US Higher Education System

Understanding the higher education system in the USA may seem complicated at first glance, but our guide breaks it down so you can easily see what to expect if you apply to study here.

The US higher education system is considered one of the best in the world, and offers flexible study opportunities at over 4,000 colleges and universities. US degrees are recognised worldwide for their academic excellence and in-depth learning experiences.

Bachelor’s degrees in the USA typically take 4 years to complete. The first 2 years include common required courses, such as math, history, literature, andcommunications. This develops a broad-based knowledge across many subject areas — an advantage for competing in the global workplace. The final 2 years focus on the your chosen “major” subject.

US bachelor’s degrees are flexibly designed to allow students to change their major after 1 or 2 years. There is a huge choice of elective courses so you can customize your degree to your interests and strengths.

What's involved in a US degree?

American degrees are based on a Liberal Arts philosophy, a unique feature of the U.S higher education system.

It requires that students take a wide variety of courses in the arts and sciences before focussing on one academic area. This is so they gain a well-rounded education, and can apply their skills to a wide range of careers.

The American Bachelor degree curriculum consists of:

  • core courses – these are courses taken in mathematics, physical sciences, English, humanities, and social sciences. These general education courses lay the foundation of the degree program, though not all colleges have these core courses.
  • a major – this is the main academic subject you will study. Most students major in one subject, although at some colleges you can pursue a double major in a related or different subject. Students declare their major in the first two years of study.
  • a minor – this is a subject in which a student chooses to take the second greatest concentration of courses, although not all institutions offer this choice.
  • electives – these are a student's free choice of additional topics they find interesting.

A degree in America is designed to be completed in four years, although there is no fixed timescale. Most undergraduates complete their studies within 6 years of the date they first enrolled.

Studying can then lead to a Bachelor of Arts B.A.), a Bachelor of Science (B.S.), or sometimes another bachelor's degree such as Bachelor of Fine Arts (B.F.A.), Bachelor of Social Work (B.S.W.), Bachelor of Engineering (B.Eng.,) or Bachelor of Philosophy (B.Phil.) Five-Year Professional Architecture programs offer the Bachelor of Architecture Degree (B.Arch.)

Professional degrees such as law, medicine, pharmacy, and dentistry, are offered as graduate study after earning at least three years of undergraduate schooling or after earning a bachelor's degree depending on the program.

These professional fields do not require a specific undergraduate major, though medicine, pharmacy, and dentistry have set prerequisite courses that must be taken before enrolment.

For example, if you wish to apply to Harvard to study medicine, you would need to do your bachelors degree in another subject, while also taking specific medical school pre-requisite courses. Only once you have graduated can you then apply to Harvard medical school.

In the U.S, a degree is awarded after a student has completed a required amount of coursework, expressed in terms known as credits/units or semester hours.

Most courses only last 1 semester, and usually a student will need to accumulate approximately 110 to 130 credits in order to graduate, with each course on average earning 3 or 4 credits.

Continuous assessment is a feature and each course (class) per term is graded and then converted into a numeric equivalent called a Grade Point Average on a scale of 0 - 4.0, which indicates how well a student is performing. Many Bachelor's degree programs in the United States do not require students to write a final thesis.

Further information

For more help and advice on applying to university in the U.S, please see: