Educational Opportunities in the United States

Director of Undergraduate Admission, Simmons College

Often touted as the "land of opportunity," the United States offers an abundance of possibilities not only for individual advancement, but also for obtaining an education that fits a student's needs and can be tailored to his or her ambitions.

Spanning over 3,000 miles of mountains, valleys, deserts, canyons, and rivers, the United States is as geographically varied as its citizens are diverse. More than 200 million residents comprise an assortment of cultures, ethnicities, religions, political views, and lifestyle choices. Such a variation means that there is also a wide array of educational opportunities to fit the needs of this diverse population.

The college experience in the United States extends well beyond the classroom into extracurricular activities and campus life. Students search for a place where they will not only thrive academically, but where they may also have the chance to perform in a play, participate on the club rugby team, join a political group, or just relax with friends in casual settings, such as nearby restaurants and clubs. For Americans, college is about the exploration of oneself and the world around them, and that means embracing many different types of experiences.

Almost all students in the United States have the chance to attend college, and unlike many other countries, higher education is not nationally governed, but is standardized by accrediting agencies. Each school sets its own guidelines and has its own application procedures. Such easy access to education has allowed for the existence of a large and varying number of higher learning institutions. At the moment there are over 4,000 colleges and universities within the United States! Starting to sound a little overwhelming, huh?

Deciding where to attend university in the United States requires asking a few questions of yourself. Do you want to study in a bustling city or a rural oasis? A highly ranked institution or one that offers a more individualized education? A research-based university or a small liberal arts college? What’s the difference between a university and a college anyway? And what does “liberal arts” mean? Below you will find a broad outline of the different types of institutions in the United States and the opportunities that they present, as well as some helpful advice about choosing a school and major.

Universities and colleges

The words “university” and “college” are often interchangeable within the U.S. education system; however, there are differences. Many people say “college” when referring to any institution of high education, or to higher education in a general sense. In general, on a basic level, colleges are smaller and only offer undergraduate programs, while universities are larger and also contain graduate schools.

While the difference between the two is fairly straightforward, the choice between which one to attend may not be. Often, colleges provide a more individualized approach to learning that requires classroom participation, one-on-one advising, and a working relationship with one’s professors. Universities, on the other hand, have larger classes, which are frequently held in lecture halls where there is less interaction between the students and the professor. However, these larger classes are often followed by seminars, or tutorials, where a teaching assistant leads discussion within a smaller group. In addition, universities may offer a wider selection of courses and access to more resources, such as libraries, research facilities, and academic tutoring.

So which one is better? It’s a simple question with a complex answer. Americans do not tend to think of one type of institution as “better” or more prestigious. Each institution is different from the next, and the honest answer is that you must take a good look at yourself to know which type of school is right for you. Are you an independent learner who enjoys large lecture-style classes? Or do you prefer to learn through interaction and discussion? Would you thrive socially in a large student population? Or are you better in an intimate environment, where most students know each other’s names?

Liberal arts schools

You may be wondering if students only study painting and drawing at liberal arts schools. Or if they are all associated with a liberal political party or are liberal-thinking students. Translated directly, the phrase “liberal arts” can be misleading. In reality, a liberal arts education is based on the philosophy that students who have a broad base of knowledge will be better prepared for the work force because they can bring a variety of skills and understanding into any profession, and are highly adaptable.

Instead of focusing on a narrow and specific path of study, liberal arts students spend about half of their time in classes pertaining to their major, and the other half in what are commonly called “core” courses. These core courses focus on giving students a wide breadth of knowledge across disciplines—from history to art, language to math, science, and more. Students pursuing a liberal arts education are expected to be very interactive within the classroom—engaging in conversation, debate, and analysis. Graduates with a liberal arts education are generally thought to be strong writers and verbal communicators.

This educational philosophy is unique to the United States, Western Europe, and Canada, and the majority of American students who choose to study at liberal arts schools do so because it allows them to explore a variety of disciplines and possible majors. Students may choose their major prior to college, or during their freshman or sophomore year, based on which courses have appealed to them so far. Employers within the United States are accustomed to hiring students with a liberal arts education, and it is a viable choice of study for many students.

Yet, attending a liberal arts school is not ideal for everyone. You must ask yourself if you are willing to engage in classroom discussions and study a variety of topics even if they do not directly pertain to your major. For some students, this is the perfect path to discovering their interests and areas in which they excel. Others may already have a very specific course laid out for their educational and career path, and will therefore want to attend a more specialized institution.

