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  • Cortney Dowdle

Learn more about Higher Education in the USA

Updated: Oct 20

Updated 10.20.20


If you're thinking about studying in the USA, you likely have SO. MANY. QUESTIONS. It's a confusing process for Americans, let alone for the millions of international students wanting to study in the USA each year.


I'm happy to start off with a blog about higher education in the USA. There are so many moving pieces when looking to study abroad, it only seems natural to begin with a general overview.


Let’s start with a big one – there is no one single system in the USA to apply for higher education. Every school operates with its own processes and ways of doing things. That can make it super difficult to know what’s going on. There are also differences between public and private universities in the USA. The biggest difference is that private universities are typically funded through private donors and are run by boards, while public universities are typically receiving a combination of state funding as well as private endowments.


This really only impacts international students when it comes to receiving scholarships. Private universities can sometimes be more flexible because they are not dealing with state funding. Keep this in mind later when we talk about the benefits of public versus private schools!


Here are some terms you will hear once you start researching universities in the USA:

  • College/University – these are used interchangeably in the USA. College does not mean secondary school or a step between secondary and post-secondary. You can apply after secondary school to colleges or universities.

  • Grade Point Average (GPA) – your GPA is calculated by assigning a number from 0-4 (with 4 being the highest) and using letters A, B, C, D, F (see sample here - but note that how you convert your GPA as an international student will look different depending on your grading scale in your home country ).

  • Degree Level – students can study for an undergraduate degree such as an Associate’s Degree or Bachelor’s Degree, and then a graduate degree would include a Doctoral or Master’s program.

  • Degree Audit – this usually contains a list of the courses you need to take to earn your degree. Sometimes you can find these in a university course catalog online.

  • Credits – each course you take in university will be worth a certain amount of credits. Classes can range from 1-4 credits depending on the amount of contact and if the school is on quarters or semesters.

  • Semesters/Quarters – most schools have either two semesters (about 15 weeks each) per year, or they will have four quarters (about 10 weeks each) per year.

In general, when students complete their high school or secondary school diplomas in the USA, they choose one of the following – technical or trade school, community college, or a four year college or university. All of these are also options for international students, though most will go straight to a four year bachelor's degree program. Whether you pursue a two year or four year degree, you will be considered an undergraduate student. The graphic below shows the different education levels and approximately how long each of them take.

In the USA, most students graduate high school or secondary school at age 18 and then enroll in university. Around the world, the age for completing secondary school can vary, so just know that you just need to have completed the equivalent of secondary school or a high school diploma in the USA to apply to universities.


You can find tons of information about the different options available to you online. The USA offers more higher education options than any other country in the world, and it is precisely for this reason that there are over one million international students studying here each year!


So what makes studying in the USA so different? Here are what I consider some of the biggest selling features:

  1. Options, options, options - the USA offers more options than anywhere else in the world

  2. Student support - universities in the USA are full of support for students in areas like advising, counseling, student life, career services, on and on it goes

  3. Development - attending university in the USA is about so much more than earning a degree, and schools are built on the idea of developing leaders and dreamers and doers

  4. Outcomes - universities across the USA boast all sorts of outcomes for success, which helps identify the value of education in the USA

  5. The college experience - I will talk about the college experience of the USA endlessly throughout these blogs over the next year, but know that it truly is one of the best and most life changing experiences of your life!

The next couple of blogs are going to dive into the school search process and how to find the best school for you as an international student in the USA.


Don’t forget to share this blog with anyone that wants to learn more about studying in the USA!



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