Higher Education in the United States

Types of Programs of Study

Undergraduate Studies

The most common educational route for secondary school graduates in the United States is undergraduate studies. Most prospective students choose between community colleges that offer two-year associate degrees or four-year universities that award bachelor degrees. Students that attend community colleges for their first two years are often able to transfer to a four-year university to complete the additional two years to earn a bachelor’s degree.

Note that terminology in the United States is not standardized. The terms “college” and “university” are used interchangeably and could indicate the same level of quality. In some cases, a “college” could be an institution that awards only undergraduate degrees and “university” could have both undergraduate and graduate degree programming. However, this is not strictly the case. Also, at some institutions, there could be colleges or schools within the institution. For example, a College of Education or School of Architecture. Another term to notice is “liberal arts.” While institutions known as liberal arts colleges could focus on the social sciences, they may also offer strong science and technology degree programs, as well.

Community Colleges 

About one-third of U.S. university students attend community colleges that tend to be popular because of their accessibility, low cost, and small classes. Although the application process is similar for community colleges and four-year universities, the application standards for community colleges tend to be less rigorous. Community colleges attract and accommodate a more diverse student body including individuals who have been out of secondary school for years, have a full-time job, and might also be raising a family.  Housing options at community colleges tend to be more limited and often require students to research and find off-campus housing on their own.

At community college, students earn an Associate in Arts (AA), Associate in Science (AS), or Associate in Applied Science (AAS) degree after about two years of full-time study. Some students choose to transfer to a four-year university after those two years of full-time study and their course credits are counted toward credits required to complete a Bachelor of Arts (BA) or Bachelor of Science (BS) degree. Since community colleges typically cost less than four-year universities, students who do their first two years at community college usually pay less than students who enter immediately into four-year university. Because colleges and universities are independent from one another, students need to check in advance how many of their course credits will transfer and count toward bachelor degree programs. This is especially true if the students are transferring to a highly competitive university, including public or private ivy league schools.

The student body at community colleges tends to be smaller than four-year universities and their campuses less busy because the majority of students live off-campus. The staff to student ratio is also typically lower and faculty members spend most of their time teaching. At four-year universities, classes tend to be larger, and it is common for graduate students to teach undergraduate classes instead of professors who spend more time on research which gives them less time to engage with students. Some international students prefer beginning at a community college where there are smaller classes, and they have easier access to professors before transferring to a four-year university. However, international students who are confident in their academic abilities and want to participate in a livelier campus community may choose to enter a four-year university immediately.

Four-year Universities

Students who enroll in bachelor degree programs at four-year institutions from the start often take introductory courses their first year and decide whether they will complete a Bachelor of Arts (BA) degree or Bachelor of Science (BS) degree and choose their major and minor areas of study after their second year of coursework. Unlike other countries, students are not required to select a specific area of study when they apply to university. They can take classes in their areas of interest before narrowing their focus. Common undergraduate majors include Business, Health, Social Sciences, History, Psychology, Biological and Biomedical Sciences, Engineering, Communication, Journalism, and Visual and Performing Arts. Students work with their assigned university advisor to select classes that meet university requirements and match their future career goals. Within degree programs, students can select electives that are not directly tied to their major or minor but will count toward the total number of credits required to complete their degree. Sometimes, taking elective classes causes students to decide to switch their major. In this case, students could take more than four years to complete their bachelor degree. For the first one to two weeks of each semester, students are typically able to add and drop classes without any penalty. This enables students to preview courses and ensure the ones in which they enroll meet their academic needs and expectations.