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The Academic System

How Higher Education Is Organized in the States

Thousands of Institutions

Once they graduate from high school, American students begin their college studies. But how many universities are there in the States? According to the latest research carried out by the National Center for Education Statistics, in 2021 there were just under 4000 (3982) higher education institutions spread throughout the United States that offer an immense variety of academic paths.

Levels of education

The first degree of university education is called undergraduate and it takes 4 years of regular study as a FULL-TIME student to complete it. Subsequently, those who have obtained an undergraduate degree or Bachelor’s degree can enrol in graduate studies and complete the Master’s degree, which generally takes another 1/2 years. The third level of university education is Doctoral degrees or Ph.D., which stands for Doctor in Philosophy. This last level is reached after a further 2-3 years of studies and a specific dissertation.

Universities, Colleges, and Community Colleges:
Let's find out the differences

Often, especially in European countries, the term
It is not immediately associated with a university-like level of education, with the result of generating misunderstandings with respect to the American academic system. It is important to know that inthe United States both Colleges and Universities are institutions that offer undergraduate degrees. Originally, there was a distinction related to size or whether the institution was public or private to be called a College or University, but over time these categorizations have become increasingly blurred and lost.

It is important to know that in addition to the traditional four-year colleges and universities , there are institutes called Community colleges or Junior Colleges. These institutions offer Associate degrees, which are a two-year degree of undergraduate education. In many cases, the Associate degrees obtained at Community Colleges are recognized by the 4-year universities as part of the academic path and consequently, those who have obtained an Associate degree can subsequently choose to transfer to a 4-year institution and thus complete the remaining 2 years of study to obtain the Bachelor’s degree.


Did you know that in the United States, there are various terms associated with students based on academic years? For the four years of study it takes to obtain a Bachelor’s degree, students are referred to as Freshman, Sophomore, Junior, or Senior. The students who are in the first year of the course (our “freshmen”) are the Freshman (Fresh), those who are in the second year are the Sophomore, while those in the third year are the Juniors. Finally, Seniors are students in their final year of Bachelor’s studies. This nomenclature is also used in American high schools (which have a duration of 4 years) where we will therefore find High School Freshman, Sophomore, Junior and Senior.

In the event that a student takes more than 4 years to obtain the Bachelor’s degree, he is called, in a friendly way, a Super Senior. The table below can help you visualize the different names:

Academic year
1 2 3 4 +5
Freshman Sophomore Junior Senior Super Senior

The Academic Year

In most institutions, the academic year is divided into two semesters called Fall and Spring. Fall generally starts in early September and ends in mid-December, after which there is a holiday break of about a month. The Spring semester starts in mid-January and ends around mid-May. There are institutes that divide the academic year into quarters and therefore there will be 3 “terms”: Fall, Winter and Spring.

University Placement Test

To be admitted to a 4-year university, you must take a university entrance test. Unlike what happens in Italy, in the USA there are two standard admission tests that are the same for all faculties: the SAT (Scholastic Aptitude Test and Scholastic Assessment Test) and the ACT (American College Testing). Each has a slightly different modality, but both are widely recognized by all universities. The score required to be admitted is determined by each school, which may or may not require it. In recent years, these tests have become non-mandatory for the majority of colleges (a measure implemented due to the COVID19), but they nevertheless remain an important criterion for evaluating both the admission of students who choose to take them and to be able to compete for scholarships for academic merit.

International students, on the other hand, in addition to a possible SAT/ACT, must necessarily take an English Proficiency test to demonstrate knowledge of the minimum language required by each institution.

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