U.S. Universities and Colleges
U.S. Universities and Colleges

U.S. Universities and Colleges

U.S. higher education institutions include colleges and universities exceeding 6,000 in total number. The world “college” is often applied to any higher education institution in the U.S. The universities enjoy more freedom (then U.S. colleges) in designing their education system and its standards, quantity, quality and content of their educational programs, and financial independence. Sources of funding of U.S. universities include state funding programs, students’ tuition fees, research projects’ earnings and overheads, alumni contributions, contributions from various “funds”, “associations” and businesses, consulting fees, and direct and indirect support from several federal programs. More information can be found on our pages "High Education in the U.S." and "Tests TOEFL and SAT".

Several of the leading U.S. universities comprise so-called Ivy League (the name is derived from ivy covering walls of those old educational institutions). The group includes Brown University, Columbia University, Cornell University, Dartmouth College, Harvard University, University of Pennsylvania, Princeton University and Yale University. The oldest in the U.S. Harvard University was founded in 1636. Between 1693 and 1749 four more higher education institutions were established: College of William and Mary (Virginia), Yale University, Princeton University and University of Pennsylvania. The Ivy League universities charge the highest tuition fees in the U.S. and apply the toughest admission requirements to applicants. Following the Ivy League are about 25 leading U.S. universities that comprise so-called “Research One” group. These universities are leaders in natural sciences and engineering research, and include such prestigious institutions as Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), the University of California at Los Angeles (UCLA), State University of New York at Stony Brook (SUNY Stony Brook), or California Institute of Technology (CalTech). 
The rest of the U.S. colleges and universities are roughly divided in 4 groups according to their location (MidWest, North, South and West of the U.S.).  Similar to the leading universities, they include private and state universities and colleges. A typical university enjoys several types of funding streams simultaneously. There also exist a specific group of universities that issue so-called professional degrees in law, medicine, pharmacology and dentistry. In contrast to other undergraduate programs, those professional programs do not require selection of the major discipline during the first 2 years of education. However, there are admission requirements that include a list of courses and credits an applicant must have taken to be admitted to a professional undergraduate program. Some of the professional programs, such as those in medicine, require additional levels of professional education and practical training.
Students admitted to undergraduate programs in their first year are called freshmen, second year students are called sophomores (both types of students comprise the lower division undergraduate students). Undergraduate students of the 3-rd and 4th years (the upper division students) are called “seniors”.

Academic Year

An academic year of a U.S. college may be split in several units, such as 2 semesters, 3 trimesters, or 4 quarters. The type of splitting may also depend on a particular educational program. An academic year lasts for about 9 months regardless of a type of its splitting. The semester structure of an academic year includes Fall and Spring semesters and is used by about 70% of all U.S. colleges.  The trimester-based system features 3 trimesters each of which is about 3 months in duration. The quarter-based system includes splitting of an academic year in 4 quarters the last of which is a summer quarter offered only to those students that expressed their wish to study in summer. The majority of the U.S. colleges and universities begin their academic year in late August - early September, and end it in May; some offer opportunities of summer studies.

Exams are taken twice during a semester, trimester or quarter: in the middle and in the end. The vacation structure depends on a university/college and usually includes a list of holidays during each of semesters (trimesters or quarters), week-long vacations in fall (fall semester break) winter (Christmas) vacations of 2 to 3 weeks in duration, and week-long vacations in spring (Easter break). Foreign students should find out whether or not they may reside on campus during vacations, and whether or not any related fees are applied.

Administration and Faculty

Students and teachers (professors) at U.S. colleges and universities communicate less formally than those at universities elsewhere. Often their relationships progress to something similar to friendship. [A size of a college and a number of students in study groups play an important role.] For example, a professor may invite a student for a lunch, or recommend a student to some social clubs or societies. Every professor or a faculty member has his/her own style of interaction with students, but usually such interactions are less formal than similar interactions at universities in other countries.

There exist three major types of teaching methods at US universities. First, it is a large class teaching in the form of lecturing rather large introductory courses attended by up to several hundred students.  The next type is group studies and seminars attended by up to 30 students. This type of teaching is used at advanced stages of education programs, and is almost exclusive in the case of graduate programs. It implies close interaction between students and teachers. Finally, the third type is laboratory studies (often called labs): they are similar to seminars and are offered for students of natural sciences and engineering.  

The majority of U.S. colleges and universities have a department specifically designed to attract, advise and serve foreign students. Administrators at such departments offer to foreign students free consultations and advice on almost every issue or subject, including  campus orientation, local and U.S. culture, immigration and visa issues, job search and practical trainings, social activities of the local community, health and insurance issues, personal relations, education and career planning, financial issues, and much more.
In addition, a student can rely on information support from administrators managing the student’s graduate program, and from the department administrators and faculty members. Such information (and help, in many cases) includes stipend issues, information on graduation requirements, choice of courses of study, advice on how to improve performance and chances to get better grades, etc.

Many colleges also encourage supervision of freshmen and sophomores by seniors and graduate students by means of offering memberships in various students’ societies (called paternities) and professional groups.

Beyond Classroom

An important part of students’ life at U.S. universities is participation in on-campus activities not related directly to academic life. Thus, students may enjoy sports, travel, musical, theater, and social activities together with other students and local residents. This adds to the development of interpersonal and communication skills, offers opportunities for new contacts and friendship with people of similar interests, and helps the development of leadership abilities. Students are not required to participate in such activities, and such activities have no impact on successful graduation and earning a degree. Rather, those activities provide additional opportunities to learn from, participate in and enjoy students’ life at a U.S. college or university. 

More information can be found on our pages "High Education in the U.S." and "Tests TOEFL and SAT".