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The Role of
Higher Education


The decentralized character of the American education system is greatest at the higher education level.  This is principally because private higher education in the United States predated public higher education.  The early autonomy of the former set them apart from the mainstream of publicly financed schools and established a precedent for their relative independence.

American higher education refers to study beyond the secondary school level and almost always presupposes that a student has successfully undertaken 12 previous years of education.

The United States now has about 3,340 accredited colleges and universities.  They offer such a great variety of requirements for admission and so many different types of programs that foreign visitors usually have some difficulty identifying American colleges and universities with those of their own country.

The terms  “college” and “university” are often used interchangeably, although the former often is a part of the latter.  An American college typically offers a blend of natural and social sciences and humanistic studies.  Students, traditionally 18 to 22 years old, attend classes for approximately four years to receive, if they successfully complete all the requirements, a bachelor’s degree in arts and sciences.  A university, on the other hand, is usually composed of an undergraduate college of arts and sciences, plus graduate schools and professional schools and facilities.

Today, about 43 percent of all colleges students are 25 years old or over.  Many are taking courses to advance their careers and qualify for advanced degrees.

Higher education in the United States has evolved two unique institutions.  They are the two-year junior college, or community college as it is increasingly called, and the four-year liberal arts college.

Two-year community colleges, for the most part locally controlled and predominately publicly financed, have dual roles.  Community colleges offer, first, programs leading to technical and semi-professional occupations, and second, courses which prepare students for four-year degree granting institutions.  As a result, they enroll students with a wide range of abilities and interests.

The liberal arts college is also a peculiarly American institution.  It takes two general forms.  It may be, as mentioned earlier, one of the constituent units – a school or college – of a university complex, or it may be an independent organization.  The university college of liberal arts often serves students in parallel undergraduate professional colleges, such as engineering or business administration, by giving them courses in the basic disciplines.  It, as well as its independent counterpart, also provides pre-professional training of four years or less for students who proceed to the advanced professional schools, such as law and medicine.  In addition, it offers a liberal education for students who do not enter either professional or graduate school.

Another characteristic of American higher education is that credit for work is transferable among universities.  A student can accumulate credits at one university, transfer them to a second and ultimately receive a degree from there or a third university.

Most American university degrees are awarded on completion of a specified number of courses which earn students credits or points.  The number of credits awarded for each course relates to the number of hours of work involved.  At the undergraduate level a student generally takes about five three-hour-a-week courses every semester.  (Semesters usually run from September to early January and late January through May.)  Most students complete 10 courses per academic year and it usually takes them four years to complete a bachelor’s degree requirement of about 40 three-hour courses or 120 credits.

The greatest number of degrees at the bachelor’s level in recent years have been conferred in the fields of business and management, computer sciences, education and the social sciences.  The traditional fields of law and medicine (theology once was part of this academic triumvirate) are the leaders at the first professional level.  Every year more than 25,000 doctor’s degrees are conferred in business, education, public affairs and services, engineering, and biological sciences.

Although the proportion of male and female students has remained relatively the same in many disciplines for many years, women have registered dramatic gains in business and management, engineering, law and medicine, computer science and communications.  Consistently since 1981 more master’s degrees have been awarded to women than to men.  Women still lag behind men in doctorates and in first professional degrees, which prepare students to practice law, medicine and other professions.

United States Information Agency
United States Department of Education
National Education Association

      Other Essays:

History Control and Financing
Organization and Structure The Role of Higher Education
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