The American Education System

If you’re planning to get your degree from an American college or university, learning about how the American education system works is a great way to start preparing. There are thousands of colleges and universities in the U.S., and none of them are the same. It may seem confusing, but there are commonalities shared by most U.S. educational institutions. Learning how American higher education operates, as well as learning some of the most common concepts and terms, will be helpful for all students entering an American college or university, whether you’re coming from abroad or whether you’re an American student just looking to get some clarity!


How Are American Universities Organized?

American universities operate within a hierarchical organizational structure that starts at the top with the president (sometimes referred to as Chancellor) of the University. In many cases, the president is the Chief Executive Officer (CEO) of the University itself.


The president is the public face of the university. His or her responsibilities are broad and include overseeing the academic quality of all university departments, overseeing the university’s finances and fundraising efforts, implementing new university policies and overseeing the personnel of the University. 


The second most senior role within the university is that of the vice president. Usually there is more than one. While the president liaises between the university and the outside world, the role of the vice president is generally to deal more with internal university matters, helping to define and implement the academic vision and mission of the university.


One of the vice presidents and usually the senior from them all is responsible for the academics, also called as the provost. The provost oversees all the university’s academic affairs from curriculum to research. Under the Provost, there is the Vice Provost. A university may have one or multiple vice provosts to specifically oversee a certain area of focus such as alumni relations, research, or community outreach.


The leaders of all academic departments in the university report to the provost, who also oversees the recruitment and hiring of new faculty.


These department leaders are called deans. Each academic department within the university or college will have a dean, such as “Dean of Arts and Sciences,” or “Dean of Business Administration.” The deans connect between their specific departments and the broader academic structure of the university and are responsible for hiring decisions in their departments, departmental policies and overseeing the department’s quality.


Within each department are instructors. Instructors, sometimes called professors or teachers, teach courses, mentor students, and lead any research efforts within the university. 


University Support Structures

Each university has a network of support systems to help students successfully navigate through their academic journey. The first place a student can turn to for academic support is their instructors. Instructors will be able to point students in the right direction for academic support and will also be able to answer questions about their specific courses. The relationship between instructors and students is very much a professional relationship, and students should turn to their professors mainly with academic concerns. If a student has questions about a course, they are encouraged to ask. Instructors will be happy to help by either recommending tutoring, directing students to additional resources, or simply discussing the material.


Students are also encouraged to engage actively with their instructors during class time. Class participation is highly valued and may even be a factor in a student’s grade. Raising one’s hand, participating in discussions, and asking questions are all highly encouraged and are appropriate forms of classroom behavior.


Students can also turn to their program advisors for help. While a professor is there to help students succeed in their specific course, a program advisor has a broader and more personal role. Students will be assigned a program advisor to help succeed in the bigger picture of their academic experience at the university. Students can turn to their program advisors for mentorship and advice about which courses to take, how to develop stronger study habits, and how to deal with the challenges of being a student at a university. 


A university may have an entire department of student services headed by a Dean of Students Affairs. This office will offer support resources for students related both to academic and non-academic concerns such as personal development, mental and physical health, stress management, social development and more. The Program Advising Department (also called “Student Services” in some cases) will be staffed with counselors who can offer confidential and helpful advice as well as resources to students in need.


Academic Culture and Standards

Students in a University are expected to meet high academic standards that may be very different than those previously encountered in earlier schooling. Students are expected to take an active role in their courses. There is often a great deal of reading and writing to be done outside of the classroom. With writing assignments, students are expected to do research and put forth original ideas.


Universities will explain their policies of academic ethics to all new students, but one policy common to all universities is that students are forbidden to plagiarize. “Plagiarism” means that a student has used, copied, or closely imitated someone else’s work as if it was their work. Plagiarism can refer to cutting and pasting words from an online article or another student’s work into their paper. But even if the student changes the words, it is still plagiarism to copy someone else’s ideas.


Students are encouraged to incorporate the words and ideas of others into their work, but these ideas and quotations must be accompanied by a proper citation. This means that after one uses someone else’s words, data, or concepts, one includes a note within the paper saying exactly where this material came from. Citations are an important part of academic work in universities, and students’ grades will be affected if they do not include them, or even if they are not formatted properly. Learning how to properly cite research will be one of your first tasks as a university student. The university may have a broad policy about how to write citations, or each instructor may issue their instructions.


