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US higher education explained

Flexibility and choice in your degree studies

The US higher education system is considered one of the best in the world, and offers flexible study opportunities at over 4,000 colleges and universities. US degrees are recognized worldwide for their academic excellence and enhanced learning experiences.

Undergraduate studies

Following high school, students can choose to study a bachelor’s (or “undergraduate”) degree at a college or university. Find a bachelor’s degree.

Bachelor’s degrees in the USA typically take 4 years to complete. The first 2 years include common required courses, such as math, history, literature, and communications. This develops a broad-based knowledge across many subject areas — an advantage for competing in the global workplace. The final 2 years focus on the your chosen “major” subject.

Average 4 years to complete a bachelor's degree

in the USA

Customize your degree

to your interests and career aspirations

Some universities offer cooperative education (“co-op”) programs that allow students to alternate academic studies with semesters of full-time work experience placements. If you choose to do more than one co-op during your studies, it might take closer to 5 years to complete your degree.

US bachelor’s degrees are flexibly designed to allow students to change their major after 1 or 2 years. There is a huge choice of elective courses so you can customize your degree to your interests and strengths.

Routes to a bachelor's degree Year 1

Transfer to a US bachelor’s degree

It is common for students to change university after 1 or 2 years of undergraduate study in the USA, or to transfer into a US university after studying in another country. It’s not necessary to complete all 4 years at the same university in order to get a degree from there.

1 in 3 US undergraduate students

transfer university at least once (National Student Clearinghouse, 2015)

Barack Obama, John F. Kennedy and Warren Buffett

all transferred university during their bachelor's degrees

This flexibility means students can improve their grades for transfer to a more selective college or university. Learn more about typical requirements for transfer admission.

Routes to a bachelor's degree Year 2 or 3

Graduate studies

After a bachelor’s degree, some students choose to continue on to a master’s degree (also called a “graduate” degree). Find a master’s degree.

An American master’s degree usually takes 2–3 years to complete, but fast-track 1 year programs are available for some degrees. Graduate-level education lets you study a subject in greater depth, and can either be academic or more career-focused.

1,000+ universities in the USA

offer graduate degrees (EducationUSA)

28% higher median salary for a master's degree

compared to a bachelor's degree (National Center for Education Statistics 2018)

A graduate certificate is a great option for international students who want to take master’s degree-level courses at a US university, for less time and money than a full degree. It can also qualify you to work in the USA through Optional Practical Training, a benefit offered for other degree programs.

Routes to a graduate qualification

Career preparation

If you study a bachelor’s or master’s degree (or an approved graduate certificate) at an American university, you’ll have many opportunities to gain real work experience in the USA. Most universities have well-developed internship or cooperative education (“co-op”) programs. International students are eligible to work off-campus after completing the first year of their degree program — and work in on-campus jobs in the meantime.

International students can also participate in Optional Practical Training (OPT), which allows study visa-holders to work in the USA in their chosen field for 12 months after graduation. If you complete a degree in a STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering or Mathematics) field, you can extend your work placement to 36 months.

Working for a US company is an incredible opportunity, and gives international students a distinct advantage in their career.

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