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Higher Education in the USA

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‘The more you learn, the more you earn”, said the pop singer Cyndi Lauper as she accepted her high school diploma — at the age of 35! Although Cyndi made it without a high school degree, most people don’t. In the USA today, about 75% of jobs require some education or technical training beyond high school. The lowest wage earners in the USA are those without high school degrees; college graduates out earn those without a college education; people with master’s degrees outearn those with only a bachelor’s: and the highest incomes of all are earned by people with advanced professional or academic degrees. These generalizations explain why the majority of young Americans go to college. However, despite the average, more diplomas don’t always mean more money. Many skilled blue–collar workers, salespeople, business executives, and entrepreneurs outearn college professors and scientific researchers. And great athletes and entertainers outearn everyone else! But college education is not only preparation for a career; it is also (or should be) preparation for life. In addition to courses in their major field of study, most students have time to take elective courses.

They may take classes that help to understand more about human nature, government, the arts, sciences, or whatever else may interest them. Going to college, either full-time or part-time, is becoming the automatic next step after high school. Today, more than half of American high school graduates enroll in college. But recent high school graduates no longer dominate the college campuses. Today it is quite common for adults of all ages to come back to college either for career advancement or personal growth. American faith in the value of education is exemplified by the rising number of Americans who have at least a bachelor’s degree. About 20% of Americans are college graduates. However, among younger adults and working people, the percentage is at least 25%, much higher than in most other major nations. In the USA, a college education is not viewed as a privilege reserved for the wealthy or the academically talented. Virtually everyone who wants to attend college can do so.


American colleges and universities vary a great deal in size. Some colleges have student bodies of just a few hundred, while some state universities serve more than 100,000 students on several different campuses. At smaller schools, students generally get to know their classmates and professors better and are less likely to feel lonely and confused. Larger schools offer a greater selection of courses and more activities to attend and participate in. When selecting a college, the student must consider which type of environment best suits his or her needs. There are two main categories of institutions of higher learning: public and private. All schools get money from tuition and from private contributors. However, public schools are supported primarily by the state they’re located in. On the other hand, private schools do not receive state funding. As a result, tuition is generally lower at public schools, especially for permanent residents of that state. Schools can also be grouped by the types of programs and degrees they offer.

The three major groups are community colleges, four-year colleges, and universities. Community colleges offer only the first two years of undergraduate studies (the freshman and sophomore years). The number of these schools has grown very rapidly in the past 40 years. In l950, there were about 600 in the USA. Today, there are about l,300, and they serve about five million students (about 55% of all college freshmen). Most community colleges are public schools, supported by local and/or state funds. They serve two general types of students: (a) those taking the first two years of college before transferring to a four-year school for their third and fourth (junior and senior) years; and (b) those enrolled in one- or two-year job training programs. Community colleges offer technical training in many areas of study, such as health services, office skills, computer science, drafting, police work, and automotive repair. Newcomers to the USA often ask, “Exactly what is the difference between a college and a university?” Some assume that the difference is merely one of size, but it is much more than that. A university is bigger than a college because the scope of its programs is much greater. A university offers a wider range of undergraduate programs and also offers graduate studies.

Part of the responsibility of a university is to encourage its faculty and its graduate students to do research that will advance human knowledge. Colleges, on the other hand, are primarily undergraduate schools with no commitment to train students for research. Many excellent colleges are liberal arts schools, which means that they offer studies in the humanities, languages, mathematics, social sciences, and sciences. Liberal arts colleges generally do not offer degrees in engineering, business, journalism, education, and many other specific vocations that a student can train for at a university. However, students at a liberal art colleges (like college students elsewhere) still major in a specific area of knowledge. Some colleges specialize in training students for one particular occupation (as agricultural colleges and teacher’s colleges do). Many specialized undergraduate institutions that are not called colleges also provide higher education in one specific occupation – for example, conservatories for music students, seminaries for students of religion, and fine arts schools for artists.

For those wishing to prepare for military careers, the United States government maintains four special academies. At the college level, the academic year is about nine months long (usually from September until early June or from late August until May). After completing four academic years with acceptable grades in an approved course of study, the student earns a bachelor’s degree. Some students complete college in less than four years by attending summer sessions. At most colleges, the academic year is divided into either two or three terms, excluding the summer session. College grades, from highest to lowest, run A, B, C, D, and F. An F is a failing grade; if a student receives an F in a particular course, he or she does not get credit for having taken the course. College students must maintain at least a low C average in order to remain in school.