A word of advice to those of you who may be frightened by the thought of classroom interaction and think you’re too shy to succeed in this type of institution: college is a time for growth, both intellectually and personally. Professors understand that many students may be intimidated by speaking in class and will often work with you to improve your comfort level when interacting. Many students who start out sitting quietly in the back of the class end up in the front row participating in lively debates by the end of the semester.

Specialized institutions

Already know exactly what you’d like to study and do for a living? Or perhaps you like the idea of a liberal arts institution but want one that has a religious affiliation, is a single-sex institution, or offers special programs? Remember the number of universities in the States—4,000? There are a lot of schools out there, each one catering to a different type of student, meaning there is sure to be one for you!

Music and art schools

These institutions are devoted solely to the arts—dance, theater, music, and the fine arts. Music and/or art schools do offer academic courses in subjects like math and writing, although often in a manner that supports their majors. In addition, many schools have agreements with other academic or arts institutions where students can cross-register. The application process is a bit different as well. Students must have a background in the arts and will be required to audition or send a portfolio of their work.

Institutes of technology

Are you a budding chemist? Wondering if your love of video games could lead to a career in computer programming? An institute of technology could be just the place for you. The main focus at technical schools is science, and at most schools you will study with professors devoted to research, technology, and discovery. Institutes of technology often have state-of-the-art equipment, which students can access and use, and generally mirror the products used in the postgrad work place.

Religious institutions

In general, there are two types of religious institutions: one that provides a liberal arts education and is affiliated with a religion, and one that trains students to become religious leaders or scholars. Schools with a religious affiliation can provide a variety of resources for spiritual learning and growth for students—from places of worship to the observance of religious holidays to specialized food. In addition, the curriculum will often incorporate the particular beliefs of the religion, and more religious course offerings are available. It is important to note that many secular schools also offer resources for spiritual life to its student body for a variety of religions. In addition, there are schools that are affiliated with a religion, but welcome students from all faiths and do not incorporate religion into the classroom. 

Single-gender schools

There are many highly ranked and prestigious women’s colleges in the United States, and while there are fewer all-male colleges, they do exist. Both can offer a strong sense of community, the opportunity for powerful mentorships, and the ability to be yourself within the classroom and campus setting without worrying about the opposite sex! But don’t worry—you won’t be sheltered from members of the opposite sex. Most single-gender schools have vibrant activity boards and events throughout the year that involve surrounding co-ed colleges, to ensure a balanced social life.

Special programs within colleges and universities

So maybe you’ve decided on the type of school you’d like to attend, but what else can they offer you? Perhaps you’d like to be part of an honors program, in which you take advanced courses and work closely with other high-achieving students on research and writing projects. Or maybe you have a set career goal in mind, but liberal arts still appeal to you. Don’t worry! Many liberal arts schools offer pre-professional programs, such as law, finance, medicine, etc. This allows you to specialize in one area while also gaining that broad base of knowledge. If you know you’ll need to go to graduate school, look for institutions that have accelerated bachelor’s-to-master’s programs, which can cut down on the time and cost of getting an advanced degree. Many other special and unique educational opportunities exist and vary from school to school; take the time to research these programs when choosing a university.

A little advice

So now that you have a general understanding of the opportunities available to you when studying in the United States, you may be left wondering what exactly to study. Many Americans enter college with more than one major in mind—or perhaps not knowing at all what they’d like to study. These students are often referred to as “undecided” or “undeclared.” They come to school to explore their interests, and in American culture that is perfectly acceptable.

When entering university undecided, feel free to explore your options—just be sure to take care of required courses, and strive to take classes that may fulfill multiple majors. For example, a history class can be applied to a major in history, political science, and anthropology.

During freshman year, many colleges and universities will assign students an academic advisor to help them register for classes and choose a major. But there are a variety of ways to choose a major. One way is simple—ask yourself what interests you and what you are good at. You may already know this, or you may need some time to decide. Here’s an advantage of the American system: you’re not locked into a major before your senior year, though you may need to apply to a new program or school within the institution if you change your major.

Another way to decide on a major may be to take a career assessment test, which suggests certain careers and fields of study based on your interests. Most schools in the United States offer access to these types of tests, or you can find them online.

Whatever you decide, your main focus should be on studying a subject that inspires you, and will get you where you’d like to be in life. No matter what your path may be, remember, there is a school in the United States that fits your needs; it just takes thinking about what you want and need in an education and doing the research to find the right school for you.

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