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, is 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 matters, helping to define and implement the academic vision and mission of the university.

One of the vice presidents (and usually the most senior) is responsible for the academics, and is also called the provost. The provost oversees all the university’s academic affairs from curriculum to research, and who also oversees the recruitment of new faculty members. Under the provost, there is the vice provost. A university may have one or more 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. 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 are the link between each specific department 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 their academic journey. The first place a student can turn to for academic support is their instructors. Instructors can point students in the right direction for academic support, and can also answer questions about their specific courses. The relationship between instructors and students is very much a professional one, and students should turn to their instructors mainly with academic concerns.

If students have questions about a course, they are encouraged to ask. Instructors are 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. Participating in discussions and asking questions are highly encouraged and are appropriate forms of classroom behavior.

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

A university may have an entire department of student services headed by a Dean of Students Affairs. This department 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 (which is also sometimes called “Student Services”) will be staffed with counselors who can offer confidential, helpful advice and 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 individual policies of academic ethics to all new students, but one policy that all universities share is an absolute ban on students plagiarizing other people’s work. Plagiarism is when a student uses, copies, or closely imitates someone else’s work and presents it as their own. Plagiarism can refer to copying and pasting words from an online article or using another student’s work as part of their own. Even if a student changes the words, it is still plagiarism to copy someone else’s ideas.

While students are encouraged to incorporate words and ideas of others into their own work, these ideas and quotations must be accompanied by proper citation. This means that after using someone else’s words, data or concepts, students must include a note within the paper saying exactly where this material came from. Citations are an important part of academic work, and students’ grades will be affected if they do not include them, or even if they are not presented properly.

Learning how to properly cite research will be one of your first tasks as a university student. The university may have a general policy on how to write citations, or each instructor may issue their own instructions.

Other academic policies will be explained by instructors or by the university itself, but here is a list of some basic “Dos and Don’ts” 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 be late. Show respect for your classmates, instructors and yourself by arriving at least a couple minutes before class starts, so that you can take your seat and be ready when it 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 language

Be 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, and have 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 transcripts – official records of your grades from previous academic experiences.

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

International students applying to American colleges and universities from abroad are advised to reach out to Offices of Admissions to check whether their academic experience qualifies them for higher education at specific institutions. It is possible that some students will have to complete an extra year of schooling to prepare for American higher education.

Levels of Study

Before starting college or university, American students will typically have completed 12 years of study at elementary and secondary school. Starting at around the age of five, children begin elementary school education, which lasts 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 at college or university, referred to in the U.S. as “higher education.” There are several levels of study within higher education:

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’s degree program, which lasts four years. To complete either an associate degree program or a bachelor’s degree program, students must earn a set number of credits. Each course taken within the degree program will earn the student a certain number of credits.

Students who graduate with an associate degree are qualified to continue studying towards a bachelor’s degree if they choose. In many cases, the credits students earned in their associate degree program can be transferred towards a bachelor’s degree program, allowing them to complete the bachelor’s degree in just an additional two years. Students with high school diplomas can also go straight into a four-year bachelor’s degree program.

A bachelor’s degree will provide a broad, comprehensive education. While working towards their bachelor degree, students will choose a major – an academic area of 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’s degree is necessary for 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 require students to take the GRE (Graduate Record Examination), which tests academic suitability for graduate level education, such as skills in critical thinking or verbal reasoning. Many fields of study also have a specific test required for master’s degree 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. 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, candidates or employees with master’s degrees.

Master’s degree programs vary in length. While some can be completed in one year, others may take up to three years depending on the area of study. Many master’s degree programs culminate in the completion of a thesis – an intensive, written research project on an issue of relevance to the student’s studies. To complete the degree, students must earn a set number of credits. Each course completed within this program will earn students a certain number of credits towards their degrees.

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

Ph.D. (Doctorate): Graduates of bachelor’s 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. (which stands for Doctor of Philosophy) degree is completed in three to six years, depending on the area of focus and the nature of the work involved. A Ph.D. can be awarded in any field, and is awarded to students who present an original thesis, 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 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.

American University Dictionary – Important Terms and Concepts

Academic Advisor – an individual whose job it 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’s degree level.

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

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

Credits – all undergraduate degree programs, as well as master’s degree programs, will require students to 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. For example, “Dean of Admissions.”

Diploma – a certificate showing that a student has graduated from a course of study with a certain qualification. There are high school diplomas as well as undergraduate and graduate degree 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’s 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

Higher Education – This term refers to education at the college/university level.

Junior – an individual in their third year of a bachelor’s 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.

Elementary School – The earliest level of formal 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’s degree program.

Sophomore– an individual in their second year of a bachelor’s degree program.

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

Teacher/Professor/Instructor – instructors in high school are typically referred to as teachers, while college and university instructors are typically known as 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. Students who enter a college or university as a transfer student may find that many of their credits transfer with 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.