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Learning how Americans define their universities is an important part of the application process. Failure to suss the semantics can land you in trouble! For example, rather than referring to the delights of your ‘uni’, you will constantly be talking about your ‘school’, causing some confusion among grandparents who thought you had already passed your A levels. Here we explain some of the terminology of the US university system (and, in case you’re wondering, 'university' is used interchangeably with both 'school' and 'college').


Accreditation has to be your biggest consideration when looking at US universities, not only to ease credit transfer, but to ensure recognition of your degree when you come back to the UK. It is vital to make sure that your university is accredited by a body recognized by the Council for Higher Education Accreditation (CHEA) and/or the US Department of Education (USDE).

Check this link to see CHEA's  database of recognised postsecondary institutions and programmes, and this link to see CHEA's list of recognised accrediting organisations.

If the school or university is not accredited by one of these organisations, there may be problems with recognition and acceptance of your qualification both within the US and in the UK. 

Fortunately, the vast majority (if not all) of the US universities that you will be considering are fully accredited. 

The Ivy League

(Harvard, Princeton, Yale, Brown, Columbia, Penn, Dartmouth, Cornell)

The Ivy League schools are the Holy Grail of the US college admissions process – the American equivalent of Oxbridge. But while these elite colleges enjoy some of the best reputations in America, the famous title is actually the name of their sports division (and not even a particularly good one). No one, however, dares dispute the academic excellence of the Ivies. Each school is remarkably different but all are situated on the East Coast and all enjoy stellar reputations.

Ivy League graduates are at the top of the tree in finance, media and politics (among other areas), and most of them never shut up about how it was their glory years in the most prestigious colleges that got them where they are today.

In fact, there is a plethora of universities in America that more than rival the Ivy League, but society finds it hard to resist that old East Coast arrogance and these colleges remain among the most popular (and most difficult to get into). 

Liberal Arts Colleges

Most US universities follow a liberal arts curriculum, but few can actually label themselves liberal arts colleges. This epithet applies only to a select group of mostly superb schools that pride themselves on the instruction of the undergraduate. As a result, they tend to have smaller campuses and fewer irritating grad students hanging around stealing the professors’ attention.

Liberal arts programmes are designed to give you a broad education rather than prepare you for a professional career. You will normally be expected to come up to scratch in a range of academic disciplines. This ensures that at the end of four years, you emerge as an intelligent, well-rounded individual.

Most liberal arts colleges are private schools - Williams, Amherst and Swarthmore are normally recognized as the top three options (although many others are equally fantastic). But students who want the breadth of a variety of courses need not confine their search to those colleges that are officially ‘liberal arts’. The majority of undergraduate programmes at good universities insist their students take a broad base of courses. 

Public Schools / State Universities

Don’t get confused! When you hear someone refer to a public school, they don’t mean the Eton and Harrow equivalents of America but rather the institutions that are supported by the state and open to all members of the public (which actually makes more sense if you think about it). These schools have names like Penn State or the University of Indiana and the majority of the student body hails from within that state, something that allows them to pay reduced fees.

Public/state universities tend to be huge in size and some of them are absolutely excellent (eg, UCLA and UVA). Be warned though - standards vary immensely and if you are an out-of-state candidate, competition is generally fierce. 

State vs Private Universities – Which comes cheaper?

In the United States private universities make up 75% of all institutions. However, 75% of US students attend the remaining 25% - the state universities. State universities are founded and subsidized by state governments to provide a lower cost in higher education to residents of their state. With student bodies of 20,000 plus, they admit a wider range of students than private universities.

For UK students, the economic incentive that US students have for attending their ‘state’ university, unfortunately, does not exist. For example, if a resident of Ohio attends Ohio State University, their fees will be much lower than those of anyone who lives out of state. However, the fees for non-residents, while much higher, are still less than private university fees. Unfortunately, there will be little, if any, financial aid available to international students.

Private universities are funded by a combination of fees, grants, endowments and gifts from alumni. They are much smaller and, as a result, are usually much harder to get into. But they are also far more likely to be able to provide financial assistance to international students. 

Community Colleges

Another option, and one which may be appealing for both late developers and those struggling economically, is the community college. Community colleges, also known as junior colleges, are similar to the FE sector in the UK. They provide two-year courses leading to an associate’s degree — very similar to an HND.

 As a rule, admissions criteria are much more flexible, many not even requiring an admissions test such as the SAT. They are also much, much cheaper and thus attractive to those on a tight budget.

Many students elect to attend a community college for the first two years of their degree and then transfer to a four-year institution, similar to topping up a HND. In fact, many community colleges have agreements with prestigious universities that successful completion of their course will guarantee acceptance.

For students who have, perhaps, not yet proved themselves academically, the community college route offers an opportunity to demonstrate their capabilities and save a lot of money. For some international students, the community college may make the transition to the American system more comfortable, as a more gradual means of acclimatizing to the American style of assessment, etc.

The downside to community colleges is that they tend to attract older students, many of whom might be balancing classes, homework and full time jobs and/or families, so it may be more difficult to find a satisfying social group or peers with spare time.

The college also may not have the resources to provide special support for international students, and may not offer the total ‘living’ experience provided by four-year institutions — many do not cater for housing, etc. Campus life will not be as rich.

If you are considering a community college, find out what agreements they have with four-year institutions and what sort of support they offer international students, both academically and socially, before you make any decisions.

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