The structure of education in the United States (US) differs notably from that of many other countries. Most Americans attend “primary” and “secondary” school for a combined total of 12 years. After graduating from Grade 12, American students may go onto higher education. This is offered at several types of institutions described below, but the general term used in the United States for all post-secondary institutions is "college". The term "university" describes institutions with a college of liberal arts, one or more academic colleges, and a program of postgraduate study. However, many people use the terms interchangeably, so neither term should be considered significant in assessing the quality or stature of an institution.
There are more than 4000 colleges and universities in the United States. This gives you a lot of flexibility to find the right college, even if you haven’t heard of the name. There are pathways for all ability levels. Unlike the United Kingdom, the United States has a decentralized application system, hence the holistic nature of the admissions process and the importance of academic grades and SAT/ACT scores.
The different universities vary in selectivity, so there are selective universities and non-selective universities. Generally speaking, the highly selective universities (only about 50 institutions) accept less than 20 percent of applicants. The 8 universities that make up the ‘Ivy League’ have an average admission rate of less than 10 percent. Of those admitted, 90% are from the US.
The first level of higher education is termed undergraduate and includes the four years (sometimes five) required to earn a bachelor's degree. Some students will obtain an intermediate certificate known as an associate degree, normally offered by two-year or community colleges. Undergraduate students are classified as freshmen in their first year, sophomores in their second, juniors in their third, and seniors in their fourth, depending not only on the number of years in university but also on the number of courses completed or credits earned.
Undergraduate education in the United States is intended in part to produce well-informed, articulate citizens. As a result, a significant part of most undergraduate programs covers general information and includes a blend of courses in the arts, humanities, social sciences, and natural sciences. This means you don’t need to know exactly what you want to study when you go to university in the United States.
Another significant part of most undergraduate programs concentrates on one field of study, known as the "major". Specialized training in one particular subject area usually takes place after the second year of an undergraduate degree or at the graduate level.
Graduate study, called postgraduate work in many areas of the world, is education beyond a bachelor's degree. Graduate students are those pursuing a master's, doctoral, professional, or special advanced degree. While the number of years required to earn advanced degrees depends on the particular university, field of study, and nature of the curriculum, students usually spend a year or two studying for a master's degree, four or more years for a doctoral degree, and three or more years for professional degrees such as law, dentistry, medicine, veterinary medicine, and pharmacology, etc.
Universities are academic institutions that include one or more undergraduate colleges, as well as any number of graduate and professional schools, i.e., schools offering study for a single profession, such as medicine or law. In other countries, many professions are studied immediately following secondary school, while in the United States they are studied only after two, three, or four years of university. Pharmacy, medicine, dentistry, law and veterinary medicine are examples. Very few professional schools admit students from other countries directly into their degree programs.
Four-year colleges are undergraduate institutions offering academic programs leading to a bachelor's degree. In addition to arts and sciences, many colleges offer degrees in business administration, education, nursing, and a variety of technological programs. There are approximately 3000 undergraduate colleges in the United States.
Institutes of Technology
These institutions serve the general population of local communities in providing high school graduates, earners of the GED (high school equivalency exam), and other adults the opportunity to earn college credit toward a certificate or degree. Courses taken can generally be applied toward graduation requirements in a four-year college or university; some states offer guaranteed admission to complete an undergraduate degree at a four-year college if a student in community college maintains a certain average over two years. Many technical and paraprofessional programs are offered which prepare students to enter the workforce directly. Community colleges generally do not provide on-campus housing, but are much lower cost than four-year colleges.
Junior colleges function in a similar way to four-year colleges in that they provide on-campus housing, but generally offer a two-year program after which students obtain an Associate’s Degree or transfer to a four-year institution.
Attending college or university in the US is expensive. The vast majority of schools are residential in nature, so a student should not only consider the tuition and fees (that pay for the course work) but also the room and board. An additional concern will be transportation costs to and from family and friends.
The cost of a college education in the States has risen sharply over the past 10-12 years. For each of the past 10 years, the annual increase in college costs has been greater than the cost of living index and has usually been 8%-10% per year. A price tag for room, board, and tuition of between $20,000 and $70,000 a year at most 4-year colleges or universities is common.
In the United States, most of the lowest priced schools are the state universities. For in-state students, or those who qualify as state residents, the tuition rates are usually very low compared to those for out- of-state students and or students going to private colleges. State universities are usually large (some extremely so) and student-faculty ratios are very high. Because of that, classes can be quite large and students might have to wait a long time to see their advisor, or register for courses, etc.
