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  • Writer's pictureLaura Poggi

Understanding the U.S. Higher Education System

Updated: Feb 23, 2022

The U.S. higher education system has a lot of layers and options, which can be confusing for students - especially international students! What is a community college versus a university? Here is an explanation with a printable infographic to help you understand the system and all your options.


"The best way to describe the U.S. higher education system is: it’s as diverse as the United States is itself. We have all kinds of colleges, universities, and community colleges - of various sizes that are available."

- Robin Lilienthal, Provost, Marshalltown Community College (Iowa Valley Community College System)


Community College:

  • Overview: provides a two-year curriculum that focuses on two main areas

    • Transfer Programs: first two years of degree-seeking classes to transfer to a four-year university

    • Career Education: programs targeted toward occupations such as health care, construction trades, culinary and more.

  • Length of study: two years

  • Outcome: associate’s degree or occupation certificate

Four-Year College/University:

  • Overview: exposes students to a range of subject areas while allowing for focused study in one field

  • Length of study: four years

  • Outcome: bachelor’s degree

Graduate School:

  • Overview: provides students who have completed a bachelor's degree with advanced study in a particular field

  • Length of study: two years

  • Outcome: master’s or doctoral degree

Additional Programs:

English Pathway Programs:

  • Overview: eases international students into U.S. study with English language courses

  • Length of study: varies; is followed by or combined with entrance into an undergraduate study program

English Language Programs:

  • Overview: provides English instruction to non-native speakers; these programs are not offered in conjunction with undergraduate study but are offered through some colleges and universities

  • Length of study: varies by program


"U.S. university environments are very collaborative... if you come from an educational environment where that is not common, an English language program gives you experience building those skills."

- Susan Edgington, Executive Director at ASU Global Launch, Arizona State University


It's not always a linear path to university, there are many options to help you get to your goals and future success. EdAgree is here to help students identify universities that will push them towards longer-term success, put their best foot forward during the admissions process, and added support throughout their study abroad experience and beyond. EdAgree has many amazing University Partners- some are even community colleges! Take advantage of our free University Quiz to find the right fit for you.

Create your free EdAgree profile today to start your path to the right university for your future.

Infographic of the U.S. Higher Education System Explained

Download the infographic PDF version of Understanding the U.S. Higher Education System to post on your wall or share out below!

Download PDF • 317KB


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