Academic landscape in the USA

Academic system in the US
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Public and private, religious and secular, vocational and general education, small and large, urban and rural universities – it is not easy to gain an overview of the entire range of higher education institutions in the USA.

However, it is thanks to the diverse academic landscape and the study system in the USA that students in the United States can fall back on such a broad range of courses of study.

US universities in competition

The culture of competition in the USA has traditionally been strong. This is partly due to the large number of tertiary educational institutions in the USA. Secondly, education in the United States is seen as a service and universities have their own funds at their disposal.

In order to motivate the best students from Germany and abroad to study in the USA, the universities and colleges actively pursue marketing. They entice students with scholarships and internships, offer generous support programmes, guarantee students a permanent accommodation on campus and a comprehensive advisory service.

Sports teams and alumni work as sources of income

The university sports teams also play an important role within the universities in the USA: they represent a central source of income for US universities. There is a correspondingly high level of interest in recruiting young athletes. Alumni work is also very important. Many universities and colleges regularly host events for alumni, and receive substantial amounts of donations.

The high marketing budgets and comprehensive range of services offered by many US universities can also be seen elsewhere: they are one of the reasons why many institutions continue to increase tuition fees.

Types of universities in the USA

There are more than 4500 accredited universities in the United States. Generally speaking, the following types of higher education institutions in the USA must be distinguished among the following types of higher education institutions: Institutions that are allowed to award academic degrees (degree-granting) and those that are not (non-degree-granting). The latter usually focus on further education. After successful completion of these study programmes, participants usually receive a certificate or diploma.

Colleges and universities dominate the American American higher education landscape. In everyday language, the terms are used synonymously. In fact, however, they are different institutions. An overview of the most important types of universities in the USA:

  • Two-Year-Colleges: subdivided into public community colleges and private junior colleges. They are the link between high school and university. Two-Year-Colleges are characterised on the one hand by professional qualification programmes. On the other hand, it is also possible to change to a four-year university after two years with an Associate Degree and acquire a Bachelor’s degree there.
  • Four-Year-Colleges: independent institutions or institutions affiliated to universities. They offer undergraduate degree programmes leading to a Bachelor’s degree after four years. Due to the general educational approach of many universities, they are also known as Liberal Arts Colleges.
  • Universities: In contrast to colleges, universities in the USA offer both undergraduate and graduate degree programmes. These include master, advanced and doctoral programs. Universities can be subdivided again, e. g. into research universities with a research orientation or technical universities with technology-oriented courses of study.

The higher education landscape in the USA is characterized by many prestigious and traditional universities. Therefore, the assumption is widespread that universities generally offer higher quality teaching and higher quality equipment than colleges. However, this is not the case.

In university rankings such as the U. S. News & World Report Best Colleges Ranking, many colleges score significantly better than numerous universities in the USA. In particular, renowned Liberal Arts Colleges regularly land in the top positions of international rankings. The nature of the institution therefore says nothing about the quality of the institution.

Private, state, ecclesiastical – differences in the higher education landscape in the USA

The universities in the USA can be divided into two camps:

  • Public, state universities
  • Private universities

The latter are subdivided into secular and denominational universities.

The development of the higher education landscape in the USA begins with private universities. They were predominantly religiously supported and served to train clergymen and convey religious values. In 1636, Harvard University was founded as the first university in the USA. It was not until the end of the 19th century that a wave of state colleges and universities spread throughout the country. To this day, the number of private universities in the United States still predominates.

There are several characteristics that distinguish public and private universities in the US:


Public universities in the USA are financed by tax money from the state and local communities. Private universities depend on private donors and tuition fees. Alumni donations, research grants and endowments also make up a large part of the budget of private universities.

Another characteristic feature of the higher education landscape in the USA is the fact that the study fees at private universities are usually higher than at state universities and colleges due to the different forms of financing. The chances of receiving financial support for studies in the USA are often better for international students at private universities. This is partly due to the higher number of scholarships.

Cost structure

Private and public universities also differ in terms of their cost structure: At private universities, tuition fees are the same for all students. By contrast, state colleges and universities grant students a discount on tuition fees if they live in the same state. There are higher fees for students from other states and international students.

Size of the facilities

In many cases, public universities in the USA are larger than private institutions. Especially religious colleges and universities have small learning groups due to the limited target group. In contrast, the state universities appeal to all students in the state and thus to a significantly larger number of people. As a result, public institutions of higher education sometimes impose less stringent admission criteria. In addition, they are often subject to certain government regulations.

Quality of training

Since private universities generally have a higher budget, the quality of studies is often higher than at public colleges and universities. This can be found, for example, in

  • higher quality equipment
  • top-notch lecturers
  • higher teaching quality of courses
  • smaller course sizes
  • more intensive support

The American elite universities of the so-called Ivy Leaguein particular stand for high quality standards, academic excellence and strict admission procedures.

Accreditations – Universities and study programmes in the USA

Within the US higher education landscape, accreditation also plays an important role and thus the quality of US universities. Universities with regional and national accreditation meet certain quality standards. On the other hand, there are numerous non-accredited universities and colleges. The academic achievements and degrees of these universities are generally not recognized in the USA and many other countries. Therefore, when choosing the U. S. university, it is important to make sure that the institution has been accredited by an official accreditation body.

What distinguishes the university landscape in the USA

The US higher education landscape is characterised by a wide range of universities, degree programmes and degrees. Part of the cultural self-image in the USA is the conviction that everyone is a blacksmith of his or her own fortune. According to this way of thinking, it is up to each individual to decide on his or her level of education and success.

The study system in the USA is therefore deliberately structured in several steps in order to enable advancement to the graduate programs. The practical two-year colleges are designed to pave the way for all those who have not been able to qualify for university studies. The training at the Community Colleges is rather practice- and profession-oriented. Unlike in Germany, universities in the USA are the only institutions offering graduate level degree programs.

Another special feature of the higher education landscape in the USA is the accreditation system. In Germany, state recognition of higher education institutions, degrees and study programmes is common practice. In the USA, however, the term is not protected by law. Nevertheless, there are official bodies that carry out institutional and programme-specific accreditations. They check whether the universities comply with certain quality standards. The most common is the regional accreditation.