American universities offer three main categories of graduate degrees. In most fields of specialization, a master’s degree can be earned by one or two academic years of study beyond the bachelor’s degree. A Ph.D. degree (Doctor of Philosophy) usually takes at least three years beyond the master’s. To earn a Ph.D. in almost any field, generally the student must pass oral and written examinations in his or her speciality, produce a long research paper which makes an original contribution to his or her field of study, and pass reading examinations in one or two foreign languages. There are also graduate professional degrees in medicine, dentistry, and law, among other fields. In recent years, the graduate student population has become much more diversified than even before. It now includes more women, foreign students, minority group members, older students, and part-time students. Also, the variety of degree programs offered has expanded greatly. Today’s graduate students can choose from about l,000 types of master’s degrees and about 60 types of doctorates.


A college community is an interesting and lively place, students become involved in many different activities – extracurricular, religious, social, and athletic. Among the extracurricular activities are college newspapers, musical organizations, dramatic clubs, and political groups. Many religious groups have their own meeting places, where services and social activities can be held. Most colleges have a student union, where students can get together for lunch, study sessions, club meetings, and socializing. At many schools, campus life revolves around fraternities (social and, in some cases, residential clubs for men) and sororities (similar clubs for women). These organizations exist on more than 500 campuses. The best known are national groups with chapters at schools throughout the country. Their names are Greek letters, such as Alpha Delta Phi. Athletics is an important part of life on most campuses. Most coeducational and men’s schools belong to an athletic league. The teams within the league play against each other, aiming for the league championship. Football is the college sport which arouses the most national interest.

Games, complete with student marching bands and entertainment, are major productions. Other sports – particularly basketball, swimming, and track — are also pursued with enthusiasm. Some schools have competitive tennis, skiing, sailing, wrestling, soccer, baseball, and golf. Is it fun to be a college student in the United States? For most students, the college years are exciting and rewarding, but they are certainly not easy or carefree. Just about all college students face the pressure of making important career decisions and some anxiety about examinations and grades. Many students have additional problems — too little money, not enough time for sleep, and a feeling of loneliness because they’re living far from home.

Still, many Americans look back on their college years as the happiest time of their lives. When students live on campus in college dormitories, they make very close friendships. Sometimes a student is fortunate enough to find a member of the school’s faculty that takes a personal interest in his or her academic career. Some students, when returning to their college campus in the fall, feel that they are coming back to their second home. Many graduates feel great loyalty to their former schools and, throughout their lives, they cheer for their school’s athletic teams and donate money to help the institution expand and modernize. American graduates refer to the school they attended as their alma mater (a Latin expression meaning fostering mother). This expression indicates how much the college experience means to students, and how much they feel their school contributed to their lives.


College costs very quite a bit, depending upon the type of school attended. For example, at many of the more expensive private schools, annual costs (including tuition, room, board, books, travel to and from home, and other expenses) may exceed $20.000. Of course, public universities are much cheaper. At these schools, tuition is significantly higher for out-of state students than it is for those whose permanent residence is within that state. Tuition at community colleges averages about half the in-state cost of public, four-year colleges and universities. For those that cannot afford the cost of a college education, financial aid is the answer Students in the USA receive about $20 billion per year in financial aid. In recent years, nearly 75$ of students in postsecondary programs have been receiving some form of financial aid. There are three main types of financial aid: (a) scholarships (grants), which are gifts that students do not repay; (b) loans to students and/or their parents; and (c) student employment (work/study), a part-time job which the school gives the student for the academic year. Most financial aid is need-based; that is, only students who need the money receive it. Financial assistance to outstanding students who do not need the money (commonly called merit-based aid) is limited.

The funds for all of this aid come from three main sources – the federal government, state governments, and private contributors. Every American college and university has a financial aid office to help students find out what kind of aid they might be eligible for and to assist them in completing the complicated application forms. Aliens who are permanent residents in the USA are eligible for government assistance, but foreign students (1-20 visa students) are not. Difficulties in making ends meet create serious problems for many students. Some — especially those with responsibilities to help support a family — try to work full-time while carrying a full academic course load. They forget to leave themselves time to eat, sleep, and simply live. These students soon discover that they are trying to handle too much, and that an exhausted person performs poorly both on the job and in the classroom. College counsellors can help students who need to work out a plan to feed the family and attend college at the same time.


