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The US Education System - A Complete Guide

10 min read
Blog Summary An in-depth exploration of the US education structure, from primary to tertiary levels, emphasizing its unique features and global standing.
the us education system a complete guide

The U.S. Education System Explained 

The U.S. is one of the finest and most popular education destinations in the entire world. But, what is the exact structure of the U.S. education system that makes it so exceptional?

We bring you a detailed overview of the U.S. education system, starting from school to college, and university programmes.

Keep reading and get familiar with the American Education System that the world is so charmed with. 

Overview of U.S. Education System 

American School Education System 

Similar to the international school structure, the U.S. also has three phases of school education -

  • Elementary.
  • Middle.
  • High School. 
Interesting Fact: Kindergarten is not mandatory in U.S. school portfolios.

U.S. Education System levels 

The proper school-starting age for kids in the United States of America is 5, and ideally, they finish high school at the age of 18. Elementary school is the first year of compulsory education in the U.S. Unlike the rest of the world, Americans call their classes grades. So if a child is going to first-year elementary school, they would call it 1st grade, not 1st class.

Fundamentally, the Elementary School aims to teach students reading, writing, mathematics, science, and social studies like history, geography, art, craft, and physical education. As a common practice, students of each grade have to go through a test to prove they have gained the required skill so that they can be promoted to the next grade.

The American school structure encourages students to opt for various other subjects as per their choice of career in mind. These subjects are called 'Electives'.

Studying subjects with a professional perspective in mind gives a very direct approach to education and makes it very practical for the real world.

Generally, the secondary school offers a wide range of subjects that will target college, universities, or a career in business and industry. Most schools in the United States of America teach a foreign language as part of their general curriculum. This gives students a world-view, helping them take their career opportunities globally smoothly. 

Interesting Facts

Did you know about the Gifted Education Programme in the US?

This programme is for those students who do not find the curriculum as challenging and can then opt for the Gifted Education Programme.

Milestones in US School System

Each stage of the school system in the United States of America will have a mandatory graduation ceremony. This ceremony will include giving out diplomas and certificates in a ceremonial manner.

Students will wear black capes and hats, there will be speeches to celebrate their performances, and welcome the new stage of their school life. This is called 'Commencement'. 

Interesting Facts

Did you know these commencement ceremonies have a 'Valedictorian'? 
Valedictorian gets the honour of giving out a farewell speech at the graduation ceremony. 

US University Education System

The higher education system in America goes in two formats. 

  • Vocational Training
  • Undergraduate programme

Vocational Training is typically a year or two long and is designed to get students immediate employment.

The Undergraduate programme is typically a two-year associate's degree or four-year bachelor's degree in an academic year programme.

Interesting Facts

Did you know US Colleges and Universities require 12 years of school education as a mandatory requirement? 

State Colleges and Private Colleges 

In the United States, the federal government does not manage any college or university. Colleges, Universities, or Institutes are either private, public, or managed by State or National Government.

Apart from public colleges, there are multiple community colleges. Community colleges offer low-cost education in local communities. They provide you industry-acceptable credits to get you in the workforce after completing your bachelor's degree.

Private Colleges function on their own without any interference from the government. Interestingly, multiple private colleges in the United States were formed by religious denominations of churches. These include some of the most prestigious colleges in the US like the University of Dayton and the University of the Pacific.

As per 2017, U.S. News and World Reports, there are 1626 public1687 private, and 985 for-profit colleges in America. 

What's the crux?

The quality of college cannot be defined by whether the college is public or private. 

Different Levels of College degrees in the US 


Undergraduate studies start right after high school. They are either a two-year Associate degree course or a four-year bachelor's degree.

In general, associate degrees are granted by Community Colleges. Many international students opt for these community colleges as they are low-cost and provide industry-specific training.

However, in both associate and graduate degree courses students choose a major as their focus subject. In addition to a major, students have a general curriculum that develops critical thinking and communication skills. 


Graduate studies are only available to students who have completed an undergraduate degree. This is a striking difference from many countries where a five-year programme is referred to as a Postgraduate Degree. In the US, a Postgraduate degree refers to work done after a master's degree programme.

International students who are already a graduate, have two options. Either they can do a master's or doctoral degree. A Master's is typically a one or two-year course that must be completed with a thesis or a designated project.

The length of the doctorate level depends on two things:

  1. If the student has already completed a master's degree in a related field.
  2. Or, the time it takes to finish your dissertation

The best part about studying in the States is that students are encouraged to take up subjects completely different from their major. They encourage liberal arts as a valuable subject. Subjects like History, Social Science, and Foreign language are considered important in developing critical thinking, logical thought, and communication skills.

Major, Minors, and Concentrations 

Major: The most relevant subject to the student.

Minors: Other academic focuses of the student that require half of the semester classes.

Concentrations: Specialisation within a major that allows students to study more focused areas of study in their major. 

