical subjects. In practical studies, 1 semester credit typically represents 2 to 3 hours of practical instruction, laboratory work, music or visual
arts practice, or other non-theory work per week.
Each semester credit represents approximately 2 hours of outside preparation, which includes assigned reading, homework, studying, papers, projects, group work, exam preparation, and research. A single theory class in the semester system that meets
for 3 contact hours per week represents 6 hours of outside preparation and 3 contact, or 9 hours of education per week for 15 to 16 weeks.
A full-time academic load is typically 15-18 semester credits per semester, or 30 to 36 semester credits per year. The corresponding numbers in the quarter system are 16-18 quarter credits per semester and 48-54 quarter credits per year. As stated
above, there are two semesters, or three quarters, in an academic. To summarize:
- 30-36 semester hours per year x 4 years = 120-144 semester hours
- 48-54 quarter hours per year x 4 years = 180-216 quarter hours
- Students who transfer from a quarter system school to a semester system school receive transfer credit at the rate of two-thirds (120/180); while students transferring from a semester system school to a quarter system school receive transfer credit
at the rate of 1.5 (180/120)
Accreditation and Educational Authority
None of the different levels of education conclude with a standardized final examination. As a result, the content of the specific program or degree must be examined, and accreditation is critical in the U.S. education sector. Accreditation is a
self-regulating process of quality control to ensure minimum standards of academic and administrative competence, and to promote mutual recognition of qualifications.
Higher education institutions in the U.S. are not recognized or authorized by the federal government. Instead, their authority to grant degrees is conferred on them by state governments. Higher education institutions typically seek accreditation as a
basic indicator of meeting specific minimum standards.
State approval to operate is not the same thing as institutional or programmatic accreditation. Institutions that are approved to operate in one state, but are not accredited by a recognized accrediting agency, might not be recognized in other states.
Their degrees and credits might not be accepted for university admission or employment purposes in another state. Only accreditation by a recognized accrediting body assures recognition.
There are two key entities responsible for the recognition of accrediting bodies in the United States: the Council for Higher Education Accreditation (CHEA) and the U.S. Department of Education (DOE). By recognizing accrediting bodies that are recognized by professional and state licensing authorities CHEA confers academic legitimacy on the relevant accrediting organizations.
DOE recognition is required for accrediting bodies whose institutions or programs seek eligibility for federal student financial aid funds.
The U.S. Department of Education is involved in education at the national level in variety of ways: implementing laws related to federal funding for education, collecting data and overseeing research on America's schools and sharing that information with
the public, identifying major problems in education and focusing attention on them, and enforcing federal laws prohibiting discrimination in institutions or programs that receive federal funds.
The U.S. federal government and the U.S. Department of Education do not, however, have legal power to recognize higher education institutions or programs, to inspect, to offer quality assurance, or to assign educational standards. But, as mentioned
above, they do approve the accrediting agencies that are able to certify institutions or programs that are able to receive federal funds.
The majority of degree-granting institutions operate under the legal authority granted to them by the state government in which they were established. Some institutions, such as the military service academies and some colleges operating in the District
of Columbia (Washington, DC), derive their degree-granting authority from the U.S. Congress, which established those institutions.
Accreditation in the U.S. serves a variety of purposes, including quality assurance, access to federal funding by the institutions and its students, ease of student and credit transfer, and ensuring employer confidence. Public higher education institutions
must be authorized to operate by the state government. Private higher education institutions must be licensed by the state government. But in most states, institutions do not need to be accredited in order to operate or to be licensed.
Types of Accrediting Bodies
Regional accreditation is the most common type of institutional accreditation among U.S. higher education institutions. There are six regional accrediting bodies, which are non-profit organizations recognized by CHEA and are organized by
geographic location (see list under Resources tab). Regional Accreditation is granted at the institutional level, and many regionally accredited institutions only accept credits or degrees from other regionally accredited institutions. Regional
accrediting bodies typically accredit comprehensive institutions that offer instruction in a variety of fields and grant both undergraduate and graduate degrees. But they also accredit institutions at different levels, including elementary
and high school, vocational and technical, and 2-year junior and community colleges. The regional accreditation process includes five key features: self-study, peer review, institutional site visit, actionable recommendations from the accrediting
body, and ongoing external review.
National accrediting agencies, which may also be referred to as specialized accrediting agencies, accredit specialized institutions offering instructions in only a few subjects, such as law, medicine, theology, or performing arts. Other
examples of nationally accredited institutions are career colleges and independent institutions. Some nationally accredited institutions, particularly religiously-affiliated institutions, may also attain regional accreditation.
Professional/programmatic accreditation focuses on specific programs within an institution of higher education. Engineering and architecture are prime examples. In many instances, professional licensure can only be achieved by completing
a program that is recognized by a specific professional accrediting body. Programmatic accrediting agencies accredit specific programs of study, not the entire institution. They typically operate in specific subject fields that provide professional
education for meeting state licensing requirements. Professional accreditation is only required in the U.S. for professions involving public safety, such as architecture, engineering, and paramedical and medical studies.
Examples of programmatic accrediting bodies include:
- American Bar Association (ABA)
- Accreditation Board for Engineering and Technology (ABET)
- Association to Advance Collegiate Schools of Business (AACSB)
- National Architectural Accrediting Board (NAAB)
Nationally accredited institutions are frequently single-purpose institutions, including distance learning colleges and universities, private career institutions, and faith-based colleges and universities. The majority of these are non-degree and
for-profit. Comparatively, most regionally accredited institutions are degree-granting and not-for-profit.
Professional Licensure or Certification
The process of certification and licensure reside under the control of individual states. Specifically, many states require that the individual graduate from a program that is accredited by a recognized programmatic accrediting body in order to sit for
certification or licensing exams. Most first professional degree programs in the U.S. represent only the academic component of a particular profession. Graduates must also sit for the state licensing examination in order to practice in the professional
The U.S. also includes professional credentials that are not academic degrees, such as Registered Nurse or Certified Public Accountant or other licensed professions. These are individual certifications, usually by a state licensing board, that grant
them access to practice the specific profession. But in some instances, a degree is required to practice a particular profession.