In the USA, the education of adults goes on in many different places for many different reasons. At least 25 million adults (about l3% of the adult population) are enrolled in classes, nearly all as part-time students. Most of these classes are not for college credit but for knowledge that the students can use on the job, for job advancement, to pursue a hobby, or for personal growth. Programs commonly called adult education or continuing education are operated by many high schools and community colleges. In recent years, private learning centers have also opened up, offering inexpensive classes for adults in a wide variety of skills and activities. A typical catalogue might offer classes in how to cook a Chinese dinner, invest in the stock market, improve your spelling, make friends, or even give your partner a message. Many adults enjoy taking classes where they can learn something new and also meet people who share this new interest. Many more classes are taken at the workplace.

Hospitals, businesses, and museums, for example, offer courses to help employees improve job-related skills. Some companies, rather than operate their own classes, will offer to pay the tuition if an employee goes back to school to learn a skill that the company needs. In the USA, where technology rapidly makes some skills obsolete and new ones essential, workers at all levels realize that life-long learning is necessary. Even professional people — doctors, teachers, accountants, dentists, and engineers – continue to study to keep up with new techniques in their fields. Education, whether it occurs on the college campus or elsewhere, is an important element in the life of an American adult. The American dream of becoming important in one’s career and financially successful is most often achieved through education.

Access to Education

The American educational system is based on the idea that as many people as possible should have access to as much education as possible. This fact alone distinguishes the U.S. system from most others, since in most others the objective is as much to screen people out as it is to keep them in. The US system has no standardised examinations whose results systematically prevent students from going on to higher levels of study, as the British and many other systems do. Through secondary school and sometimes in post-secondary institutions as well, the American system tries to accommodate students even if their academic aspirations and aptitudes are not high, even if they are physically (and in some cases mentally) handicapped, and even if their native language is not English. The idea that as many people as possible should have as much education as possible, is, of course, an outcome of the Americans’ assumptions about equality among people. These assumptions do not mean that everyone has an equal opportunity to enter Harvard, Stanford, or other highly competitive post-secondary institutions. Admission to such institutions is generally restricted to the most academically able. The less able can usually matriculate in a post-secondary institution, but one of lower quality.

Well-rounded people
The American educational system seeks to turn out “well-rounded people”. Such people might have specialised knowledge in some area, but they are all expected to have a general acquaintance with many disciplines. Having passed through a system that requires them to study some mathematics, some English, some humanities, and some social science (and perhaps a foreign language), they presumably have an array of interests and can understand information from many fields of study. Thus, specialisation in the American system comes later than it does in many other systems. Students are required to take courses that they themselves might not be interested in and that might not have any apparent relationship to their career aspirations.

Although not an “ideal”, there is a final sentiment that must be taken into account as one tries to understand the American educational system. That sentiment is anti-intellectualism. Most Americans are suspicious of theorising and “intellectualizing”. They want to see practical results from time and money spent. Secondary school and university graduates are expected to be well-rounded to an extent, but not to the extent that they cannot do anything “useful”. Americans are unimpressed by most learning that is done just for the sake of learning. They have no general reverence for university teachers who live in an “ivory tower” that is divorced from the real world.

A few aspects of the social context in which American education operates are worth mentioning. The first has to do with the social status or degree of respect ascribed to people who are involved in education. American teachers (that term usually applies to people who teach in kindergarten through grade 12, the final grade in secondary school) do not enjoy high status in the society. Respondents to a recent Gallup Poll placed teachers well below physicians, clergymen, and bankers in terms of their prestige or status in the community. Judges, lawyers, and public school principals were also rated above teachers. Funeral directors and local political office-holders were seen as having nearly as much prestige or status as teachers did. Teachers are not well paid. Their working conditions are usually less comfortable than those of workers in many other areas. They are not as well respected, as are people who actually “do” something rather than “just” teach. Nor are college and university professors generally held in the high regard they are in many other countries. There are some exceptions — mainly those who have made particularly noteworthy contributions to science (not the humanities, usually, because the humanities are not “practical”) — but professors are often viewed as people who are teaching because they are not capable of doing anything else.

