United States of America 

Structure of Educational System
Pre-higher Education System
Higher Education System
Administrative structure of higher education   
Admissions to Higher Education and Recognition


Types of higher education institutions:

Doctoral Research Universities

Master's (Comprehensive) Universities and Colleges

Baccalaureate Colleges

Associate of Arts Colleges

Specialized Institutions

Postsecondary Vocational and Technical Schools


School leaving and higher education credentials:

High School Diploma

Certificate (Sub-bachelor or vocational)

Diploma (Sub-bachelor or vocational)

Associate Degree

Bachelor's Degree

First Professional Degree

Post-bachelor's Diploma/Certificate

Master's Degree

Certificate of Advanced Study

Education Specialist Degree





Pre-higher education:

Duration of compulsory education:

Age of entry: 6

Age of exit: 16

Structure of school system:


Type of school providing this education: A) Kindergarten B) Nursery Schools C) Preschool programmes; D) Child/day Care Centres

Length of program in years: 2

Age level from: 3 to: 6

Certificate/diploma awarded: Practice varies. Certificates may be given, especially if needed, to prove attendance for entry into Elementary School.


Type of school providing this education: Elementary School (Grades 1-4 on average, but state and local practice may vary).

Length of program in years: 4

Age level from: 6 to: 10

Certificate/diploma awarded: Practice varies. Awards may be given in States/Districts when necessary for transition to Middle School.


Type of school providing this education: Elementary Schools (Grades 1-6 or 7)

Age level from: 6 to: 14

Certificate/diploma awarded: Practice varies. Awards may be given in States/Districts when necessary for transition to Secondary School.


Type of school providing this education: Middle Schools (Grades 4-6, 5-7 or 6-8)

Length of program in years: 3

Age level from: 10 to: 14

Certificate/diploma awarded: Practice varies. Awards may be given in States/Districts where middle school is a recognized level.


Type of school providing this education: High Schools (Grades 7-12 or 8-12)

Length of program in years: 6

Age level from: 13 to: 18

Certificate/diploma awarded: High School Diploma (Regular/Standard, Vocational, Honor/Regents, College/Academic Preparatory)

Junior Secondary

Type of school providing this education: Junior High Schools (Grades 7-8, 7-9 or 8-9)

Length of program in years: 3

Age level from: 13 to: 15

Certificate/diploma awarded: Practice varies. Awards may be given in States/Districts where secondary education is divided into lower and upper divisions.

Upper Secondary

Type of school providing this education: High Schools, Senior High Schools (Grades 9-12 or 10-12)

Length of program in years: 4

Age level from: 15 to: 18

Certificate/diploma awarded: High School Diploma (Regular/Standard, Vocational, Honor/Regents, College/Academic Preparatory)

School education:

