"College" is a catch-all term for all post-secondary undergraduate education In the U.S. Even if a student is going to attend a prestigious four-year university, she is still apt to say "I'm heading off to college in the fall."
As home to many of the most prestigious universities in the world, the United States is one of the top destinations for students wishing to pursue an education abroad. Top universities in the U.S. include a group of eight of the world's most prestigious universities known as the "Ivy League", and other institutions such as the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and Stanford University.
Almost all U.S. colleges and universities operate web sites (in the .edu domain) with information for prospective students and other visitors.
Institutions range from some of the world's most prestigious universities, to many lower-ranked institutions whose quality of education may be questionable.
Most public universities are part of their respective state university systems, which are partially subsidized by state governments, and may have many campuses spread around the state, with hundreds of thousands of students. Many state university systems have a flagship campus, which is often considered to be the most prestigious among the different campuses (e.g. Berkeley for the University of California, Chapel Hill for the University of North Carolina, Madison for the University of Wisconsin, and Urbana-Champaign for the University of Illinois), some of which are widely considered to be on par with the prestigious private universities.
These are generally smaller (hundreds or a few thousand students), with a larger percentage of their students living on campus; some are affiliated with churches and may be more religious in character. Other kinds of colleges focus on teaching specific job skills, education for working adults, and providing inexpensive college-level education to local residents.
Although nearly all colleges are open to students regardless of race, gender, religion, etc., many were established for a particular group (e.g. African-Americans (HBCUs), women, members of a particular religion) and may still attract primarily students from that group. Several private colleges remain female-only, there are a few male-only private colleges. Some private religious colleges may expect students to practice the school's faith, and even those that don't usually require students to abide by that faith's code of morality.
There are also several private for-profit universities, and they generally have an open admissions policy, though their quality of education is often questionable, with many seen as nothing more than mere diploma mills.
Federal service academies
The U.S. also has several federal service academies whose purpose is to train commissioned officers of the U.S. military, who graduate from them with a bachelor's degree. These also admit a limited number of international students, but will require you to be enlisted in and nominated by your home country's military. This is only possible if your country's government is on good terms with the U.S. government.
These typically offer college-credit courses on an open-admissions basis; anyone with a high school degree or its equivalent and the required tuition payment can generally enroll. In large cities, open universities may offer short non-credit courses on all sorts of practical topics, from ballroom dance to buying real estate. They are a good place to learn a new skill and meet people.
Unlike in many other countries, there is no centralized governmental body which regulates the academic standards for university education, meaning that universities are by and large free to decide their own admissions process, syllabi and academic standards. This means that the quality of education, study environment, and reputation varies widely from institution to institution. However, practically all universities are accredited by non-governmental, regional academic standards bodies and many courses of study are accredited by similar bodies or by professional organizations (such as the Accreditation Board for Engineering and Technology (ABET) for most engineering programs or the American Bar Association (ABA) for legal studies). Even within the universities, professors are often given considerably more freedom to set their own syllabi and examinations than those in many other countries, so two courses in the same subject taught by different professors can also be drastically different in their focus and difficulty.
Bachelor's degree programs in the U.S. are typically 4 years in length, and require a student to study a broad range of subjects, including several courses outside their chosen major, in order to graduate.
Master's degree programs, which are typically 1-2 years in length, are usually more specialized, and typically require students to take advanced level courses, and in some cases require the completion of a thesis.
PhD programs are typically at least 5 years in length, require the student to take advanced level courses, and also require the completion and successful defense of a research dissertation.
Unlike in many other countries, medicine and law degree programs are graduate programs in the U.S., and fall into a special category called professional doctorates, which are typically 3 years in length for law, and 4 years in length for medicine. Dentistry and veterinary medicine are also professional doctorates that require 4 years following the undergraduate degree. Pharmacy requires 4 years for the professional doctorate earned by practitioners, but students typically enter that program after only 2 years of undergraduate studies.
There is no centralized body which manages university applications, and you will need to apply directly to each institution you are interested in attending. Fortunately, though, there is significant coordination: many universities use the unified Common App application system and the same standardized tests.
Students applying to American universities are usually required to take a standardized test. For undergraduate programs, this is typically the SAT or the ACT (some schools prefer one or the other, but all universities accept both). For graduate (UK: "postgraduate") programs, the test required depends on the course of study. This is typically the MCAT for medicine, the LSAT for law, the GMAT for business, the DAT for dentistry, the PCAT for pharmacy, and the GRE for most other majors.
