United States of America Country Profile - Education System

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System structure

Compulsory education in the USA covers elementary school, middle school (sometimes known as junior high) and high school (or senior high). The ages of students who are required to attend school vary slightly from state to state, but generally children start school between the ages of 5 and 8, and finish between the ages of 16 and 18. State schools are free to attend and many students get free transportation and subsidised meals, while private schools are usually fee paying. After school, students may choose to continue to college or university. 

Academic year

The academic year is determined by individual states so there is quite a lot of variation. However, schools typically work two semesters, the first from August or September to January, and the second from January to May or June. Many universities use the same system, and most allow students to start courses at the beginning of either semester.

Higher education

There are over 4,500 colleges and universities in the USA, ranging from the private Ivy League institutions to the public colleges and smaller liberal arts colleges. College in the USA has a particular character, with sports clubs, fraternities and sororities famously at the centre of social life on campus. Most colleges require students to pass an entrance exam (usually the SAT or ACT) and college applicants are allowed to apply to as many institutions as they want to, although there is usually an application fee.


As in many countries, financial pressures have led American higher education institutions to increasingly seek commercial or corporate funding. Colleges in the USA charge tuition fees depending on whether a student normally lives in-state, out-of-state or internationally relative to the institution. Students can apply for various types of funding including both loans and grants through the Federal Student Aid programme. Some foreign nationals studying in the USA are eligible for funding depending on their visa status.


American universities offer both undergraduate and graduate degree courses, but undergraduate courses work differently to in many other countries. Most last four years – commonly referred to as freshman, sophomore, junior and senior years – and for the first two students take a broad range of subjects before choosing a ‘major’, their specialist subject for the final two years. Some students choose a double major or take an additional ‘minor’ in a secondary field. Graduate qualifications usually last between one and three years, and most colleges also offer several non-degree qualifications.


Research in the USA is very prestigious and competition for funding can be competitive. For more information, visit Grants.gov to find out about federal funding, or contact a specialist organisation in your research field.

Elementary, middle and high school education

Schools in America use a system known as K-12, which covers compulsory education from kindergarten through to twelfth grade. Although some schools run slightly different systems, the three levels of schooling are usually divided into:

  • Elementary school – kindergarten to fifth grade
  • Middle school – sixth grade to eighth grade
  • High school – ninth grade to twelfth grade

There is no federal curriculum, but most schools follow a structure outlined by local authorities in their area. At the end of high school students hope to complete their High School Diploma. Although courses are not standardised, the diploma is a nationally recognised award and very important for employment prospects.

Preschool and childcare options

Preschool and childcare options for people moving to America with their families include:

  • Day care centres or crèches
  • Pre-kindergartens
  • Nannies
  • Au pairs

The cost of childcare can be very high, although some employers do have facilities on site to care for their employees’ children. In 2013, new plans were announced to make preschools more accessible, and these will continue to be phased in over the next few years.

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