The age of entry to compulsory education in the U.S. varies, according to the state, between 5 and 7 years of age, 6 being the most common. The age at which compulsory schooling ends varies between 16 and 18 years of age, the most common being 16. School education does not end until age 18, or completion of the 12th year of school and those who leave school at the end of compulsory education without earning a secondary (high school) diploma do not receive any certificate or recognition - they are considered to be secondary school drop-outs. Students may graduate a year earlier or late depending on when they entered school. Gifted students may graduate earlier because they skipped grades, and students may graduate later because they  repeat grades. School years are referred to as "grades" in the United States. The length of primary education varies from four to seven years, i.e. grades 1-4, 1-7, etc. Each state determines what grade range constitutes primary education, called "elementary education". According to its length, elementary education may be followed (or not) by a number of years of middle school education (generally three years).  Secondary education takes place in grades 7-12, depending upon the laws and policies of states and local school districts. There is no national structure, curriculum or governing law; all laws and policies are set and enforced by the 50 state governments and the over 14,000 local school districts. All states and school districts have set the secondary school graduation level as the completion of 12th grade, and the common name for the secondary graduation qualification is the High School Diploma. This diploma name covers a variety of awards for different curricula and standards. There are Honors/Regents, academic/college preparatory, vocational, and general/basic high school diploma tracks. There are a statewide minimum course requirement and other graduation requirements in each State which usually correspond to the general/basic track. Vocational and academic/college preparatory or honors/Regents diplomas usually have additional set curricular requirements and/or standards which aspiring graduates must meet or exceed. In addition, many US secondary school districts and private schools allow students to participate in the Advanced Placement (AP) programme of the College Board. This programme allows qualified students to take college level introductory courses in selected subjects taught by certified faculty. Examinations are offered in each AP subject at the end of an academic year; a score of 3 or higher generally results in universities awarding advanced standing in that subject - exempting the student from distribution requirements.There are currently over 35 AP subjects with more being planned. A growing number of public and private secondary schools also offer the International Baccalaureate (IB) as an optional track; completion of IB requirements usually requires an additional summer or semester of study beyond the 12th year. The contents of an individual student's programme at any grade level or upon obtaining a diploma or an online RN to BSN degree are contained in the record of studies called a Transcript. Transcripts are official documents authenticated with the seal of the school or institution and signed by the registrar.

Higher education:

Higher education in the U.S. is also called postsecondary education, but the latter term also refers to all formal education beyond secondary school, whether higher education (defined as degree-granting education) or not. Postsecondary education is broadly divided into two different sectors: postsecondary vocational education and training, which is non-degree but can produce some transferable credits under certain circumstances; and higher education, which includes studies undertaken in degree-granting institutions for academic credit. However, the U.S. higher education system is not legally organized into separate university and non-university sub-systems as are some other national systems, but is comprehensive. It is a diverse and autonomous community of publicly and privalely supported institutions. Current data indicate that there are 6,479 postsecondary institutions, including 4,182 non-degree institutions. Of the degree-granting higher education institutions, some 1,732 award only the  associate degree plus sub-bachelor's certificates and diplomas; 702 award only the bachelor's degree; 1,094 award degrees and certificates beyond the bachelor's degree but not the research doctorate; and 654 institutions award the research doctorate. The United States does not use an official classification or typology for its higher education institutions. While different institutions offer varying levels of degrees, U.S. accreditation policies result in degrees at any given level adhering to certain minimum standards regardless of the institution that grants them. The privately derived but popular Carnegie Classification organizes U.S. institutions according to different schemes. For more information, see:  The U.S. higher education system is characterized by accessibility, diversity, and autonomy and is known for both its size and quality. The federal government has no jurisdiction or authority over the recognition of educational institutions, members of the academic professions, programmes or curricula, or degrees or other qualifications. Nearly all U.S. postsecondary institutions are licensed, or chartered, by a state or municipal government to operate under the ownership of either a government (if public) or a private corporation (if independent), and may be for-profit or not-for-profit enterprises. Religious institutions are considered independent, or private.  Quality assurance is achieved via the system of  voluntary accreditation by specific accrediting agencies that are recognized by the U.S. Secretary of Education and meet the standards for membership in the Council for Higher Education Accreditation (CHEA). Accreditation is a self-regulating process of quality control engaged in by the U.S. postsecondary education community to ensure minimum standards of academic capability, administrative competence, and to promote mutual recognition of qualifications within the system. Six (6) regional accreditation associations set minimum standards for institutions chartered in the states of their respective jurisdictions. In addition, there are recognized accrediting agencies for specialized institutions and programmes. While all recognized and accredited institutions are licensed or chartered by state governments, states vary greatly in the degree of supervision and quality control that they exercise, and there is relatively limited reciprocity of recognition across state borders. Accreditation by recognized agencies, therefore, remains the primary means of ensuring academic and institutional quality and the mutual acceptance of credits and qualifications across and outside the United States.

