The United States Education System


Image of two students walking down the hallway of a school

The US education system consists of 12 years of elementary and secondary education before students can advance to post-secondary education.

In the US, the school calendar begins in August or September and continues through to May or June. The majority of students begin school in autumn. The academic year is composed of three terms also known as semesters. The first semester is from September to December followed by a short holiday break between semesters. The second semester is from January to May. The last semester is a summer holiday break. Post-secondary students can be on summer break from June to August.

Elementary and Secondary (K-12) Education

Elementary and secondary school is similar across the US. However, there are minor variations from state to state. Elementary and secondary education is divided into:

  • Elementary School: Runs for 6-7 years starting in Kindergarten through to Grade 5 or 6
  • Middle School: Runs for 2-3 years starting in Grade 6 or 7 through to Grade 8
  • High School: Runs for 4 years starting in Grade 9 through to Grade 12

Once a student has completed Grade 12, they will receive a high school diploma. Students must complete secondary school (high school) to qualify for post-secondary education. Public education in the US is generally free, however, students may come across some fees including field trips, uniforms, books, etc.

Post-Secondary Education

The US has more than 4,500 post-secondary institutions. The US is unique as their institutions are not centrally organized but are accredited on a national or regional level. There are many different types of post-secondary education systems within the US. They include:

  • State College or University
  • Private College or University
  • Community College
  • Institute of Technology

Each type of institution provides students with a unique schooling experience, giving students the flexibility to choose the path that works best for them and their career.

Public and Private Institutions

Public or state institutions are supported by state or local governments. Each state has a minimum of one state university and college. With support from the government, students are provided with an affordable post secondary option.

Private institutions are privately run and receive no funding from the government. Notoriously, private institutions have higher tuition rates. They are also smaller in size and can have religious affiliations than their public school counterparts.

Types of Post-Secondary Institutions

State College or University

State colleges offer a more affordable post-secondary route. They have often have a wide range of degree programs available. Students also have access to a vibrant campus life, extra-curricular activities, and state of the art teaching facilities. The largest public colleges in the US have over 60,000 students enrolled. Some state colleges available include:

  • University of Michigan
  • University of California - Los Angeles (UCLA)
  • University of Virginia
  • University of California - Berkeley

Private College and University

Private colleges offer students with smaller class sizes, that helps the students build a relationship with their professors and advisors. They have a smaller list of the degree programs they offer but students have the option to customize their degrees and will be part of more discussion based classes. Among the private colleges are the prestigious Ivy League.

Ivy League

The Ivy League is one of the most well-known groups of universities in the world. It consists of a group of eight historic universities. They are all located in the northeast region of the US. The Ivy League was originally formed in the 1950s as an athletic association. To this day it remains an athletic association, as well as leaders on the intellectual side. The eight schools include:

  • Brown University
  • Columbia University
  • Cornell University
  • Dartmouth University
  • Harvard University
  • Princeton University
  • The University of Pennsylvania
  • Yale University

Community College

Community colleges are two-year associate degree programs/certifications. Throughout the years, community colleges have begun to adopt vocational oriented programs. There are two associate degrees students can take in community college. Students can enroll in an academic transfer program or direct to the workforce program. ESL or intensive english language programs are available to help prepare international students for university-level courses. Some community colleges available include:

  • Green River College
  • Miami Dade College
  • Northern Virginia Community College
  • Santa Monica College

Institute of Technology

Institutes of technology are universities that specialize in engineering, technology, applied sciences, and natural sciences. Students can attend a four year program to receive a bachelor’s degree. Some institutions have graduate programs and also offer short-term courses. Some institutes available include::

  • Illinois Institute of Technology
  • Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT)
  • New York Institute of Technology

Levels of Education Qualifications

The US has various qualifications students can achieve while they study stateside. They are grouped into associate degree, bachelor degree, masters, and doctoral.

Associate Degrees: Typically 2-year programs designed to provide students with basic knowledge on subjects. They prepare students for entry-level positions in fields including nursing, designing, and education.

Bachelor Degree: Taking 4 years to complete, these programs provide students with education and preparation for most careers paths. Students are able to accept full-time work in their respective field right after graduation.

Some examples of bachelor degrees are:

  • Bachelor of Arts (BA)
  • Bachelor of Science (BS)
  • Bachelor of Fine Arts (BFA)
  • Bachelor of Business Administration (BBA)
  • Bachelor of Architecture (BArch)

Masters: Can take 1-2 years to obtain with students specializing in one area of study. Masters can be thesis or research-based depending on the student's specialization.

Doctoral (PhD): There are different types of doctoral degrees that students can obtain. All are typically research-based and require students to have found a research supervisor at the university they're applying to. Students looking to get into the medical field will need to obtain a Doctor of Medicine designation, which is different from other doctoral streams.

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