Other academic policies will be explained by instructors or by the university itself, but here is a list of some basic ‘Do’s and Dont’s’ for a university classroom that apply to almost all universities in the U.S.


Do’s and Don’t’s for a University Classroom

DON'T plagiarize.DO use citations.

DON'T miss class. Each class covers a great deal of material and attendance may affect your grade as well.DO ask questions in class.

DON'T come late. Show your respect for your classmates, instructors and yourself by showing up to class at least a couple minutes before it starts so that you can take your seat and be ready when class begins.DO take notes. Your notes are as important as your textbooks. Also, note taking helps commit new information to memory.

Don't use inappropriate languageBe respectful to your instructors and peers

Don't treat your peers as your competitors. Help them and be a team player.DO your homework. University courses cover a great deal of material with reading assignments that students are expected to do in their own time. Coming to class without having done these assignments is like missing a class.

Don't ignore the deadlines. Manage your time properly to meet your deadlines.Be sensitive to different cultures. When necessary give constructive criticism

Other Important Information About American Universities

Academic Year

American colleges and universities operate on an academic year that runs from Autumn to Spring.



When applying to an American college or university, you will be required to submit your “transcripts” from your past academic experience. Transcripts are official records of your grades from your previous academic experiences.


For U.S. students, this involves the submission of one’s Grade Point Average (GPA).  A GPA is the calculated average of all of a student’s grades. It is in the form of a number from 0.0 to 4.0, with 4.0 being the highest. Many colleges and universities will have a minimum GPA for acceptance. Each university will have an Office of Admissions. Prospective students can turn to the Office of Admissions with questions about applications and admission requirements.


For international students applying to American colleges and universities from abroad, it is recommended that you reach out to the institution’s Office of Admissions to find out if your educational experience qualifies you for higher education at this institution. It is possible that you may have to complete an extra year of schooling to prepare for American higher education.


Levels of Study

Before entering a college or university, American students would have typically completed twelve years of study in public or private primary school and secondary school. Starting at around age five, children will begin their primary school education for five to six years depending on the local system. Then they will move onto a secondary school, which includes both middle school (sometimes called junior high school) and high school.


After the successful completion of high school, students are awarded a high school diploma or certificate, qualifying them in many cases to continue studying in a college or a university, referred to in the U.S. as “higher education.” There are several different levels of study within higher education as well:


Undergraduate Degrees:

Students just entering the college/university system will start out in an undergraduate program. This may be either an associate degree program, which typically lasts two years or a bachelor degree program. To complete either an associate degree program or a bachelor degree program, students must earn a set number of credits. Each course taken within this program will earn the student a certain number of credits towards the degree.


Students who graduate with an associate degree are qualified to continue studying towards a bachelor degree if they choose. In many cases the credits they have earned in their associate degree program can be transferred over towards the bachelor degree program, allowing them to complete the bachelor degree in just an additional two years.


Students with high school diplomas can also go straight into a four-year bachelor degree program. A bachelor degree will provide a broad, comprehensive education. While working towards their bachelor degree, students will choose a “major.”  A “major” is an academic area in which each student will focus, in addition to the general education requirements of the program. A student’s major is often listed on their bachelor degree. For example, a student majoring in Biology would earn a “Bachelor of Arts in Biology.” A bachelor degree is a necessary qualification to continue studying at the Graduate Level.


Graduate Degrees:

Master’s Degree: Students who have earned a bachelor’s degree are qualified to continue studying at the graduate level. A common first level of graduate study is the attainment of a master’s degree. Most master’s degree programs will require students to take the GRE (Graduate Record Examination). Many fields of study have a specific test required for master’s programs, such as the LSAT for law school, the MCAT for medical school, and the GMAT for business school. 


