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U.S. Higher Education Basics

American System of Education

21 million students are enrolled in 4,140 accredited post-secondary institutions in the United States. These higher education institutions vary in size, type and quality. More than 1 million university students in the U.S. are from other countries.

  1. Types of Post-Secondary Instituitions
  2. Length of Program
  3. Course of Study
  1. The Academic Year
  2. Units or Credit Towards Graduation
  3. Fees


Types of Post-Seconday Instituitions

The U.S. government does not directly operate any post-secondary institutions and makes no policies or decisions regarding courses offered, admission requirements or other administrative matters.

Post-secondary institutions fall into two categories: Public and Private.

Public schools are supported by state and local government and have tuition and fees that are generally lower than those of private or independent institutions.

  1. Junior and Community Colleges offer two years of academic and/or vocational study. Students who complete the program are awarded an Associate degree. Students may transfer to a four-year institution to complete a Bachelor’s degree. For more details click here.
  2. Colleges are tertiary level institutions that generally concentrate on four-year undergraduate programs leading to a Bachelor’s degree. Some colleges may offer Master’s degrees.
  3. Universities offer Bachelors, Masters and Ph.D. degrees and professional degrees such as Medicine and Law. In general, the range of studies offered by universities is larger, libraries are more extensive, research facilities, and the laboratory resources are better than in all but the most prestigious colleges.
  4. Institutes of Technology and Polytechnic offer programs in science and engineering at both undergraduate and graduate levels.


Length of Program

American students enter college/university after 12 years of elementary and secondary schooling. A Bachelor’s degree normally requires four academic years. In a few fields, such as architecture and pharmacy, completion of the degree requirements takes five years.

Students with strong SPM results are admissible to many universities. Students with STPM results can be admitted to all U.S. institutions.

Advancement towards graduation is done through a credit system. Students may be given credit towards graduation if they have principal passes on the STPM.

Students holding a three-year diploma or a two- year American degree program diploma in Malaysia should request transfer credit for the work they have completed. Whether the credit is given and the amount of credit depends on the policy of the individual institution.

Graduate degrees vary in the number of years required, depending on the institution and the field of study. In general, masters degrees take one to two years and doctorates at least three years of study beyond the Master’s degree.


Course of Study

The primary aim of all American colleges and universities is to provide a broad intellectual background to students in the various fields of study, during the first one or two years, a student will be required to take courses in English, social sciences, humanities and natural sciences. By the end of the second year, students choose a “major” (field of concentration) and may also select a “minor” (subsidiary field of specialization).


The Academic Year

At most institutions the academic year begins in early September and ends in late May or early June. Schools divide the year either into two parts called “semesters,” or three parts called “quarters.” Summer session courses (June, July and August) are optional.


Unit of Credit Towards Graduation

Credits, semester hours, or quarter hours are used to measure a student’s advancement toward meeting the academic requirements for a degree. In general, the number of credits given is equal to the number of hours (usually 3) per week that the class meets. Students usually enroll in five subjects per semester or four per quarter. The minimum requirement to earn a Bachelor’s degree is 120 semester hours or 180 quarter hours.


Fees