A Primer on US Colleges

A Primer on US Colleges
  • Alma_Matters
  • 02 Jul, 2021

When it comes to studying abroad, many students prefer the USA as one of their dream destinations for higher education. Today, the USA is among the leading study destinations for international students with having more than 150 top notch Universities listed in the QS World University Rankings. As many as 1.2 million international students are studying in these preeminent US colleges. Some of the most popular places to study in the US for international students are New York, California, and Texas. A large number of students enroll themselves for subjects like business, engineering, computer science, and mathematics, etc.


 Anika Gupta's MIT Computer Science Story


The United States is home to over 7000 colleges and universities. A lot of people get confused between the terms “colleges” and “universities”. In the formal language, a “college” refers to a part of the university among other colleges, which are divided by the subject areas and education level, etc. Unlike in many other countries, students ‘go to college’ after completing their ‘high school’ studies in the United States, no matter if it is a college or the university. The US education system allows its students to enroll themselves for dual enrolment program by which they can take up classes in colleges while being in high school.


Types of Colleges

The categorization of the US colleges is based on many factors such as the degree offered, courses types, and size of the college, etc.

Two and Four Year Colleges

The two-year colleges are also known as the Junior Colleges or Community Colleges. These colleges often offer an associate’s degree programs that can be of either one or two years at max.

The four-year colleges, on the other hand, are those colleges that offer dedicated four-year degree courses at the undergraduate level and two-year postgraduate degree courses.


Private Colleges or Universities

Colleges that are run privately and have no interference from the US government are called the Private Colleges. These private colleges/ universities are often smaller in size as compared to State colleges/ universities. The tuition fee and other expenses in Private colleges/ universities are typically higher than the state or public colleges/ universities.

There is another type of Private Colleges that are mainly focused on imparting education to students with the same religions and beliefs. These colleges offer admission to other students as well; however, a specific percentage of their total enrolment is reserved for students with similar religions. These colleges/ universities are also known as the Religiously-affiliated colleges/ universities.


Ivy League Colleges

There are 8 prominent colleges that are called the Ivy League Colleges. These Ivy League Colleges are the most prestigious, reputed and highly competitive athletic colleges in the USA. In the early 1960s, the athletic teams of these Ivy League colleges have gained much popularity and fetched the immense amount of funding. Since then, these Ivy League colleges have maintained the high standards of education and students’ performance till date. Even today, students graduating from Ivy League colleges are often considered more luminous, intellectual and successful than students from other schools. Ivy League colleges offer a lot many resources to invite smart and career-minded students from across the globe. These are the highly competitive institutions when it comes to providing admission. Only the top students get admission to the Ivy League colleges. The tuition fees in these institutes are often higher than in other colleges. However, they also provide bright students with financial aid and various scholarships as well.

Get a feel for the Ivy League Colleges by exploring the list below: (Tip: “Shortlist” a College you like and you can dig deeper later)


Liberal Arts Colleges

There is another category of colleges in the US that is called Liberal Arts Colleges. These colleges offer four-year degree courses that emphasize the liberal arts course curriculums only. The USA used to have only liberal arts, theology, medicines and law courses at the higher education level until the 20th century; hence, these colleges are traditionally designed to focus on the aforesaid subjects. However, nowadays, such liberal arts colleges are more sophisticated and up to date.

Some of the well-known Liberal Arts Colleges are:


State/Public Colleges or Universities

As the name suggests, state or public colleges are those that are supported and run by the state or Local government. There are 50 states in the United States and each state runs at least one state university. Other than that, there are several state colleges available in almost every state in the USA. A lot many of these state or public colleges can be identified by the term “State” in their names. Some such examples include Cleveland State University, San Francisco State University, Florida State University, and Pennsylvania State University, etc.

Here are some reputed Public Colleges in the US:



Early Decision

As the name suggests, ‘Early’ Decision allows students to plan and apply for the admission earlier in the year as compared to the regular admission. Under the Early Decision provision, students need to submit their application, academic documents, school reports, essays and other required documents by the Early Decision deadlines (usually, between November 1 to 15).

