Education in the U.S.
A Quick Guide to Kindergarten through College
America has a range of types and styles of education, from the early years when children enter kindergarten through choosing to attend higher education after the age of 18. It’s home to some of the most recognized and renowned higher educational institutions in the world, and this is reflected in the workplace where 4 in 10 millennials aged 25 to 29 had an undergraduate degree in 2016.
In terms of educational attainment before the age of 18, America currently sits around the middle for areas such as reading, science and math. This is based on world rankings according to the Programme for International Student Assessment. Because of the size of the country and the varied range of educational options, it’s difficult to give an overall impression of how good American schooling really is.
Quality of schools often depends on location and funding, as well as selection criteria and other admissions policies. When it comes to choosing a school for you or your family, researching based on the area you want to relocate to is the best idea to give you a clearer idea of the options available to you.
Below is a quick run-down of how the American educational system is structured and the costs that can be associated with schooling in America (should you choose private school or university for example).
The educational structure in the U.S. is based around 12-13 years of pre-higher education, running from Preschool (often called Kindergarten) at aged 3-5/6 years and then elementary school and high school.
The ages that children must attend education varies from state to state, but begins between ages 5-8 and can end between the ages of 16-18 depending on the state.
Around 87% of children attend public schools, 10% attend private and 3% are home-schooled.
After children leave kindergarten they begin elementary school from the ages of 5-6 which lasts for 5-6 years depending on the state. They then attend middle school /junior high for three years before moving onto high school (senior high for states running junior high schools) until the age of 18.
Each year from elementary school through high school has a grade, running from 1st through 12th grade. Confusingly for international observers elementary school is sometimes referred to as “grade school”.
At the end of High School graduates are awarded a High School diploma. If a student ends their education before they graduate high school this is called “drop out”, and is seen as being a major barrier to achievement in later life. Fortunately, the current rate of drop out is at an all-time low of 6% (in 2016).
After graduating, students can choose to apply for higher education – college or university.
Academic years run from early September until May or June, with a long summer break. Each term is called a semester or a quarter. The Quarter system actually has three terms, whereas Semester systems have two terms – Fall (September to December) and Spring (January to May). School days in elementary school tends to run from 8.30am to 3/3.30pm and in high school 7.30-2 or 2.30pm.
Extracurricular activities are popular in America with various activities available such as sports, arts, debating, language, technology, media and volunteering (plus many more) for students to choose from. Many students use achievement in extracurricular activities as part of their application process to higher education.
Public school in America is free and for most pupils selection is based on their proximity to the nearest publicly funded school and not academic ability. In some cases schools such as Charter Schools may operate a lottery system to ensure selection is fair. In other cases “Magnet Schools” which are still publically funded but focus on particular specialist areas (such as STEM subjects or the arts) may operate a selective admissions procedure based on ability.
As in common with many other countries, public schools in America do vary widely in their funding, resources and quality of teaching and outcomes.
Around 10% of children attend private school in the U.S. Because religious instruction is not permitted in state schools many private schools are religious in their principles. Catholic schools are common when educating privately but there is also a range of other religions and types of religious teaching in private schools.
Private schools tend to have better reputations than public schools when it comes to educational results and they tend to be better funded and often have wider curriculums. They might also include schools for children who have disabilities, single-sex schools, or those for children considered gifted. Many private schools tailor their curriculum towards students getting the best chance of being accepted at a top university, where competition is often fierce.
Other types of private schools include private nurseries, large day schools and boarding schools or smaller experimental or progressive schools. The range of learning styles and subjects given most attention varies widely.
How Much Does it Cost?
Fees can depend on a number of factors, including the age of the pupil, the reputation of the school and its geographical location. Fees can begin at around $1000 per year for elementary schools and $2,000 for Junior and High Schools, but can be as high as $15,000 in some areas. Boarding school can be around $30,000 per year. Some of the most elite prep schools can cost over $40,000 per year.
In some areas, there is a voucher system in place where school districts subsidize private schools and around one-third of private school students receive some kind of financial assistance. There are also scholarships available for gifted and talented pupils, especially those from disadvantaged backgrounds.
Admissions for private school are usually selective and can be lengthy- with school visits, interviews and admissions tests to complete before an offer is made.
Is it Worth the Cost?
For some families, private school may turn out to be more financially viable long-term than attempting to move closer to a thriving public school. That’s because real estate prices tend to rise sharply in catchment areas for top public schools. In some cases, houses in districts with a high-achieving public school can cost more than twice the national average per square foot. For some people private school can actually work out cheaper in real terms over the course of a child’s schooling.
America boasts some of the world’s top universities with world-famous institutions such as Harvard, Caltech (California Institute of Technology), Princeton and Yale University consistently in the top twenty of universities worldwide.
Compared with many other higher education systems, HE in America is highly diverse and is largely independent of federal government regulation. There is a range of public and private schools which can range from very small to very large.
Higher Education commences after high school and has three levels – undergraduate (bachelor’s degree), graduate school (master’s degree) and postgraduate studies (doctor’s degree). There are around 3,500 accredited colleges and universities offering a wide range of subjects. When it comes to terminology, “college” and “university” are often used interchangeably but a college may be part of a university or a stand-alone college. Often both are referred to as a “school”.
America is a popular destination for international students, with over 500,000 overseas students who attend U.S. higher education each year. Many of these schools actively recruit students from abroad.
Many of the most prestigious universities are private foundations and get their main source of income from tuition fees and endowments. The “Ivy League” is considered to be amongst the most elite of American universities and comprises of Brown, Columbia, Cornell, Dartmouth, Harvard, Pennsylvania, Princeton and Yale.
So, how much does it cost?
America is pretty notorious for the high cost of higher education. You might have heard people talking about putting money aside for their children’s “College Fund” – and with good reason. Tuition, plus living costs do not come cheap, and for the elite institutions the fees can be very large.
Fees can also vary depending on whether a student chooses to attend university in-state or out of state. What this means is that to qualify for lower tuition fees you must have been a resident of the state where the school is located for at least a year. Higher fees may also apply when it comes to two-year community colleges if the prospective student is out of state when they apply.
According to Top University the average fees for studying at different higher education institutions in the U.S. during the 2017-2018 academic year were:
Average fees at US universities, 2017-18
Public two-year colleges
Public four-year colleges (in-state fees)
Public four-year colleges (out-of-state fees)
Private non-profit four-year colleges
Tuition and other fees
Room and board
Total (per year)
Costs at some schools can be significantly higher, with some charging upwards of $60,000 per year for tuition, board and other expenses. Many families spend $50,000-100,000 + for their children’s time at university.
However, even though these amounts might seem eye-watering, the good news is that there is a range of financial assistance programs available for students – including international students, at many of America’s universities. Even the very expensive Ivy League schools are not out of reach financially for many talented students as they charge tuition fees based on family income. In some cases, there are no fees to pay at all at these schools, and board is also covered. In other universities, there may be chances to win scholarships or other financial packages of support.
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