A master’s degree is a more focused, specialized degree than a bachelor’s degree.  Many master’s degree programs are specifically geared towards preparing students for high-level careers in a certain field.  Students may find that many professions (teaching, for example) require, or give preference to, employees with master’s degrees. Master’s degree programs vary in length. While some can be completed in one year, others may take three years depending on the area of study.  Many master’s degree programs culminate in the completion of a “thesis.”  A student’s thesis is an intensive, written research project on an issue of relevance to the student’s studies. To complete this degree, students must earn a set number of credits. Each course taken within this program will earn the student a certain number of credits towards the degree.


A master’s degree can be an excellent first step towards continuing education towards a Ph.D. (doctorate), but many master’s degree students choose instead to enter the workforce, finding themselves well prepared and qualified for several high-level positions in their chosen field.


Ph.D. (Doctorate): Graduates of bachelor degree programs can begin studying towards their Ph.D. directly without first getting a master’s Degree, but many choose to get their master’s first and then continue to the Ph.D. level. A Ph.D. degree is completed in three to six years depending on the area of focus and the nature of the work involved. Ph.D. (which stands for Doctor of Philosophy) can be awarded in any field. It is awarded to students who present an original thesis, work of research, or dissertation based on their original work in their field of study. While Ph.D. students may attend seminars and lectures, this degree is based more on independent and original research than upon classroom learning.


Many Ph.D. programs have high standards for admission, such as requiring students to be fluent in at least two languages. Students may also be required to complete a residency during their time of the study.


America University Dictionary – Important Terms and Concepts

Academic Advisor­ – an individual whose job is to help students navigate the challenges of college/university and make plans for their academic and professional careers (also called Program Advisor).


Associate Degree – a type of undergraduate degree. Typically completed in two years, this degree prepares students to continue studying at the bachelor degree level.


Bachelor Degree – a type of undergraduate degree. Typically completed in four years, this degree educates students in a broad range of general educational areas as well as in a chosen major.


College VS University – both colleges and universities are institutions of higher education.  While a college will only offer a bachelor degree, a university will contain both undergraduate and graduate programs.


Credits ­ — all undergraduate degree programs, as well as master’s degree programs, will require that students complete a certain amount of credits. Each course will give students a certain number of credits towards their degree.


Dean — the head of a college or university department.  “Dean of Admissions.”


Diploma ­­–  a certificate signifying that a student has graduated from a course of study with a degree.  There are high school diplomas as well as undergraduate level and graduate level diplomas.


Dissertation — a work of original research and scholarship to be presented by Ph.D. students.


Freshman – an individual in their first year of a bachelor degree program.


GPA – Grade Point Average.  The calculated average of a student’s grades from high school or college/university.  From 0.0 to 4.0.


CGPA– Cumulative Grade Point Average. the average of Grade Points obtained in all the subjects excluding additional 6th subject as per Scheme of Studies.


Higher Education – this term refers to education at the university level.


Junior – an individual in their third year of a bachelor degree program.


Major ­– a student’s chosen area of study during undergraduate studies.


Master’s Degree – a type of graduate degree.  Completed in one to three years, a master’s degree offers a specialized education in a specific area of study.


Ph.D. ­– a type of graduate degree.  This intensive course of study involves the completion of an original dissertation.


Primary School – The earliest level of schooling in the American system, starting at age 5 and lasting six years.


Secondary School – The second level of schooling in the American system, including middle school and high school.  Upon completion of high school, students receive a diploma and are qualified to continue to higher education.


Senior – an individual in their fourth year of a bachelor degree program.


Sophomore — an individual in their second year of a bachelor degree program.


Syllabus ­– an outline of what will be covered in a college or university course, including units of study, texts, and assignments.


Teacher/Professor/Instructor ­– instructors of high school courses, are typically referred to as teachers, while college and university instructors are typically instructors or professors.


Thesis – an intensive research paper, often required by master’s degree programs.


Transcript – an official record of one’s past academic experience and grades.


Transfer ­– to transfer is to switch from one college or university to another. Entering in as a transfer student, students may find that many of their credits transfer to them.


Tuition – the cost of college or university.  Tuition refers to the cost of education itself but does not include other costs such as housing, learning materials, application fees, examination fees, etc.


Tutor – an individual who helps students prepare for courses and develop their grasp of course material. Tutors may be professionals or assigned through peer-tutoring systems.


Withdrawal ­— withdrawal from a college or university program refers to temporarily or permanently leaving the program before completing it.