Applying through Early Decision application show students’ interest and commitment towards the college they are applying to. This is a binding process in which once the students’ applications are accepted, they need to withdraw any other applications for regular admissions. In the early decision process, students can apply to only one college. If students’ application got rejected under the early decision, they cannot apply again in that year. However, if their application is deferred, they can be reconsidered for the regular admissions and can also apply to other colleges as well.


Early Action

Early Action, on the other side, is a non-binding process and gives students the provision to apply for multiple colleges. If students’ application is accepted, they are not bound to attend the college. Another thing that makes the Early Action better than the Early Decision is that it gives students more opportunity to compare colleges’ financial aids and scholarships. The deadlines for Early Action and Early Decision fall simultaneously.


Regular Decision

Regular Decision is the normal process by which students apply by published deadlines, with promise of receiving an admissions decision no later that April 1 of their senior year.


Rolling Admission

Rolling admission is another beneficial provision that a lot many US colleges follow. Under this provision, freshmen can apply to undergraduate courses through the 6-month large window. Some colleges don’t even have the admission deadlines as they close the admission window once all the spots are filled up. Once students apply to through the rolling admission policy, their application will be reviewed the college/ university. Students are notified of their decision with a few weeks of their application submission. This policy reduces the admission stress among the students.

Another good thing about Rolling Admission is if you don’t get a suitable college on the first go, you may easily switch between universities without wasting your precious academic year.


Open Admission

Open Admission generally means that the admission process is not selective. Admission is offered if a student has a high school diploma or GED certificate.

There are public, private independent, private liberal arts, and private religious colleges that are open admission. In addition, community colleges or colleges which grant Associate degrees also offer Open Admission.

Please be aware that there are some controversies surrounding Open Admission Colleges - their graduation rates tend to be low, college standards are lowered, and the need for remedial courses increases. 

Here is a list of US Colleges and Universities with Open Admissions.



Credits System

As per the Credits provision, each course is assigned specific credits or credits. In a nutshell, these credits coarsely depict the number of hours per week a student should dedicate to the course. Usually, a course is given three to five credits as per the course curriculum.

Most schools and colleges prefer students to devote 12 to 15 credit hours per semester to a course. A student must accomplish a certain number of credit hours to proceed to the level of the degree.

Major and Minor Subjects

The US universities typically offer four-year undergraduate degree courses where students study a wide range of subjects in the first two years after which they can select one or more subjects to focus on. This formal commitment to one or more subjects is called ‘Major(s)’. Another positive aspect of pursuing an undergraduate degree in the US is to opt for a ‘Minor’ qualification. Meaning, you can take up another subject in an additional field along with your Major degree. For instance, you can opt for business management major along with a minor in Accountancy or Economics. This way, you can explore an additional field, which can or cannot be related to your major subject.


Semester System

The semester system in the USA universities is often divided into two phases namely the Fall Semester, which starts in August and ends in December and Spring Semester, which starts in January and ends in May. Quite a few students find this semester a bit different than they have in their respective countries. However, this semester system ensures not to waste the precious academic year of the students in case they couldn’t apply by the deadlines of either one of the semesters.


Classroom Structure and Environment

The United States colleges and universities own quite a dynamic classroom environment where the classes are held on various levels ranging from small classroom lectures and seminars for a few students to large lectures that are attended by a few hundred students. Such a classroom environment provides each student to participate in the discussions, share their opinions, give presentations and explain their point of view on various topics and subjects. This unique classroom environment attracts a lot of international students as they find if surprisingly amazing and fun to learn things. Other than that, some of the programs require students to learn through spending time in school laboratories.

What makes the USA one of the best destinations for study abroad is its diverse ethnicities, world-class education system, top-notch colleges and universities, and quality programs designed as per the global market values. The USA offers a pool of opportunities for students through its high academic standards, multicultural environment and an excellent support system for international students. When all's said and done, studying in the USA is a very good opportunity to kick start a career, especially for international students who literally have all choices in the world.



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