International students from countries other than Canada, the United Kingdom, Ireland, Australia or New Zealand are typically required to prove their English proficiency when they apply for admission. The most widely-accepted English test for this purpose in the United States is the Test of English as a Foreign Language (TOEFL), though many universities would also accept the academic version of the International English Language Testing System (IELTS) in lieu of the TOEFL. This requirement is sometimes waived if you previously obtained a university degree in the United States or one of the other aforementioned English-speaking countries
Any courses that contribute credits towards the awarding an academic degree will require you to obtain a student visa in advance regardless of how short your stay in the U.S. may be. (This rule does not apply to citizens of Palau, Marshall Islands and the Federated States of Micronesia.)
However, short courses that do not count as academic credits may be undertaken on a tourist visa, or under the visa-waiver program. In large cities, open universities may offer short non-credit courses on all sorts of practical topics, from ballroom dance to buying real estate. They are a good place to learn a new skill and meet people.
In order to apply for a student visa, you will need to present an I-20 form from the institution, pay a SEVIS fee, and demonstrate evidence of sufficient funds to cover your tuition fees and living expenses for the duration of your course. You will also need to demonstrate your proficiency in English.
As of January 2018, the SEVIS fees are:
- F or M visa applicants (full payment): $200
- J visa applicants (full payment): $180
- Special J-visa categories (subsidized payment): $35
- Government visitor (no payment): $0
Canadians and Bermudians are exempt from having to obtain a student visa, but are otherwise subject to the same requirements and restrictions as other international students.
As a result of an executive order signed on 29 May 2020, certain students from China with military ties are prohibited from attending graduate school in the United States. If you think this might apply to you, check with a U.S. diplomatic mission before planning your studies.
Unless you have applied for and received special permission in advance, international students are not allowed to work off campus in the United States.
Costs and financial aid
Colleges are partially funded by tuition (UK: "tuition fees") charged to the student, which is often quite expensive, very commonly reaching into the tens of thousands of dollars per year. The most selective colleges (and hence, often the most desirable) run up to $40,000-50,000 per year, including both tuition and "room & board" (furnished dorms or apartments on the university's campus) in that price.
In general, private universities charge the same tuition for both U.S. and international students. Public universities generally offer subsidized tuition only to U.S. citizens or permanent residents who reside in their state, meaning that both international students and students from other U.S. states are usually required to pay the full "out of state" tuition. Most U.S. citizens and some permanent residents receive substantial financial assistance from the federal and state governments in the form of grants and low-interest loans, which are not available to non-citizens.
Often financial aid for foreign students is provided by their home country. They may be eligible for privately-funded scholarships intended to provide educational opportunities for various kinds of students. In addition, the U.S. government also funds the Fulbright Scholarships, which allow international students to study in the U.S., though they would be required to return to their home countries to work immediately on completion of their program.
The more prestigious universities usually provide a comprehensive funding package comprising full tuition remission, health insurance and a living stipend to all PhD students, though the number of international students who are offered admission is usually limited. Some U.S. and major global banks offer loans to foreign students, which usually require a citizen to guarantee that they'll be repaid. Contact the Financial Aid Office of any college you are interested in attending for more information about the sources of aid available.
Working while studying
Unless you have applied for and received special permission in advance, international students are not allowed to work off-campus in the United States.
Foreigners on F-1 student visas are allowed to work for up to 20 hours a week during term time, and full-time during school holidays on-campus in their respective institutions, but are generally banned from working off-campus unless they have applied for and received special permission in advance. Dependents of F-1 student visa holders (i.e. F-2 visa holders) are not allowed to work in the U.S. The Optional Practical Training (OPT) and Curricular Practical Training (CPT) schemes allow F-1 student visa holders to work off-campus after completing a year of study at a U.S. institution, provided their job is related to their major, though the application has to be filed with Immigration and approved before you commence work. The OPT scheme also allows foreigners who graduate from a U.S. institution with a bachelor's degree or higher to apply to stay on and work in the U.S. for up to 12 months on their student visa, provided their job is related to their major. Graduates with majors in science, technology, engineering or mathematics (STEM) may extend their OPT by up to 24 months after the initial 12 months are up for a total of 36 months. The total time spent on OPT before and after graduation may not exceed 12 months (or 36 months for STEM graduates), and having spent 12 months or more on OPT or CPT before graduation will make you ineligible for post-graduation OPT.
It is better to arrange your work and work visa before you enter the United States. Young people who are full-time students of certain nationalities can apply for a J-1 "Exchange Visitor" visa which permits paid work as a nanny or summer work for up to 4 months in virtually any type of job. The United States Department of State has full information on applying for this type of visa including the precise categories that qualify.
College sports in the U.S. tend to get more attention than in other countries, with games between the top colleges often shown on television during prime time slots. Many universities offer athletic scholarships to students, including international students, who are outstanding in a particular college sport, even if their academic record may be less than stellar.