Interesting Fact

The Department of Education's online database has a draft of all the used accreditations and you can check it out to get familiar with the terminology of the US Education System

US Education System in Comparison to other International Countries 

America is one of the top priorities for international students. The education system and structure support decentralisation. It is certainly much ahead of many Asian countries. However, when compared to other developed countries it ranks average.

South Korea and Finland outcast all other countries in terms of their education system. However, the learning atmosphere and culture in these countries are much less diverse than in America.

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PROS and CONS of US Education System in Comparison to other countries 

American subjects are much more diversified, giving students much more exposure. According to the Program for International Student Assessment (PISA), in 2009 the United States of America ranked in the middle.
School Education is free for all, giving every student a chance to learn. The US Educational System lacks creativity in comparison to other developed countries.
The American Education System focuses on a career. Students get ready for jobs as soon as they are out of school. The teaching staff is underpaid and over boarded with work that gives them less chance to explore creative ways to teach lessons etc.

US vs UK Education System

There is always a face-off between the British and American styles of doing things, isn't it? So, it is only natural to compare the educational structure between the two countries.

  • In the US, degree programmes take one year longer to complete in comparison to the UK.
  • Students can go directly to PhD. after the Undergraduate programme, but it is common in the UK to complete a Master's degree before adapting for a Ph.D.
  • The academic calendar for US Colleges starts in mid-August, however, UK universities' calendars are a bit different. They start in September and end in June/July.
  • The Universities in the United States allow students to explore more subjects apart from their major; making it a breadth of studying experience. Whereas, in the UK, the university focuses more on an in-depth study of the chosen subject.
  • In the US, courses require weekly or bi-weekly readings. You get assignments that are typically small writing assignments, major research papers, and oral presentation tasks. In the UK, the structure is more lecture-based with few occasional assignments, however, the entire assessment of the semester is based on the final exam.
  • Both countries provide student accommodation as part of the fee structure. However, it is common in the UK for students to get their own room while in the US they may share a room with another student. 

Know more about Study in UK

US Education System Facts 

  • The Department of Homeland Security (DHS) requires all US colleges and universities to apply for certification every two years to issue I 20 forms that International students use to apply for student visas.
  • Most colleges in the US have their application form, however, International students can use the Common Application (Apply to college with Common App | Your future starts here) forum to apply for nearly 900 US colleges and universities for the undergraduate programme.
  • Some colleges and universities take specialised tests for international students to evaluate their credits.
  • International students must check the Application checklist for every college and university and get the paperwork ready to make the admission process smooth.
  • International Students are most likely to be asked to convert their academic scores to GPAs which is America's grading system.
  • Colleges and Universities ask students to submit their statement/essay with their application. This way they get to know students better to make decisions on their applications. 

Where does the US Education System rank internationally?

As per a 2018 Business Insider report, the US ranks 38th in Maths and 24th in Science. As per International Standards, the American education system has been sliding down in the rank charts.

As part of their insider news reports, America has cut down the education fund by 3% causing a direct effect on the quality of education. 

US Education System Terms to Know: A US Colleges and Universities Glossary 

Every country has its own unique way of addressing things, and the American education system is filled with multiple terms that International students are not familiar with.

We have listed below some of these nomenclatures that will be helpful during your stay in the US.

Credits: Units to calculate the academic score of students.

Designated School Official (DSO): This person is your go-to person if you are an international student. DSO is the person on campus who gathers and reports information on international students to the Student and Exchange Visitor Information System (SEVIS). DSO will assist international students in the visa and employment authorization process. Your DSO's name will be listed on your I-20.

Dorms: Aka. Dormitories in college books are student housing facilities. They include student rooms, bathrooms, common rooms, and possibly a cafeteria. Students often refer to them as Dorms.

Fellowship: Financial assistance for graduate students that requires no service in return.

Freshman: A freshman is a first-year student at a high school, college, or university.

Grade Point Average (GPA): GPAs are the combined average of a student's grades for all academic coursework completed.

Residency: For students studying medicine, it is Clinical training in a chosen speciality.

Zip Code: A series of numbers in mailing addresses that designates postal delivery districts in the United States.

This is a brief description of US Education that covers schools, colleges, and universities. Hope you found out interesting facts about it that can help you prepare for your dream of studying in the US.

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Frequently Asked Questions

How is the US education system structured?
The US education system comprises primary (K-5), middle (6-8), high school (9-12), followed by undergraduate, graduate, and postgraduate levels in higher education.
Are there scholarships available for international students in the US?
Yes, many US universities offer scholarships to attract and support international students.
How does the credit system work in US universities?
Courses in US universities have a credit value. Students must earn a specific number of credits to graduate, with each course contributing to this total.
What's the difference between public and private institutions in the US?
Public institutions are funded by state governments, often have larger student populations, and may have lower tuition for state residents. Private institutions rely on private funding, can be more expensive, but might offer smaller class sizes and unique programs.
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