Academic year:

Classes from: Sep to: Jun

Languages of instruction: English

Stages of studies:

Non-university level post-secondary studies (technical/vocational type):

Non-university level:

There is no legal distinction between "university level" and "non-university level" higher education. The level of studies is delineated by the level of qualification offered in a specific programme rather than by type of institution offering it. Educational programmes corresponding to "non-university level technical/vocational post-secondary studies" would include all technical and occupational programmes that lead to a degree, diploma or certificate below the Bachelor's degree. Education at this level would include (1) all institutions that only award qualifications under the Bachelor's degree; (2) programmes leading to awards under the Bachelor's degree offered at institutions that also award higher degrees.


University level studies:

University level first stageAssociate Degree, Bachelor Degree, Advanced Certificate, First Professional Degree:

The Associate degree is the first academic or professional degree that can be awarded in U.S. postsecondary education. Holders of this degree may apply to enter higher degree programmes at the Bachelor's level, but are not qualified to apply directly for advanced (graduate) studies programmes. Programmes of study for this degree are usually designed to take 2 years of full-time study, but some take longer to complete. Those who pursue this degree on a part-time basis also take longer than 2 years to complete their studies. The Associate degree may be awarded in the liberal arts and general studies as an academic qualification or it may be awarded in a professional occupational field. Some professional career programmes at the  Associate level are terminal vocational programmes that do not lead to further study, while others do so. Associate degree programmes generally fulfil 2 years of the course requirements needed for a Bachelor's degree. Credit for Associate degree studies is usually transferable to Bachelor's degree programmes, especially where transfer agreements have been established between or among institutions.   The Bachelor's degree is the second academic degree that can be awarded in U.S. postsecondary education, and is one of two undergraduate (first) degrees that qualify a student to apply to programmes of advanced (graduate) study (the other such degree is the first-professional degree). Programmes of study for this degree are designed to take between 4 and 5 years, depending on the field of study. Part-time students may take longer to complete the degree requirements. Honours programmes are offered by many institutions that award the Bachelor's degree. These generally require the completion of additional requirements such as preparation of an undergraduate thesis, honours paper or project, advanced coursework, or special examinations. Advanced certificates requiring a year or less of study following (and sometimes accompanying) completion of a Bachelor's are sometimes awarded to signify a concentration in a sub-specialization or completion of a related set of competences.  First professional degrees comprise a limited number of second first degrees. Students are only admitted to first professional degree programmes after completing most, or all, of a Bachelor's degree programme in another subject. Thus, first-professional degrees are considered graduate-level degrees for purposes of admissions and student financial assistance. The study content of the first professional degree programmes is undergraduate in nature and the degrees are prerequisites for entry-level access to certain regulated professions. Confusion sometimes arises because several first professional degrees use the term 'doctor' in the title even though they are not advanced research degrees. First professional degrees are awarded in Medicine (MD), Dentistry (DDS/DMD), Veterinary Medicine (DVM), Osteopathic Medicine (DO), Optometry (OD), Paediatry (DPM), Chiropractic (DC), Pharmacy (D.Pharm), Divinity (M.Div), Rabbinics (MHL/Rav), and Law (JD).

University level second stageMaster's Degree, Post-Master's Degree/Certificate, Diploma/Certificate, Degree of Education Specialist:

The Master's degree represents the second stage of higher education and is the first advanced (graduate) degree. U.S. Master's degrees may be taught (without thesis) or research (with thesis) and may be awarded in academic or professional fields. Most Master's degrees are designed to take 2 years of full-time study, although the time may vary depending upon the subject, the preparation achieved by the student at the undergraduate level, the structure of the programme, and whether the degree is pursued on a full- or a part-time basis. Research-based Master's degrees generally require completion of a series of advanced course and seminar requirements, comprehensive examinations, and an independent thesis.  Non-research Master's degrees generally require completion of a special project as well as coursework and examinations. Both types of Master's degree also require the satisfaction of special requirements (such as linguistic or quantitative skill) or a combination. U.S. awards that fall between the Master's and the research doctorate may be of several types, but all of them fall within the second stage of U.S. higher education. Examples of awards given at this level include the degree of Education Specialist (E.Sp. or Ed.S.) and Certificates and Diplomas of Advanced Study (C.A.E., D.A.E.).

