American Higher Education System – Undergraduate Degree

I’ve created the infographic below to make it easy for international students to understand the American higher education system.

Notice that while it’s difficult to get into an American university without graduating from high school, many community colleges do accept students without a high school diploma.

In this post, I’ll explain the first four years of higher education in the United States, also called undergraduate studies, which can be very different from those of other countries.

AmericanHigherEducationSystem title=

Undergraduate Studies

A student can initiate his or her academic life in the United States in two ways:

  1. by enrolling directly into a 4-year university (e.g. UCLA, Harvard, MIT, UC Berkeley)
  2. by enrolling into a 2-year community college (e.g. Foothill College, City College of San Francisco, Santa Monica College).

Students can enter college undecided and choose their majors (fields of study) later on—usually up until the end of their second year in college—after having the chance to explore many fields through different classes.

In the first two years, either at a university or a community college, students have to take general classes in multiple areas of study (e.g. English language and critical thinking, math, physical science, life science, humanities, arts, social sciences) and classes related to their chosen majors. The latter are called major prerequisites and the former are referred to as general education.

An engineering student, for instance, would take both engineering classes and classes in other unrelated fields. In my case, I started my undergraduate studies in the U.S. as a business major, but during my first two years in college, I was taking classes as varied as history of photography, public speaking, introduction to statistics, introduction to astronomy, French, world music, and English composition, in addition to the specific business classes (e.g. international business, international marketing, macroeconomics, financial accounting).

Community Colleges

Also known as junior colleges, these institutions are usually smaller than universities and offer both general education and major prerequisite classes. Community colleges often have open admission, which means that anyone can take classes at these institutions, regardless of previous grades or test scores.

In the case of international students whose native language is not English, community colleges require a minimum score on an English proficiency test (e.g. TOEFL). Those who don’t achieve the minimum score may enroll in ESL (English as a Second Language) classes to improve their language skills.

Students who go to a community college can complete their general education and major prerequisites and, then, transfer to a 4-years university to take more specific classes in their majors and earn a Bachelor’s degree (4-year degree).

Because classes are considerably cheaper at community colleges, students can save a lot of money by attending a community college for two years and, then, transferring to a university, instead of going straight to a 4-year institution. 

Another option is to earn an Associate’s degree (2-year degree) at the community college and stop there. To earn an Associate’s degree, a student usually has to take a few extra classes in addition to the general education and the minimum major prerequisites. Community colleges are also open to those who want to take a few classes for fun or a career change.


Universities are more selective, offer more majors and grant Bachelor’s degrees, as well as other higher degrees. Students who choose to go to these institutions usually need to submit their school records, standardized test scores (e.g. SAT scores), letters of recommendation, personal essays and other documents to be considered for admission. Some universities also require interviews.

Just like at community colleges, students at universities take general education and major prerequisite classes during the first two years of their undergraduate studies. In the final two years, they concentrate on their majors, taking more specific classes.

As can be noticed…

American undergraduate programs tend to be very broad, which is also known as a liberal arts education. When I first started going to college in the U.S, I thought it was very odd to have to take classes in all those different fields. However, after a while, I began to appreciate the system.

The whole point of a liberal arts education is to free students’ minds through a multidisciplinary approach to learning. In this type of system, the skills you gain through your academic studies (e.g. critical thinking, problem-solving, writing and oral communications) are more important than the subject matter being studied per se. These skills may not be profession-specific, but they will certainly serve students well wherever life takes them.

I know that it’s difficult for international students to understand the American higher education system (it took me 6 months to do so!). I also know that there is a lot more to cover about this topic, so feel free to leave comments or ask questions about it!

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To read this post in Portuguese, click here.

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7 responses to “American Higher Education System – Undergraduate Degree

  1. Pingback: O Sistema de Ensino Superior Americano – Graduação | Abroadee·

  2. Pingback: 10 Things I Love about America | Abroadee·

  3. Congrats on your blog, Juliana! It’s well written and will be useful to many people. I do think this kind of blog deserves a wide readership, given the number of Brazilians moving or studying abroad.
    As for the US educational system, I think this multidisciplinary approach you talk about, this learning at least a little about so many things (Photography and astronomy, I love those two!) is one of the keys to innovation in American industry and science. People are stimulated to be creative, not narrow-sighted.
    At the same time, this makes me sad (and mad) at how badly Brazil has fared as respects education, from kindergarten to university. Our best university, USP, is now ranked below 200 (!) among the best universities in the world. Shame on Brazilian politicians! Sometimes I feel like moving abroad too, you know…

    • Thanks for your kind words about the blog! :D
      I completely agree with what you said about the multidisciplinary approach. At first, I didn’t like it at all (because I was too used to the Brazilian system and wanted to learn only the “useful” stuff), but now I see how effective multidisciplinarity really is. Like you said, it fosters creativity, innovation and open-mindedness like no other approach does.
      As for the education system in Brazil, it’s a shame that USP has fallen in the latest ranking of best universities. But I do have hope for Brazil. Maybe the government will be more pressured to change the system as more people are able to go abroad and see how things work outside Brazil!
      As for moving abroad, I do encourage you to do so (even if only for a short time). It’s great to be able to see the world from another perspective! :)

  4. Oops! There’s no editing feature here! I forgot a preposition!
    I was going to say that I get sad ABOUT (and mad at) how Brazil has fared…

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