Education in the United States is very similar to that in other countries. Primary education (called elementary school) and secondary education (middle and high school) are followed by optional tertiary education, which is referred to as post secondary education in the United States. There are a number of things that are considered part of post secondary education in the United States, including non-degree programs that lead to certificates and diplomas and associate, bachelor, first professional, master, advanced intermediate, and research doctorate degrees.
History of Higher Education in the United States
The first colleges in the United States were religious institutions modeled after Oxford and Cambridge. The first of these, Harvard, was founded by the colony of Massachusetts in 1636. Shortly after, in 1693, the College of William and Mary was founded for the same purpose. Several other schools popped up throughout the colonies for the purpose of educating ministers and political leaders, and you can find more specific information about those schools in our Ivy League section, because these are the schools that developed into the most prestigious schools in the United States.
Many of the schools that came into existence during this time were small and had curriculums based in liberal arts studies, such as Greek, Latin, history, geometry, logic, and ethics. Repetition and regurgitation of information were the foci of these particular institutions, rather than creativity and expanded thinking. Many students that attended these early colleges were in their teens, and many colleges had a preparatory school associated with them.
As time went on, more colleges began to pop up around the United States. These schools varied in purpose and in study, and differed in the programs that they offered. Currently, there are almost 4,500 educational institutions in the United States that can offer degrees, with over 20 million students pursuing degrees at these universities.
The United States Educational System Today
Different educational institutions will offer different degrees. Here are the different types of educational institutions that you will see throughout the United States.
- Community Colleges. Community colleges offer associate’s degrees, some certificates and vocational degrees, and some bachelor’s degrees, depending on the college that you attend.
- Vocational Schools. Vocational schools only focus on certification for particular vocations, including dental hygienists, civil engineering, culinary arts, and a number of other vocations that do not require a degree but do require training.
- Colleges and Universities. In the United States, there is very little difference between a college and a university. The standard difference is that a college has a specific set of degrees that they offer, and a university is a collection of colleges. If you attend a university, you may graduate with a degree from that university’s college of business or college of education. But you can also attend a college, which often has fewer degrees for you to choose from (i.e. Bible College, etc). A college or a university can offer anything from an associates’ degree to a doctoral degree.
- Graduate Schools. Graduate school in the United States is what is known as a postgraduate school in other countries. Usually graduate schools are associated with a university that also offers bachelor’s degrees. These schools can offer Master’s and Doctorate level degrees and certificates.
- Seminaries. Seminaries exist for religious education, and are used to teach ministers and other clergy members about a variety of topics related to the religion that they are serving under.
The United States is currently the most popular country in the world to study. About 16% of all students who decide to study abroad go to the United States for their degree. Almost 750,000 students come to the United States every year to study, so if you decide to do so, you will not be alone. Even though higher education in the United States is known to be more expensive than that in other countries, there is a lot of financial aid available to international students, which we explore more in our Financial Aid and Scholarships articles.
If you want more information on higher education in the United States, take a look at the United States Department of Education website. They have a number of resources there about the history of the higher education system in the United States and where it currently stands, along with resources for financial aid and other things that you may need in order to study in the United States.