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The American Education System

An Introduction

International students who come to the United States might wonder how their American classmates reached that educational level. The American education system appears to be very confusing. This is a brief introduction.

To begin, because of the country’s history and cultural values, no national education system or national curriculum exists in the United States. The federal government does not operate schools. It does not tell teachers what to teach or which textbooks to use. In fact, the federal government has almost no role in the American education system.

Each of the 50 states in the U.S. has its own Department of Education that sets guidelines for the schools of that state. For example, each state’s Department of Education regulates the licensing of teachers, establishes the minimum number of days per year students are required to attend school, and decides how school districts will receive funding. Public colleges and universities receive funding from the state in which they are located. Each state’s legislature decides how many tax dollars will be given to the college and universities. Most of a school’s funding comes from state tax dollars and student tuition.

Most of the control of American schools lies in the hands of each local school district. Each local school district is governed by a school board. The school board is a small committee of people elected by the local community by majority vote. The school board sets general policies for the school district and oversees the budget. Students do not pay tuition in grades 1-12 as the funding comes from local property taxes.

Elementary, Middle and High Schools

Generally, school districts are divided into elementary schools, middle schools or junior high schools, and high schools. Elementary schools contain students in kindergarten and Grades 1 through 6. Many children go to kindergarten when they are five years old, although it is usually not required. Children begin first grade at age six. Depending on the school district, students follow elementary school with either middle school or junior high school, and then students go to high school. High school contains grades 9-12 or 10-12.

High school students take a wide range of courses. All students are required to take English, Math, Science, and Social Studies courses. They also might be required to take a foreign language and/or Physical Education. Students can choose to take additional courses such as art, Music, Home Economics, or Industrial Arts. A course can be either one semester or two semesters long.

In many high schools, students are placed in to “tracks.” Students who plan to go to college enter the “college track” and take courses to prepare them for admission to a college or university. Students who do not plan to go to college enter a different track and take specific courses to prepare them for a career school or the job market after high school. However, this system of “tracking” has become unpopular in recent years. Many high schools do not “track” their students any longer. Instead, in these schools all students take similar courses. In the United States, education is compulsory for all students until age 16.

Some school district requires students to take an examination in order to graduate from high school. However most school districts do not require such an exam. Usually, a student graduates after he or she has successfully passed all of the required courses. Grades are given to students for each course at the end of every semester or term. Grades are:

  • A = Excellent
  • B = Above Average
  • C = Average
  • D = Below Average
  • F = Fail

Depending on the course, a student who receives a D or F will be require to take the course again.

In 1970, about half of all American students who graduated from high school went to college. Today, nearly three out of four American high school graduates go to college.

During a student’s last year in high school, he or she applies for admission to the colleges and universities of his or her choice. Although admission policies vary from one college and university to the next, most determines admission based on several factors, such as a student’s high school course of study, high school GPA (grade point average), SAT scores, written essay, and/or personal interview.

  • The college or university admission office considers whether a student has taken courses in high school that have prepared him/her for the more difficult college courses.
  • A student’s high school grade point average (GPA) is also considered. A letter grade is assigned a number of points: A = 4 points, B = 3, C = 2, D = 1, and F = 0 points. A GPA is calculated by adding all of the points earned for each course grade and dividing the total points by the total number of courses taken. For example, a student with a GPA of 3.0 has a “B” average for all of the courses taken.
  • Most colleges and universities set a minimum SAT score that a student must achieve in order to gain admission. The SAT is the Scholastic Aptitude Test, a standardized quantitative examination taken by high school students throughout the United States. Each college or university decides the minimum SAT score it will accept.
  • Colleges and universities often require applicants to write an essay. Each admission office determines the length and content of the essay. Depending on the college or university, applicants also might have a personal interview with a representative from the admissions office.

There are four types of degrees: Associate’s (completion of program in a specific career field), Bachelor’s (conferred after completion of an undergraduate program), Master’s (first graduate degree), and Doctorate (second graduate degree and final degree).

At the college and university level, most courses are only one semester long. Each course is assigned a number of credit hours. Credit hours are usually based on how much time is spent in class. Most courses are 3 credits. However, some courses may be 1, 2, 4 or 5 credits. All degree programs require students to complete a minimum number of credit hours before graduation. Most Bachelor’s degree programs in the United States do not require student to write a final thesis. A final thesis is required for most Master’s programs and all Doctorate programs.