University level third stageResearch Doctorate:

The Research Doctorate represents the third and highest stage of higher education in the United States and may be awarded in academic disciplines and some professional fields of study. This degree is not awarded by examination or coursework only, but requires demonstrated mastery of the chosen subject and the ability to conduct independent, original research. Doctoral programmes require intensive study and research in at least one subfield and professional level competence in several others. Following a series of research seminars designed to prepare the individual research proposal, come candidate examinations (covering at least two subfields in addition to the field of research focus, one of which must be in a subject outside the doctoral student's own faculty but related to his/her research). If the candidate examinations are passed at a satisfactory standard (excellent or higher), the student is advanced to candidacy for the doctorate and selects a research committee of senior faculty who will approve the dissertation topic, monitor progress, and examine the student when the research is finished. The conduct of research and preparation of the dissertation can take anywhere from one to several years depending on the chosen subject, available research funding, and the location of the research. When the dissertation is finished and approved as a document by the chair of the research committee, that individual convenes the full committee plus any outside faculty and public guests and presides over the candidate's oral defense of the dissertation. An unanimous vote of the research committee and examiners is generally required to award the doctorate. Most doctoral degrees take at least 4 or 5 years of full-time study and research after the award of a Bachelor's degree or at least 2 to 3 years following a Master's degree. The actual time to obtain the degree varies depending upon the subject and the structure of the programme. Research Doctorates are awarded in the academic disciplines and for theoretical research in some professional fields. The most common of such degrees is the Doctor of Philosophy (PhD). There are a variety of equivalent degree titles used in some institutions and disciplines.


Teacher education:

Training of pre-primary and primary/basic school teachers

Requirements for education and certification (licensure) of early childhood (nursery, kindergarten, preschool) and elementary (primary) teachers are set by state governments which require multiple exams (subject matter, etc.) prior to entering teacher education and again following completion of teacher education but prior to certification. While state regulations vary, there is a growing uniformity inspired in part by the federal No Child Left Behind law's requirements for having a highly qualified teaching staff. The basic requirement is completion of a prescribed programme of studies at the undergraduate (bachelor's) level in order to qualify for entry-level certification, plus satisfactory completion of a supervised practicum and the passing of qualifying examinations. Pre-professional undergraduate studies must be completed at an accredited institution in nearly all states. While the initial certification may be achieved with a bachelor's degree, most states offer higher levels of certification based on experience and additional education, and many teachers at this level already possess, or soon earn, a master's degree. Continuing professional education is required in order to maintain certification.

Training of secondary school teachers

The basic pre-certification requirements for secondary teachers are the same as for elementary school teachers. A major difference is that secondary school teachers are certified as competent in one or more academic or vocational subjects and spend their careers concentrating on these subjects, whereas elementary school teachers - especially for the lower grades - may be comprehensively certified to teach the full primary course or may specialize, particularly if teaching in the more differentiated upper elementary/middle school grades. All States certify teachers according to subject specializations as well as grade levels/ranges. Special education teachers are trained in most States in specialized programmes at both the undergraduate and graduate levels and are also separately certified. Special education teachers are also certified according to specialty, e.g. education of the deaf, education of the visually impaired, etc. as well as the degree of severity of the handicap with which they are trained to work. While the minimum academic requirement is a Bachelor's degree in special education or a related field (such as developmental psychology), most teachers possess a Master's degree and many earn a higher qualification called an Education Specialist degree. Specialized non-instructional personnel must also be certified in most U.S. States; they include school administrators, school counsellors, school health personnel (psychologists, nurses), school librarians, supervisory teachers and curriculum specialists.

