Educational System in the USA

One country, countless study options – the study system in the USA is as diverse as hardly any other higher education system. This is due to the fact that the state’s influence on US universities is very limited. The result is a colourful university landscape. In the USA, academic freedom has traditionally played an important role.

Role of the Federal Government and States

The study system in the USA is organized in a decentralized way, it is regarded as versatile and flexible. This can be attributed to the fact that there is neither a central education ministry as the state supervisory authority nor a national higher education law in the USA.

In the USA, accreditations as a means of quality assurance are not granted by state institutions, but by non-profit non-governmental organisations.

Responsibility for education and upbringing issues lies with the individual states (state governments), and in some cases also with the local communities. However, the US universities themselves have the greatest authority.

University autonomy

The study system in the USA provides that universities and US colleges operate largely autonomously. You decide independently on the degree programme, the admission of applicants and the tuition fees. The same applies to the recognition of academic achievements and the grading system. This means that even the structure and costs of a single course of study at different universities can vary considerably.

Structure of the study system in the USA

The study system in the USA is divided into the following sections

  • undergraduate studies
  • graduate studies

Such a two-stage structure is firmly anchored in the Anglo-American region and can now also be found in Germany.

The Undergraduate Studies are the first degree studies at a university. The studies usually take four years to complete. Generally, two academic years are required for graduate studies.

The „classic“ US American degrees

Even though the study system in the USA consists of about 2500 different academic degrees, there is still a „classical“ study path in the USA. It begins with the Bachelor’s degree (Undergraduate Studies). The tripartite system of Bachelor’s, Master’s and Doctor’s degrees has existed in the USA since the late 19th century.

Bachelor’s degree

The approximately four-year bachelor’s degree in the USA leads to a bachelor’s degree. It begins, as is usual for the undergraduate area, with a Studium Generale. This consists of various courses in the humanities and natural sciences. The aim is to provide students with sound general knowledge at the beginning (liberal arts education).

In the second half of the course, students choose their major subject (s) and define the main focus of their studies. The choice of minor subjects is often also possible.

Master’s degree

The study system in the USA provides that students with a bachelor’s degree can follow a master’s degree in the USA. The Master Degree belongs to the Graduate Studies and is made up of a certain number of courses and a certain proportion of its own research.

The following distinction must be observed for masters in the USA:

  • Academic Master’s degree: academic, scientifically oriented courses of study with final thesis
  • Professional Master’s degree: professional-oriented programmes that prepare students for specific professional fields in dentistry, law or economics.

Doctoral degree

After the Master’s degree, students have the option of appending a doctoral programme. The doctoral degree is also assigned to the graduate area and takes an average of three years, sometimes longer. The Doctor of Philosophy (Ph. D.) is the most frequently awarded doctorate among the research degrees.

In addition, the study system in the USA distinguishes between professionally oriented doctorates such as the Doctor of Medicine (D. M.) or the Juris Doctor (J. D.). They are professionally oriented (professional degrees) and are awarded without any additional doctoral performance.

Study system in the USA and its country-specific degrees

The study system in the USA has other degrees that may be of interest to international students:

  • Associate Degrees
  • certificates
  • diploma

Associate Degrees

Associate Degree Programmes are assigned to undergraduate studies within the study system in the USA and lead directly to a Bachelor’s degree.

With an Associate Degree, it is usually possible to transfer to the third year of a Bachelor’s degree at a college or university without any problems. The advantage: Studying at a community college is much cheaper than studying at a university.

The Transfer Degree Programs are particularly relevant for international students, as they pave the way to a bachelor’s degree at a university in the USA. The Terminal Degree Programs are a kind of vocational training. As there is no equivalent German qualification, they are not recognised in Germany. Therefore, it is advisable to complete your Bachelor’s degree in the USA.

Certificates and diplomas as an opportunity for further training

At many universities in the USA, there are different continuing education programmes which on average complete a Diploma or Certificate after three to four months. They are specialized in a specific subject area and have a high practical relevance.

On the one hand, there are pre-vocational preparation programmes within the study system in the USA, which can be completed as a first degree after graduation from high school and lead to a professional qualification.

On the other hand, many universities offer Graduate Diplomas / Certificates or Advanced Certificates. Such postgraduate degree courses at graduate level serve as advanced training in a specific area for professionals. They are an alternative to the Master’s programme, but can often also be credited to a Master’s programme. A Bachelor’s degree is a prerequisite for admission.

Important to know: Although certificates and diplomas are firmly anchored in the study system in the USA, they do not have the status of an independent degree in Germany. However, they often represent a useful additional qualification on the further career path.

Shorter study stays in the USA

If you do not wish to complete your studies abroad in the USA, the study system in the USA offers various short-term programs. International students also have the opportunity to complete a shorter study stay in the USA. You can choose from the following options:

  • Semester abroad: flexible study abroad programs that offer access to a wide range of courses. A semester abroad can be spent in exchange programs, university cooperations or as a Free Mover. The choice of course is largely free. Students are not classified according to semester or program.
  • Summer Sessions / Summer Schools: three to six weeks of intensive studies during the summer months, outside the regular academic year. Summer Sessions are usually characterised by a wide range of courses and low barriers to entry. In some cases, participation is possible for students aged 16 and over.
  • Language courses: General language courses, academic courses, subject-specific language courses or language courses to prepare for language tests such as the IELTS or TOEFL. The duration of the course varies depending on the type of course.

Study System USA vs. Study System Germany

In the USA there is no dual education system as in Germany. As a result, both professional and academic education in the USA is shifting to universities. The result is a series of typical national degrees within the study system in the USA, which do not exist in this form in Germany. These include the Associate Degree, the Certificates and Diplomas.

The Bachelor’s, Master’s and Doctor’s degrees that are known in Germany also have a slightly different structure in the United States. In the first two years, bachelor students attend exclusively general education courses and do not specialize until the second half of their studies. The studies are usually much more practice-oriented and more school-based than in Germany.

In addition, the study system in the USA requires that a Bachelor’s degree normally lasts four and not three years. This can lead to problems with the recognition of Bachelor graduates from Germany. In some cases, it is necessary to complete additional postgraduate studies in the USA in order to gain access to a Master’s programme.

In the graduate sector, universities distinguish between academic and career-oriented Master’s programmes – another special feature of the study system in the USA. There are also differences with regard to the doctor: On the one hand, there are the research doctor’s degrees, above all Ph. D., and on the other hand, the application-oriented professional docu-mentation of the doctoral degree.