Selection for admission to a graduate program is similar to the factors used to determine admission to an undergraduate program. Instead of considering high school courses and GPA, an admissions office examines the student’s undergraduate courses and GPA. Most Master’s programs require students to have a minimum score on the Graduate Record Examination (GRE). The GRE is similar to the SAT.

In most Doctorate programs, students continue to take courses until they have earned enough credit hours to attempt their qualifying examinations. After the student passes the qualifying exams, he or she can begin to write his or her final thesis.

Types of Higher Education in the United States

  • Community College (2 years)
  • College or University: Lower Division (2 years)
  • College or University: Upper Division (2 years)
  • Graduate School: Master's or Terminal degree (2 years)
  • PhD Doctorate Programs (5-7 years)

Community Colleges

More Americans are enrolled in community colleges than in any other type of higher education institution. However, these post-secondary schools are not very well understood outside the United States. What are community colleges and why should international students take a closer look at them?

Community colleges have also been called “two-year” or “junior” colleges, but the preferred name is community college. These institutions, found throughout the U.S., mainly serve local communities. Unlike four-year bachelor’s degree-granting colleges and universities, community colleges usually do not have dormitories. They are “commuter schools” located close to expressways and public transportation routes so that students can reach the campus easily.

Community colleges, therefore, are busy places. Many students take only one or two classes, which they schedule at times before or after their work hours, or in the evenings and even on weekends. Many community colleges are open early in the morning until late at night. Because they are usually funded by state and local tax money, they keep their doors open to all students. Everyone living in the area the community college serves is eligible and welcome to attend.

Because they serve people with many different educational needs, community colleges offer many different kinds of programs. Thus, there are several kinds of programs that might be of interest to international students. These are:

  • University Transfer Programs
  • Job Training Programs
  • Special Interest Programs
  • Technical Programs
  • Basic Skills Programs

International students are probably most interested in the first on the list. Community colleges offer the first two years of a four-year bachelor’s degree program. Students who attend a community college can prepare themselves to transfer to a four-year institution by completing the lower division courses in the community college instead of the university. The following chart shows this option graphically:

  • High School (4 years)
  • Community College (2 years) or College or University, Lower Division (2 years)
  • College or University, Upper Division (2 years)

International Students may also be interested in the technical programs and job training programs that community colleges offer. For example, many community colleges have certificate programs in such fields as air conditioning, automotive technology, aviation and aeronautics, building and construction, business, electronics, medical technology, police and fire department training, child and family studies, and many other areas with promising careers.

Community colleges also provide basic skills courses for students who need help with reading, writing, or math. These students may need special preparation for their jobs, or in order to continue their education. Many people also attend community hobbies such as dancing, music, or art. By definition, they serve the community with the kinds of programs that the citizens want and need. Community college education is available to adults of any age or educational background.

Community colleges have a unique place in the educational system of the United States. They bring higher education within reach of millions of people who might not otherwise have a chance to go to college. The fastest-growing segment of American higher education, community colleges now enroll more students than any other kind of institution. They make quality education convenient and affordable to virtually everyone.

For students coming to the United States from other countries, community colleges offer some distinct advantages over other institutions. First of all, community colleges usually have an easy and open admission process. Evidence of high school completion, adequate English proficiency, and financial ability are generally sufficient for admission.

Second, community colleges generally have lower tuition costs than four-year colleges and universities. Students can save money during the first two years of their undergraduate studies. Then, they can transfer to any four-year institution to complete the bachelor’s degree. Community colleges are generally fully accredited institutions. Credits earned may be transferred to any other institution.

The third main advantage of community colleges is that students will find a receptive and supportive learning environment. Classes are smaller, and professors are devoted entirely to teaching. There are special programs to assist students who need extra help with English or Math or other subject. Community colleges are in the business helping people realize their education dreams.

Finally, community colleges offer international students a realistic view of American society. They will meet fellow students who are also struggling to reach their goals. Though, some of the traditional features of a college campus (such as dormitories) are missing, there are other aspects of the community college environment that make it a cornerstone of education in a democratic society.