Universities and colleges in the USA

The world of  American higher education 

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A learner's guide to discovering the United States

Index : Universities for all The Ivy League and more Where to study
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Universities for everyone...

University library
Impressive libraries are at the heart of most universities.

Over the past half century, higher education in America has become increasingly accessible to all segments of the population. Today, in the 2020s,  more than one American out of three continues their education after high school, making the USA a world leader in the field of educating the population. Yet this does not mean that everyone receives the same type of education, nor that the quality is the same for everyone.

    The provision of basic education in the USA is, like many other aspects of American life, the responsibility of individual states, within the framework established by the federazl government.However there is little or no federal legislation concerning higher education, and in addition to this, two thirds of recognized American universities are private institutions, run as charities (non-profits) or as businesses.. The provision of higher education in the USA is a market that has expanded to meet the growth in demand from both students and the economy.

    Among the 4000 or so universities in the USA, there is indeed plenty of variety in size, quality and style. The classic American axiom "Big is beautiful" has never been applied to the world of American universities, and alongside the top big universities, the USA also has lots of quite small universities offering top quality education.

    Two years or four?

Over the past 40 years, many ordinary Americans have benefited from the growth of public institutions called junior colleges or community colleges, offering two year degrees or diplomas. These colleges, private and public, draw most of their students from the local area, and the stress is put on the practical side of education. At community colleges, there are usually no ivy walls, like at Harvard or Yale, and probably no world-famous professors, but there are still lots of things to take advantage of. Some students will go no further than their two-year course in a Community college; but for others these colleges are stepping stones to a four year institution, and many Americans coming out of high school who cannot afford to enroll right away in a four-year university (which is likely to be much further away from home) enroll in a two-year program at a community college, and continue to live at home with their parents, thus saving on room and board costs. And this may be a major consideration.

An expensive business

    It was Abraham Lincoln who once famously remarked,: "If you think education is expensive, try ignorance.�?

    Going to college in America can «set you back», as the expression goes; or it can "empty your pockets", to use another expression. While the States of the USA are "united", this unity is not at all reflected in tuition fees in public universities (the majority), for which in 2023 average the average cost was over $9500 a year for students living in the same state, and almost three times as much for students attending a public university in another state.

    Average annual fees in private universities – which means many of the top US universities – look likely to pas $40,000 in 2024.... making even the best European universities look very cheap by comparison.

    And in addition to tuition fees, students need a room to live in - either on campus of off campus - and all the other cost of living expenses, which can add between $10,000 and $15,000 per year to the cost.  According to the website eucationdata.org, the average annual cost of being a student in a four-year university course in the USA in 2023 was $36,436.... which is a lot of money .

        These costs can represent a huge investment for American students. Most students have to borrow a large percentage of what they pay for their education, and it is not uncommon for a young person graduating from a four-year institution to be over $ 100,000 dollars in debt. To offset these costs, many colleges and companies and charities offer scholarships and bursaries to a lot of students... but most students do not benefit from these.

    Some of the most valuable bursaries are paid to college athletes, particularly in high-profile sports such as basketball or baseball, which are really big in American universities.... too big, say some (Read about college sport).

Ivy League and other "top schools"

Britain has Oxford and Cambridge, France has the Sorbonne; America has Yale and Harvard, two superuniversities — old establishments, created on the English model. Harvard was founded in New Town, just outside of Boston, in 1636, and in honor of the new college, New Town was then renamed Cambridge,  to stress the connection. But if Yale and Harvard are tops, they are not alone in their category. They belong to an elite group of 8 long established American universities, known as the Ivy League. Situated in New England or Pennsylvania, these universities are all in fierce competition with one another.


Columbia university
Columbia, an Ivy League university in New York.

       However the Ivy Leage is an old grouping, and nowadays a number of other American universities rank just as high in various league tables, notably Stanford in California, and the M.I.T. (Massachussetts Institute of Technology). Other top US universities include big institutions such as the University of Chicago, the University of Michigan at Ann-Arbor, Johns Hopkins University, or Notre-Dame University, as well as quite a few small universities such as Amherst or Oberlin, or Kenyon College in Ohio.

    The Ivy League schools are private institutions, competing essentially to keep and improve their reputations, and financial standing. The two objectives go hand in hand. Corporations, alumni and charitable organizations may donate money to the university, to help it in its many needs. Then, the more money a university has, the higher salaries it can offer to encourage famous professors to come and teach, and the more books it can buy, and the more laboratories it can build. And the better the facilities, the more famous professors will want to teach there, and the easier it becomes for professors and students to work. And thus, the better the reputation becomes. It's a virtuous circle.

     Many American teenagers dream of studying in an Ivy League university or one of the other top US establishmants, but few actually do. Places are limited in number, and to be accepted, you either need to have excellent results at high school (SAT scores), or you need to have a whopping amount of money — or preferably both. However, top students from a modest background can often find a way to attend an Ivy League school, by obtaining a scholarship, which is either granted  by the school, or by a corporation.

