The basics
THE USA: Destination Guides

About US institutions

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In the US, the terms 'university' and 'college' are often used synonymously. Both grant degrees and can be either private or public. Generally, universities tend to be larger than colleges (in terms of student population). Colleges usually only grant undergraduate (bachelor's) degrees, while universities grant bachelor's, master's, and doctoral degrees. Community colleges, however, offer two-year associate degrees as well as technical or vocational programmes.


Graduate vs. postgraduate

In the US, the term 'graduate' is used for master's and PhD studies (this is the equivalent of postgraduate which is used in the UK). Commonly known as 'grad school', these institutions award master's and doctoral degrees and other graduate qualifications and professional degrees.

Higher education in the US is well known for its top quality, easy accessibility, variety and flexibility. It's a diverse mix of public and private institutions, some of which are autonomous.


State universities

State universities are founded and subsidised by the US government. Tuition is lower than private universities, and in-state residents (those from that state) pay significantly lower than out-of-state residents. Total enrolment is usually over 20,000 students. International students are classified as out-of-state residents and may have to fulfil higher admission requirements than in-state students.


Private institutions

Private institutions are funded by endowments, tuition fees, grants and alumni donations. Tuition fees tend to be higher than at state universities and no distinction is made between in-state or out-of-state residents. These institutions tend to have a smaller enrolment than state universities. Religious-affiliated institutions, which are numerous in the US, are private.


Community colleges

Community colleges offer two-year associate degrees as well as technical or vocational programmes. They can be either public or private, but often have strong links with their surrounding community stakeholders. Tuition is generally less at a community college, and many have links with universities to allow students to transfer to the third year of an undergraduate degree.


Technical and vocational colleges

Technical and vocational colleges offer short-term programmes to train students for a specific vocation or how to use specific skill and usually last two years or less.


Academic calendar 

The university year usually starts in September and ends in May. It is often divided into two semesters as well as a shorter, more intensive summer term. The summer term allows students spread out their course load over the year, or complete their undergraduate degree in less time.

Types of courses 

English language courses

There are three main types of English language programmes in the US:
• Intensive English programmes (IEP): 20 to 30 hours of English per week
• Semi-intensive English programmes: students take both academic university courses as well as semi-intensive English courses (ESL) at the same institution
• Professional English programmes: include courses in business English or specialisations in fields such as law or engineering
In order to qualify for a student visa to study on an English language programme in the US, make sure the institution is authorised by the United States Citizenship and Immigration Service (USCIS). All accredited institutions will supply students with the appropriate I-20 form to apply for their F-1 student visa.


English language courses - admissions process

Each institution will have its own application requirements and deadlines. Check with the institution you are interested in attending.

Community colleges

For many international students, studying at a community college will be their pathway to a university education. Sometimes called junior colleges or two-year colleges, these institutions offer both vocational and technical training, which allow students to enter the workforce directly in careers such as automotive engineering, interior design, child development, food sciences, photography, etc. as well as academic programmes, which can allow students to transfer midway to a four-year degree.


There are over 1,200 community colleges in the United States, and many are public or state supported. International students pay full fees at community college, however these are usually significantly less than a four-year college in the same geographic area.


Eligibility criteria 

Each community college will have its own set of admissions criteria, and you will find that community colleges have a much more flexible admissions policy.


• Higher Secondary Certificate / IB Diploma
International students are required to have completed 12 years of primary and secondary education before applying to a US community college. Check with your institution regarding qualifications for direct entry to an undergraduate degree programme.


• English language ability
You will also be required to submit your TOEFL (Test of English as a Foreign Language) results. The TOEFL requirement for community colleges is usually lower than at four-year institutions.

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