Training of higher education teachers

State law varies regarding the requirements for faculty in public postsecondary education, but public faculty are not considered civil servants and the responsibility for determining the academic and professional standards and requirements for faculty positions and for recruitment and promotion rest with the individual institution and its faculty, department, or school. State law, even for public institutions, is confined to ensuring that institutions do not discriminate in hiring or violate other employment or labour laws. Requirements that institutions set may vary depending on the level at which the faculty are expected to teach, the subject or field to be taught, whether research is to be conducted, whether a professional licence or qualification is required, and whether the position is full- or part-time and tenure-track. Accredited institutions also follow any faculty standards set by the regional accrediting association to which they belong and any standards set by the association that accredits programmes in a particular field. Higher education faculty are expected to possess the necessary expertise and qualifications to teach and, where applicable, to conduct research and consult in the discipline or professional field of their specialization. The general requirement is either a terminal research degree (PhD or equivalent) in the subject of specialization or, for some professional and clinical faculty, the appropriate professional qualification plus a record of successful practice and applied research.


Non-traditional studies:

Distance higher education

Distance education is considered to be a vehicle for delivering education to persons whose location, circumstances or work make remote links necessary or convenient. It is not considered to be a separate type of education. Rather, distance education is considered to be a modality of instruction that differs from traditional campus-based instruction but is no less legitimate. There is rapid growth in educational programmes at all levels delivered via radio, television, satellite downlink stations, videos, computer terminals and other means. Many programmes are offered for credit and lead to Certificates, Diplomas and Degrees; others are designed for leisure studies, personal enrichment or specific work-related education and training. Distance education programmes are accredited by recognized associations and the good programmes benefit from significant recent advances in designing, implementing and monitoring these learning environments and their support tools.

Lifelong higher education

Frequently called continuing education. Institutions operate specific continuing education programmes, some very extensive and parallel to regular institutional degree offerings, whilst others are short or specialized programmes. Continuing education may be structured to lead to Certificates, Diplomas or Degrees, or unstructured and used to provide general and leisure study opportunities. Some continuing education is offered through distance learning methods while other programmes are offered at an institution or provided at a branch site. When offered in order to provide further education and training for professionals who already hold basic qualifications, it is usually called continuing professional education. Credit for work completed in such programmes may be recognized and accepted by regular higher education authorities through policies developed by institutions, and it is also recognized and accepted by state licensing authorities and professional associations.

Higher education training in industry

This is considered a specific form of continuing professional education and is referred to as employer-sponsored training. Programmes are offered by employers or through contract by postsecondary institutions, professional associations, unions or consulting organizations. Education or training may be provided at the work site or elsewhere. Continuing professional education or training ranges in length and depth from short courses intended to refresh or introduce new skills up to full degree programmes. Credit for work completed in such programmes may be recognized and accepted by regular higher education authorities through policies developed by institutions. A specific form of employer-sponsored training of major interest to many U.S. postsecondary institutions, especially at the sub-Bachelor's degree level, is training received in the U.S. armed forces and how to award credit for it when personnel re-enter civilian life. Detailed guidelines have been jointly developed by U.S. institutions and the armed forces.

Other forms of non-formal higher education

Many varieties of education and training opportunities exist that are not formally structured, do not result in recognized awards and are not intended to result in transferable credit or professional recognition. They include courses and programmes provided by libraries, museums, parks and recreation authorities, clubs and others that are intended for members or the public. Some programmes provided by employers are not intended to result in formal recognition, such as informal seminars and presentations on topics related to work issues and products.




Administration & co-ordination:

Responsible authorities:

United States Department of Education

Head: Margaret Spelling, Secretary of Education

400 Maryland Avenue, NW
Washington, DC 20202
United States of America

Tel: +1(202) 4012000

Fax: +1(202) 4013130

EMail: [email protected]


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