    In the American university system, just as corporations donate money to universities, they also sponsor the most brilliant students, paying for their studies. If a student is not from a rich family, and not quite brilliant enough to qualify for a scholarship, there is nothing stopping them from borrowing money to go to an Ivy League school. Banks tend to be very sympathetic to serious-minded students, and will usually accord the necessary money, as they know that Ivy League graduates tend to get well-paid jobs. At worst, students who cannot borrow all the money necessary to pay for their studies  can find a job on the side. Working your way through college can be an extremely difficult task, but there are many Americans who do it. It makes paying back the student loan a lot easier!

Where to study


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    While most students in two year courses will tend to study close to home, as this will cost less and may even be free in some cases, students working for a full four-year degree or post-graduate degree often look way beyond the borders of their own state. The first thing to decide is whether to choose a public university or a private university, and the second is how far away from home to go.

    Despite the recent growth in the number of public universities, five out of eight universities in the USA are private, run by religious denominations, companies or other organizations.
    On the other hand, almost three quarters of all college students are enrolled in public institutions, since public colleges and universities tend to be much larger on average than their privately controlled counterparts. A number of public universities in the USA have over 60,000 students at one campus, and largest university in the USA, Texas A & M University, has almost 75,000 students.    

    Among the 4000 or so colleges and universities in the USA, the largest numbers are concentrated in the most populous states – California with 384 and New York with 283, ranking first and second respectively, so students living in these states have a big choice of universities close to home. Small or sparsely populated states like Delaware, Alaska, and Wyoming have the smallest number, with less than 10 each, meaning that a lot of students in these states will want to study outside the state.

Diversity in the university

     All forms of discrimination have long been forbidden in the USA, and universities cannot accept or refuse students based on their race.   In the 2020s, the percentage of young Blacks in higher education in the USA (7%) is almost the same as the percentage of young White Americans (38%) - and both groups are less well represented than young Asians, of whom 60% go on to higher education.

    As far as religion is concerned, things are different. There are a fair number of universities and colleges in the USA which are run by religious groups. Most, most of them small, but some – such as Notre Dame – quite large. Some of these denominational schools may only accept students who belong to the religious group in question, though others accept students regardless of their faith.

     There are also still just under 50 single sex colleges in the USA - forty of them for women only - but the number of these has fallen significantly.

International students - study in the USA

        The percentage of non-resident aliens or foreign students in American colleges has been increasing steadily from about 3 per cent of the total enrollment in the 1980s to 5.5% in the 2020s.
    There are dozens of websites offering to help international students get a place in an American university. Some are valid, others are little more than scam sites – so if you are a student hoping to study in the USA, take care. All students from other countries wanting to study in the USA are strongly recommended to start their search by visiting the official US government website first:  https://educationusa.state.gov/your-5-steps-us-study .  This official website also has information about obtaining financial aid (scholarships, bursaries).
    For students already studying at university in another country, the first place to look may well be your current university department, or else you university's own international office. Many universities worldwide have bilateral or multilateral exchange programs, for example in the framework of the worldwide ISEP (International Student Exchange Program) scheme.


    Whether he realizes it or not, the young freshman entering a university in America is entering into a forum. An American campus has been defined in such terms, — a place where not only teachers teach, and students learn, but also a place where ideas become reality through research. In the USA, universities conduct important research in just about every field of study, and stu-dents are encouraged to get involved. Thus, the campus is a place where students not only live and attend class,  but also, if so motivated, participate in the various research activities going on. 

    Of course, to be able to have such dynamic research systems, the professors and the students must possess the means. And as a general rule, American universities  have very impressive means (which is one of the reasons that the fees are often so high.) Laboratories and libraries are often open day and night for everybody's use, and administrative hassles are kept-to a minimum. If a student needs a book or some information on micro-fiche, they can get it directly off the shelf, without hassle. 

    It is an important advantage in the education process, giving students not only material to work with, but a sense of self-determination. In fact, library use is considered so important by administrators that special, mandatory courses are designed just to teach students what the library offers, and how to use it.. For an example of what results American universities produce, look no further than Silicon Valley; the growth of the computor industry there is a direct off-shoot of research conducted close by at the famous universities of Stanford and Berkeley. One must ultimately ask the question: could Silicon Valley have been created in a society where knowledge, transmission of knowledge, and application of knowledge are not housed under the same roof, as they are in the USA?  

    While Lincoln remarked,: "If you think education is expensive, try ignorance,�?   Aristotle said that, "a true university is a collection of books".

Credit. This page has been adapted and fully revised from an article originally published in Spectrum magazine - Linguapress editons.

For more background to the USA.....

Book / ebook     A Background to modern America -  people, places and events  that have played a significant role in the shaping of modern America. A C1-level Advanced English reader for speakers of other languages, and anyone wanting to  learn some of the background to today's USA.  Twenty-two texts, with vocabulary guides and exercises. Linguapress 2023.

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