United States

People from outside the US often don’t realize that Americans actually have two basic types of higher education institutions:

  • Universities
  • Liberal arts colleges, which specialize in teaching, rather than research

So, US high school graduates don’t always head to one of the big universities in order to get their bachelor’s degree. On the contrary, very often the brightest and the most privileged go to one of the top liberal arts colleges, such as Amherst, Swarthmore or Middlebury. Once they have the BA or BSc in their pocket they head for their graduate studies (master’s or PhD) at one of the universities.

Why this division? Liberal arts colleges are meant to, first and foremost, be teaching institutions. It’s true that especially in recent years faculty are often required to have scientific publications and ongoing research, but the emphasis is still on teaching.

To outsiders, the US system is confusing, because there is no clear-cut institutional division between universities and liberal arts colleges. Universities call that part of their institutional setup, which caters to undergraduates, college. An American simply says “go to college” when he means “get an undergraduate degree”. And many universities are now actually trying to emulate what liberal arts colleges have been renowned for, a broad curriculum and highly individualized teaching, and they compete head on with the best liberal arts colleges. If this sounds a little too complicated to understand at first, don’t worry. If you browse through specialized directories, such as the one published by US News And World Report (the extended database, College Compass, is subscribers only), you will soon understand which institution is a full university and which is an independent liberal arts college.

You can also divide schools into private and public ones. The most prestigious institutions are usually formally private. This includes Harvard, Yale, Princeton, MIT or Stanford. On the other hand, a good number of famous places are public (controlled by the respective US state) – University of California-Berkeley, University of Pittsburgh or University of Virginia. State universities are cheaper for the residents of that particular state. If you are a foreigner, however, the division into public and private schools largely loses significance. In terms of understanding the reputation of a school, one has to be careful, since there are some large scale federally organized universities, whose constituent schools are fairly autonomous. Some might have better reputation than others. The largest university systems are State University of New York (SUNY), University of California and University of Maryland. As said, some schools within these large university systems might be very prestigious (and difficult to get accepted to). Examples include University of California – Berkeley, University of Michigan – Ann Arbor, University of Maryland – College Park, or Pennsylvania State University – University Park (not to be confused with the private University of Pennsylvania). Other schools in the same system might have an average or even substandard reputation.

Incidentally, to apply a strict division into public and private schools would be misleading, since many of the formally private universities actually have public service functions. They are not owned by anyone for whom they make a profit, some of them have very extensive tax breaks, their students (including international ones) have access to federal financial aid and they get large research grants from the federal government.

It should also be added that beside the large public universities there are many locally financed schools (community colleges).

Why study in the US?

Often, US colleges and universities offer some of the best education and research in the world. Another plus is the traditionally broad-based curriculum. As an undergraduate, you are encouraged to go beyond your specialization and add courses that simply interest you. In addition, for most foreigners US schools offer a dizzying array of extracurricular activities. Simply put, the goal is not just to equip the student with a diploma, but to offer an opportunity to develop a broad-based interest in the world.

American universities offer the added advantage of name-recognition. If you later apply for a job at a multinational company or seek a career in that part of academia that is strongly US-influenced (e.g. economics), a US degree is a definite plus.

And, of course, the fact that top US schools are highly international means you are going to develop some truly global personal networks.


The main one will often be the high cost. US tuition fees in some cases exceed 40 thousand USD. This is the annual fee! And you have to add the cost of living.

Of course, if you come from overseas, you might also find the geographic distance to your home country as well as some aspects of US culture difficult to handle. Some overseas students find it hard to accept that not all Americans behave as the characters from the popular sitcom Friends. As a consequence they stick with other international students only. Another disadvantage is that you might not be able to combine work and study as easily as you might in your home country. Student jobs are mostly taken by Americans. At any rate, the conditions of your scholarship and your student visa would normally exclude the possibility of legally combining work with earning to any large degree.

And the last warning: not every US school offers cutting-edge education. This is another reason to think carefully about the expense of travelling to study at a relatively unknown US college. For Europeans, for example, the alternative is to try education at a public university in another European country or invest money in tuition at one of the school that offer US-style education in Europe.


