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Background information about US studies

Read the information about US studies

American education


Structure of the American education system. Education in America is provided at three levels: local, state and federal. However, federal funding accounts for only 7% of the cost. The national education budget (2007), represents 1.14 trillion dollars (public and private combined, at the local, state and federal level). Some 76.6 million Americans are enrolled in schools, colleges and universities in the US. 37.9 million in primary schools, 16.4 million in secondary and 17.5 million in post-secondary education. School attendance is mandatory until the age of 16-18, depending on each state.


Age of student

Length of study

Pre-school / nursery school

3 years old

1-2 years


5 years old

1 year

Primary / elementary / grade school

6 to 11 / 12 years

6-7 years

Secondary school (middle school / junior high school)

11-12 years old

3-4 years

(Senior) high school

13-17 years old

4 years


Before they enter first grade, children may attend kindergarten. All in all, the primary and secondary school system corresponds to 12 grades. Americans say that are in first grade (which is the first year of primary school) and they finish in the 12th grade, which is the last year at high school. Students in each grade are referred to as first graders, second graders, and so on. Unlike British English, school children are referred to as students and not pupils, whatever the age. High school goes from 9th grade to 12th grade. Ninth graders are called freshmen, tenth graders are sophomores, eleventh graders are juniors and twelfth graders are seniors. These terms also apply to students in four-year colleges and universities. Sophomore comes from American English and means “second effort”.


On the local level, schools are managed by elected school boards, who have jurisdiction over school districts. State governments usually carry out standardized testing to measure the performance of the students on a regular basis. Charter schools are public schools that operate independently of the local school board and whose curriculum and educational teaching may differ from the other schools in the system. Although funded by taxes, they have a greater degree of freedom and autonomy than traditional schools and run under terms set out in their state-approved charters. The charter is granted by a state or local board. The charter is renewable every three to five years. This type of school targets economically disadvantaged or minority students. They are located mainly downtown and have a small number of students. The first charter school law was passed in Minnesota in 1991, and by 1992 the first school opened there; California initiated similar legislation in 1992. By 2004, some 3,000 such schools were serving more than 600,000 students in 40 states, the District of Columbia, and Puerto Rico. For example, Andre Agassi, the retired tennis champion, opened a charter school named after him in Las Vegas. Magnet schools are public schools too, offering a specialized curriculum and holding up high academic standards for students from various backgrounds.


Higher education. The college educational program lasts 4 years. The student graduates from college with the bachelor’s degree (B.A. or B.S.). College refers to an education institution that offers a 4-year program in liberal arts, science or engineering. The word university corresponds to a larger institution made up of specialized schools and colleges following the English model of Oxford or Cambridge. American students will say they attend college rather than university. There are many prep schools geared to preparing the students for entrance to the best universities. One of the most famous is Phillips Academy, in Andover (Mass.). Two of its alumni were George H. Bush and his son, George W. Bush.


Unlike France, American students do not study law or medicine in college. They need to graduate from college in order to apply for the graduate schools (post-graduate education) where, if admitted, they can study law, business, medicine and prepare a Master’s degree, sometimes followed by a Ph.D. or doctorate.


Junior / Community college

2 years

Associate’s degree (A.A.)


4 years

Bachelor’s degree

• B.A. (Bachelor of Arts)

• B.S. (Bachelor of Science)

Graduate School / post graduate studies

2-4 years (depending on degrees)

Master’s degree

• M.A. (Master of Arts)

• M.S (Master of Science)

• M.B.A (Master of Business Administration)

Law School

3 years

J.D. (Juris Doctor or Doctor of Jurisprudence)

Medical School

4 years

M.D. (Doctor of Medicine)

Doctoral Studies

5 years



There are other forms of higher education in the United States. Junior or Community colleges grant an associate’s degree (A.A.) in either the arts or sciences. There are also professional schools that award degrees in arts, music, engineering, business and other professions. Institutes of technology offer 4-year courses in science and technology. Among the most famous, MIT, Caltech, Virginia Tech, to mention but a few.


Admission. There are over 3,000 colleges and universities in the United States. Getting into a college is not automatic. Some colleges are extremely selective. High school students are required to take one of the standardized national exams, the ACT or the SAT, which are organized on fixed dates each year. Those exams ascertain the aptitude of the student to study rather than verify the acquisition of facts and knowledge (logic, strategy, verbal and math skills are considered more essential than learning by rote).


To be admitted to a graduate study program, students are required to take the GRE (Graduate Record Examination) in which verbal, analytical and quantitative skills are tested. Some graduate programs have specialized GRE tests as well. Students are not just taken on for their academic record. Personality, motivation, character, all-round experience, sports play an important role in the selection process as does legacy. A legacy is a student who is admitted to a university or a fraternity because one of his parents was a member thereof. Former students are called alumni and they refer to their university as alma mater, a Latin term for “nourishing mother”.