Because most of the money that is used by colleges for financial aid is tied up with U.S. government grants, etc., there is a much smaller amount of money available for financial aid for foreign students. Most of the money that is available for a foreign student comes directly from the college or university's operating budget. In the more than 3,000 colleges and universities in the U.S., each has its own policies for granting aid to foreign students. Foreign students seeking financial aid will be asked to complete the FAFSA and/or the CSS PROFILE Financial Aid forms, which are available online.
It is also important to understand state residency requirements. Applicants must not assume that, because they used to live in a specific state or, because they might have a house or a summer place there, that they are automatically a state resident for admissions and tuition purposes. Each state has its own regulations concerning residency and some states are very strict about it. Often, one of the main criteria is whether state income tax has been paid in the years prior to matriculation.
Twelve Steps To Apply for Financial Aid (for US citizens/residents)
Article from CollegeBoard.com
If you plan on receiving financial aid to manage college costs, you must first APPLY for financial aid. To do so, follow these steps.
Do not wait for an acceptance letter before applying for the college’s financial aid. The availability of aid should be a factor in your choosing a college. Therefore, colleges will send all the necessary information before applicants accept their offers of admission. Also, if applicants wait until they have been accepted, grants and scholarships may already be gone.
Identify which forms must be filed
Know exactly which forms are needed to complete in order to meet the requirements of the various sources. If applying for federal student aid, all applicants must file a Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA). If applying for non-federal aid, some applicants must also file the CSS/Financial Aid PROFILE.
Check the deadlines or preferred filing dates
Applicants must make sure they meet the deadlines or preferred dates if they want to be considered for the widest range of choices. Get organized. Before families sit down to complete the forms, ALL of the most recent financial records (income tax returns, pay stubs, interest statements, home mortgage and debt information) must be gathered. Records for the calendar year preceding the academic year are needed.
Know which federal income tax returns you plan to file and draft your response
The tax form you will file – (US IRS 1040, 1040A, or 1040EZ) -- is one of the factors that determines eligibility for federal aid programs. Income tax returns need not be filed before the IRS financial aid applications are completed, but it is a good idea to at least have a rough draft. Some questions on the FAFSA and the CSS/Financial Aid PROFILE are cross-referenced to the most common IRS forms in order to make them easier to complete.
Complete all forms accurately, completely, and legibly
Inaccurate or missing information or unreadable answers could cause costly delays in the processing of documents.
Provide all the information requested on the form
For instance, if the answer calls for a zero, enter a zero. Do not just leave the question blank. This is necessary for the computers to accurately scan your form.
At the same time, don’t provide more information than you are asked for
If there is something applicants want to communicate to a college, and there does not seem to be any place to enter it on the form, do not try to force the information into another answer.
Keep photocopies of every form
Students may need to check their original forms for follow-up information.
Be consistent on all forms
Do not call yourself “William Robert” on one form and “Billy Bob” on another. In order to complete a file, colleges and programs will need to match records from several sources, and inconsistencies or mistakes will slow this process down.
Read all the corresponding material
It may not all be junk mail. For example, within a few weeks of completing a FAFSA, applicants will receive a Student Aid Report (SAR). If there are any errors in the information, make corrections and mail it back. The same process is used when reviewing the Data Confirmation Report received with the CSS Acknowledgement and a completed a CSS/Financial Aid PROFILE. PROFILE corrections would be noted on the Data Confirmation Report and sent directly to your college(s).
It is important to not procrastinate. If additional information is needed, it must be sent as soon as possible. Errors must be fixed quickly. When it comes to applying for aid, time is money.
Financial Aid Timeline
Spring of Grade 11 (Jan - May)
Start looking for private scholarships for which you may be qualified
Summer after Grade 11 (June - Aug)
Find out from universities which forms they require
September/October of Grade 12
Register for and fill out the CSS Profile form, the Foreign Student Financial Aid Application, or your college’s own forms. Keep looking for private scholarships.
December of Grade 12
Complete the FAFSA if you are a U.S. citizen, permanent resident, or green card holder. Send it immediately as soon as it is completed (or by the college application deadline).
If you are a US citizen or green card holder, apply for financial aid, even if you are not sure you will be eligible. If family income circumstances change, students can ask to be reconsidered for aid ONLY if the appropriate forms have been completed in a timely manner.
Pay close attention to financial aid application deadlines. Aid is awarded on a first come, first served basis. Students must apply before they even know for sure if they have been accepted for admission.
Definitely inquire about the likelihood of being offered aid packages of equal value each year if your financial situation remains the same.
Please note: your request for financial aid can be a factor into the acceptance decision. Therefore, if you do not need financial aid, and you indicate that you will not be applying for financial aid, you may have a better chance of acceptance. But, if you are not a US citizen or permanent resident, once you have indicated that you do not need financial aid, you cannot change your mind at a later date and ask to be considered.