The US does not have a central accrediting body. A US school will be accredited by one of the six regional bodies:

Attention! Legally, it is easy for just about any private firm to put “university” into its name! Especially if you come across a relatively unknown school, you should check whether it is are really accredited by one of the institutions mentioned above. This might save you trouble when transferring credits to universities elsewhere or having your degree recognized by authorities in your home country.

Reputation and rankings

The eight old East Coast universities are informally called the Ivy League (this also a formal name for their athletics league):

  • Brown University
  • Columbia University
  • Cornell University
  • Dartmouth College
  • Harvard University
  • Princeton University
  • University of Pennsylvania
  • Yale University

However, Americans sometimes refer to other highly renowned universities as Ivy League.

The ideal way of fast-checking the quality and reputation of a school is to consult the well-known US News and World Report ranking. US News and World Report used to be a famous weekly, now it is a web-based publication and its school ranking is the most widely recognized.

Also, be careful to distinguish between the overall reputation of the school and of a particular department. To have an anthropology degree from the MIT is still a great thing, but it just does not carry the same weight as having a computer science degree from the same university.

How to apply

There is no centralized application system, you need to contact the university or college of your choice. However, there are certain rules which are more or less uniform. If you are an international student and you are also applying for a US federal loan with your application, then you should apply relatively early. Typically this is either by November 1 before the year in which you wish to enrol (Early Action) or February 1(Regular Action). Also, the forms for financial aid are fairly complicated, so be sure to leave enough time to go through them.

Practically every school requires applicants (US or international) to take standardized tests. For applicants to undergraduate programmes, this is almost always the Scholastic Aptitude Test (SAT). It has two versions. SATI, which measures generalized skills (verbal and quantitative) and SATII Subject Test, where schools usually want you to take the one called Writing as well as at least two subjects of your choice (mathematics, physics, history, and so on). There is another test, ACT, but even in the US it is far less common and international students would not be required to take it.

Applicants to graduate programmes need to take GRE or, for business studies, GMAT.

Costs, scholarships, loans

The average tuitions fee (without considering frequent financial aid) is 35,000 USD. The most expensive schools can even set you back by more than 50,000 USD. And that’s still annual tuition alone.

Every school gives recommendation on how much money is needed to cover study and living costs. As an absolute minimum you should set aside at least 7,000 USD a year.

Where can you get financial aid? One of the options is to ask for a federal loan. However, for international students this is more complicated than for Americans, as only certain universities and colleges have access to these funds. But in general, all top colleges and universities can get their international students federal aid. Each school will let the international applicant know whether and how he can apply for aid, and provide a form. In addition, the richer schools have their own aid programmes.

Applicants are often informed whether a school’s application process is need-blind or not. Need-blind means you will be admitted regardless of whether you would be able to afford the study (and usually the school will offer you some form of financial assistance).

The top universities often also offer short-term scholarship programmes, an example would be Yale University’s well-known World Fellows programme.

Specialized sites, which allow applicants to search financial aid offers include College Board Scholarship Search and FinAid.org.

And finally, can you haggle? At top universities and colleges, no. However, if you are applying for a slightly less well-known school, it is possible to get a discount. Ask the dean.

Did you know...

There are many oddities in the US education system. For example there are still many schools only for women. The best known are Wellesley College, Bryn Mawr College and Mount Holyoke College.

Many schools are affiliated with some church or linked to a religion. For example, a few famous universities are affiliated, although mostly fairly loosely, with the Jesuit order, including Boston College, Georgetown University, Fordham University, Loyola University Maryland and many others. Or, the famous Brandeis University supports Judaism and Jewish culture (although this does not mean that non-Jews would be excluded from study or feel unwelcome). There are also many colleges and universities linked to modern Christian movements and to conservative worldviews, which affect their curriculum.

Some schools put their faith in peculiar teaching methods. For example one, St. John’s College, “bans” textbooks. Students only study the “big books” of civilisation, from Aristotle to Enlightenment philosophers.

US colleges have a long-standing tradition of fraternities and sororities. These student societies have their own codes and rituals, but often they are best known as organizers of parties featuring immoderate consumption of alcoholic beverages.