Courses. A course refers to the subject or a program (group of subjects) that the student takes at college or graduate school. A student is assigned a faculty advisor, whose job is to help him or her select an adequate program of study. When a student enters his junior year (3rd year), he must choose a major field of study. He may also choose a minor field of study and elective courses in other subjects. A student may refer to herself as a biology major but also as having a minor in geology with an elective in history. A number of credit hours are necessary to complete a degree. A full program in most colleges is between 12 and 15 credit hours. A credit corresponds to the number of hours the student studies each week in a particular class. A major may be worth 5 credits and an elective 2. Credits, or units, can be transferred from one university to another, allowing a student to finish his degree in another college. Students are given grades (British English marks) by their professors or instructors. They are graded according to the following criteria: classroom participation, a mid-term exam, a research or term paper that they may have been required to write, and sometimes even with short exams or quizzes unannounced by the professor and given to the students to make sure they have been reading the assigned material. The final examination is given at the end of the term. Lessons can be in the form of lectures, given to a large number of students, seminars, and discussion groups. Students are handed out a list of assignments (textbook reading, article reading) that they must complete in order to prepare for the lesson and class discussion.


Staff. In high school, the teaching personnel are called teachers, whereas at university, they are academics: full professors (with tenure), associate professors (the second highest rank in the faculty), assistant professors (the third highest rank). An adjunct professor is not a permanent member of the staff. Tenure is usually obtained after a few years of teaching. A Ph.D. graduate, who is on track for tenure, must write a number of articles or books (according to the principle of publish or perish) in order to obtain tenure. A dean is an administrator, usually a professor, who is at the head of a college or a school. A university is run by a Board of regents, headed by a president. A chancellor is an honorary or titular head of a university. The vice-president is sometimes called the provost.


Prizes and honors. The dean’s list corresponds to the list of the best students. It is published every semester. The students with the best grades receive their degrees with honors. Honors students graduate cum laude (graduating with a GPA of 3.4 out of 4), magna cum laude (graduating with a GPA of 3.6), and summa cum laude (graduating with a GPA of 3.8), which is the highest honor. GPA means graduate point average, based on a 4-point system (A = 4 points, B = 3 points, C = 2 points). The GPA is given by dividing the total number of grade points (from each course) by the number of credit hours.


Students are awarded their degrees on graduation day. They wear a traditional gown and mortarboard and listen to the commencement address which may be given by the dean or a personality invited for the occasion. The valedictorian is the student with the best grades (summa cum laude) in the graduating class; he or she has the honor of delivering the valedictory address at commencement. The second best student is called the salutatorian. Each student from the same class wears a class ring to commemorate his or her graduation.


Financing. Higher education is expensive. Students must pay fees for their tuition, plus room and board. State universities are cheaper than the private ones, especially the Ivy League ones. Moreover, if you are a resident of the state, the fees are reduced. Fees range from 20,000 dollars to 40,000 a year for the most prestigious institutions. However, many universities, including the top-ranking ones, offer grants or scholarships to the ablest students. At the PhD level, studies are often completely financed by fellowships, teaching or research assistantships. The student fees are paid by some institution or foundation and he or she receives a stipend of around 2,000 dollars a month for room and board. Endowment, coming from donations, refers to the money a university has at its disposal to finance projects and allocate grants to students. At Stanford, for example, 76% of undergraduate students receive scholarships.


Campus life. Students generally choose to live on campus sharing rooms in dorms (short for dormitories). The person you share a room with is a roommate. Dorms can be single-sex or coed (mixed). They are governed by strict rules including visiting hours and curfews. Students may also choose to join fraternities or sororities. Those are selective social organizations with their own rituals and rules. The aim of those societies is to build networks. They very often are named after Greek letters such as Phi, Beta, Kappa, Omega, and members therefore are referred to as Greeks. At the start of the academic year, fraternities organize what is called rushes during which potential members can meet with existing members and decide whether to join or pledge. Once a person joins a fraternity he is allowed to live in a particular house run by that fraternity.


American universities are ranked according to the quality of their research and teaching. Ranking is often based on perceived quality, empirical statistics, survey of educators, scholars and students or prospective students. American universities on a worldwide scale rank among the best, with Harvard, at the top of the list, closely followed by Stanford. An Ivy League university (from the Latin IV, meaning four) refers to the eight universities considered as the elite universities in the Northeast of the United States (Brown, Columbia, Cornell, Dartmouth, Harvard, Princeton, the University of Pennsylvania and Yale). The Ivy League is also an athletic association founded in 1954, comprising of those eight universities also known as the Ancient Eight. Some people consider the word Ivy to refer to the plant covering the old red brick buildings. An Ivy leaguer is someone who has attended one of those universities.



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    Cédric BRUDERMANN (cedric.brudermann @