From what has been said above, many of the American educational system’s advantages and disadvantages become clear. The system provides formal education for a relatively large portion of the population, but the quality of that education is not as high as it might be if the system were more selective. (Most experts agree that people who earn Ph.D. degrees in the United States are as well prepared to work in their disciplines as are people who earn Ph.D.s in other systems. Below the Ph.D. level, though, many systems offer more depth in students’ chosen disciplines than the American one does. The system’s decentralisation serves to insulate educational institutions from national political entanglements and give citizens some voice in what happens in their local schools. Schools can modify their curricula to accommodate needs and conditions that pertain only to their own areas. On the other hand, the decentralization makes it relatively easy for an out-spoken and committed minority in a given community to embroll local schools in controversy.

The decentralization also makes it possible for particular schools to maintain low standards if they wish or feel compelled to do so. “Well-rounded” people, such as those the American system hopes to produce, stand a better chance of becoming “good citizens” (as the Americans use that term) since they have a general familiarity with many topics and can keep themselves informed about matters of public policy. On the other hand, well-rounded people might not be as well equipped to begin working in specific occupations because they have not learned as much in school about specific areas of endeavor as have students whose systems permitted earlier and more intensive specialization. The American educational system, like any other, is integrally related to the values and assumptions of the society that surrounds it. American ideas about equality, individualism, and freedom underlie the educational system. Whatever its advantages and disadvantages, the system will retain its current general characteristics as long as the values and assumptions that predominate in the surrounding society continue to hold away.

Reading Comprehension Check
1. Why do many Americans want to receive college or university education? 2. What institutions provide post-school education in the USA? 3. What are some differences between a) a community college and a four-year college; b) a four-year college and a university? 4. What degrees are available at liberal arts colleges?

5. Do American public colleges and universities charge tuition? 6. What activities do American students often become involved in during their undergraduate years? 7. How do you understand the task of American higher education to produce “well-rounded” people?

3. Complete the sentences given below by using the essential vocabulary. a) The main subject in which an American student specializes
is called his … ; b) a subsidiary subject that an American student is learning is his … ; c) the four years of studies at American universities have their traditional names. They are … ;

d) the academic year in the USA colleges consists of two forms (semesters) which are called… ;
e) subjects that are not compulsory for study are described by Americans as … courses;

4. Here are a few words to describe the British university life. Provide the terms that render similar notions in American English
honour’s subject
subsidiary subject
optional course
hall of residence
5. Fill in the blanks with prepositions
1) In the USA today … 75 per cent … jobs require some education or training … high school
2) Today more than half … American high school graduates enroll … college. 3) All schools get money … tuition and … private contributors. 4) Community colleges offer technical training … many areas … study. 5) At many schools campus life revolves … fraternities and sororities. These organizations exist … more than 500 campuses. The best known are national groups … chapters … schools … the country. 6) The less able can usually matriculate … a post-secondary institution.

7. Read the text given below and get ready to speak about the problems that American college freshmen have to cope with.


A college is an “academic” world, and soon makes itself felt as such. The introductory period, when the freshman learns something about the physical location of dormitory, library and classrooms, may be short or prolonged, but when classes start he recognizes that he is faced with serious business. Scheduling alone makes far-reaching new demands on the freshman. Most classes in high school meet every day. In college, as much as a week may separate the sessions of a particular course. Assignments are increased proportionately, and the student finds himself with the problem of planning to master a much larger segment of the term’s work before the next lecture or discussion can tell him how profitably he has spent his time. “Budgeting time was a terrific problem”, writes a boy in a large university.

“I used to be an awful procrastinator, and when I thought I had several days to prepare an assignment, the temptation to leave it till the last minute was almost overwhelming.” How do the freshmen behave when asked to face the complexities of a university library? One freshman girl gave her reaction: “This was the problem — to be able to find sources of the necessary information, and also, from the many books and chapters, to be able to draw out important and pertinent data. My high school failed in that the assignments were too definite.” This comment on the length and comprehensive quality of the college assignment is typical. How to listen to a lecture or how to organize and remember material from a discussion or a laboratory experiment also present problems. A major need felt by freshmen about term examination time is “that old problem, sleep.” (from “College Freshmen Speak Out” prepared by Agatha Townsend).

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