University System in the USA

Public and private, religious and secular, job-oriented and general education, small and large, urban and rural universities – it is not easy to get an overview of the entire spectrum of the university landscape in the United States, a country located in North America according to thefreegeography.

However, it is thanks to the diverse university landscape and study system in the United States that students in the United States can access such a wide range of courses.

US universities in competition

The competitive culture in the USA is traditionally strong. This is partly due to the large number of tertiary educational institutions in the USA. On the other hand, it has to do with the fact that education in the United States is understood as a service and that universities have their own funds at their disposal.

To attract the best domestic and international students to study in the United States, universities and colleges are actively marketing. They attract with scholarships and internships, offer generous funding programs, guarantee students permanent accommodation on campus and a comprehensive advisory service.

Sports teams and alumni work as sources of income

The university’s own sports teams also play an important role within universities in the USA: They represent a central source of income for US universities. There is correspondingly great interest in constantly attracting new young athletes. Alumni work is also very important. Many universities and colleges host events for alumni on a regular basis and raise significant amounts in this way.

The high marketing budgets and comprehensive range of services offered by many US universities are also visible elsewhere: They are one of the reasons why many institutions are continuing to increase their tuition fees.

Types of universities in the USA

There are more than 4,500 accredited colleges in the United States. Basically, a distinction must be made between the following types of universities within the university landscape in the USA: institutions that are allowed to award academic degrees (degree-granting) and those that do not award (non-degree-granting). The latter usually focus on further training. After successfully completing these study programs, participants usually receive a certificate or diploma.

The US higher education landscape is shaped by colleges and universities. In everyday language, the terms are used synonymously. In fact, however, they are different institutions. The most important types of universities in the USA at a glance:

  • Two-year colleges: divided into public community colleges and private junior colleges. They represent the link between high school and university. On the one hand, two-year colleges are characterized by vocational programs. On the other hand, it is possible, after two years,to switch to a four-year university with an associate degree and obtain a bachelor’s degree there.
  • Four-year colleges: stand-alone institutions or institutions affiliated with universities. They offer undergraduate courses that lead to a bachelor’s degree after four years. Because of the general educational approach of many colleges, they are also known as Liberal Arts Colleges.
  • Universities: Unlike colleges, universities in the US offer both undergraduate and graduate courses. These include master ‘s, advanced and doctoral programs. Universities can be further subdivided, for example into research universities with a research focus or technical universities with technology-oriented courses.

The higher education landscape in the USA is characterized by many prestigious and traditional universities. It is therefore widely believed that universities generally offer higher quality teaching and higher quality equipment than colleges. However, this does not correspond to reality.

In university rankings such as the US News & World Report Best Colleges Ranking, many colleges do significantly better than numerous universities in the USA. Renowned liberal arts colleges, in particular, regularly land at the top of international rankings. The type of institution therefore says nothing about the quality of the institution.

Private, state, church – differences in the university landscape in the USA

The universities in the USA can be divided into two camps:

  • Public, state universities
  • Private universities

The latter are further subdivided into secular and denominational universities.

The development of the higher education landscape in the USA begins with the private universities. Most of them were religiously sponsored and served to train clergymen and to convey religious values. In 1636, Harvard University was the first university in the USA to be founded. It was not until the end of the 19th century that state colleges and universities were founded across the country. To date, the number of private universities predominates in the United States.

There are several ways that public and private universities in the United States can be distinguished:


Public universities in the United States are funded by state and local taxes. Private universities depend on private donors and tuition fees. Alumni donations, research grants and endowments also make up a large part of the budget of private universities.

Another characteristic of the university landscape in the USA is the fact that tuition fees at private universities are usually higher than at state universities and colleges due to the different forms of funding. On the other hand, international students at private universities often have better chances of receiving financial support for studying in the USA. This is due, among other things, to the higher number of scholarships.

Cost structure

Private and public universities also differ in terms of the cost structure: at private universities, tuition fees are the same for all students. In contrast, state colleges and universities give students a discount on tuition fees if they live in the same state. There are higher fees for students from other states and international students.

Size of facilities

Public universities in the United States are in many cases larger than private institutions. Religious colleges and universities in particular have small learning groups due to their limited target group. In contrast, the state universities address all students in the state and thus a significantly larger number of people. As a result, public universities sometimes enforce less strict admission criteria. In addition, they are often bound by certain state requirements.

Quality of training

Since private universities generally have a higher budget, the quality of study is often higher than at public colleges and universities. This can be attached to, for example

  • a higher quality equipment
  • first class lecturers
  • a higher teaching quality of courses
  • smaller course sizes
  • more intensive care

The American elite universities in the so-called Ivy League in particular stand for high quality standards, academic excellence and strict admission procedures.

Accreditations – Colleges and Study Programs in the United States

Accreditation also plays an important role within the university landscape in the USA and thus the quality of US universities. Regionally and nationally accredited universities meet certain quality standards. In contrast, there are a large number of non-accredited universities and colleges. Coursework and degrees from these universities are generally not recognized in the United States and many other countries. Therefore, when choosing a US university, it is important to ensure that the institution has been accredited by an official accreditation body.

What distinguishes the university landscape in the USA

The US higher education landscape is characterized by a wide range of universities, courses and degrees. Part of the cultural self-image in the USA is the conviction that everyone is the maker of their own fortune. According to this way of thinking, it is up to each individual to decide on their level of education and their own educational success.

The study system in the USA is therefore deliberately structured in several stages in order to enable advancement to the graduate programs. The practical two-year colleges are intended to pave the way to a university for all those who have not been able to qualify for study at a university. The training at the community colleges is more practical and job-oriented. Unlike in Germany, the universities in the USA are the only institutions that offer degree programs at graduate level.

Another specialty of the higher education landscape in the USA is the accreditation system. In Germany, state recognition of universities, degrees and study programs is common. In the USA, however, the term is not protected by law. However, there are official bodies that carry out institutional and program-specific accreditations. They check whether the universities adhere to certain quality standards. Regional accreditation is the most common.

University System in the USA

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