Explore Courses

Education System in USA

Updated on 29 September, 2023

upGrad Abroad Team

upGrad Abroad Team

upGrad abroad Editorial Team

Study in USA

The USA is globally acclaimed for its flexible and advanced education system. The education system in the USA has several core components, beginning from early childhood education followed by primary school (also known as elementary school). Thereafter, the education system of America has the middle school and secondary school (also known as high school) levels followed by postsecondary or tertiary education. Here’s taking a closer look at the education structure in USA and its key aspects.  

Characteristics of the USA Educational System

The education system of America has several defining characteristics. There are 124,000+ private and public schools in the country along with 2,000+ postsecondary non-degree technical and career schools. There are also 4,000+ degree-granting higher education institutions with 1,600 awarding associate degrees and 2,400 awarding bachelors or even higher degrees. 400+ award research doctorates as well, according to official figures. 

Here are some of the major characteristics that are worth noting: 

  • Decentralization- The education system in USA is decentralized as per the Tenth Amendment of the Constitution. The Federal Government cannot formulate the national system and the power is allocated to the local and state authorities along with individual institutions. 
  • Education for Social Change- The American system believes in education being the remedy for various social evils. It is regarded as a positive aspect in transforming individual behaviors and attitudes. 
  • Social Mobility and Innovation- Education is vital in encouraging social mobility throughout the country and its society. It is also tailored towards encouraging greater curiosity, problem-solving, creativity, and critical acumen of learners. 

Primary and Secondary School 

There are several education levels in USA. The primary education system is the beginning of the formal education structure in the country. It is also known as the elementary education system in USA. This is followed by the secondary school system. School-level education is regarded as extensive across 12 years without any intermediate awards before secondary school is completed. 

The high-school diploma is the basic qualification given to students graduating from secondary school. They are given by the local districts or states to graduates of public schools and by schools to private school graduates. There are general high school diploma, vocational diploma and academic preparatory pathways that are available. IB programs are also popular across these schools. 

Grading System of the USA

The primary, secondary and higher education system in USA has its own distinct grading system. Here’s taking a look at the same: 

  1. Norm-Referenced Grading- They are based on pre-fixed formulas on the ratio of students in a whole class or percentage, who will be given each mark or grade. This may look like the following: 
A (Excellent)= Top 10 % of Class
B (Good)= Next 20 % of Class
C (Average, Fair)= Next 30 % of Class
D (Poor, Pass)= Next 20 % of Class
F (Failure)= Bottom 20 % of Class
  1. Criterion-Referenced Grading- In this system, a fixed numeric scale is used and mostly equated to a specific letter mark. The faculty gives grades based on individual student performance. An example can be the following: 
A (Excellent)= 95-100or90-100
B (Good)= 85-95or80-90
C (Fair)= 75-85or70-80
D (Poor)= 65-75or60-70
F (Failure)= -65or-60
  1. Alternative Grading- Some institutions have pass-fail systems of grading, when the student work is subjective without any standard accepted gradations. 
  2. Non-Graded Assessment- Some institutions also do not assign any letter or numeric grades as part of their policy. They only convert their assessments into acceptable formulae for authorities who need the same upon request. 

Levels of Study of the USA Higher Education System

There are several education levels in USA that should be noted. The higher education system in USA usually has the following: 

  1. Non-degree programs leading to diplomas or certificates. 
  • Six degree levels that are associate, bachelor, first professional, master, advanced intermediate, and research doctorate. 
  • A second or higher doctorate is not provided although post-doctorate research programs are available. 
  • Adult and continuing education programs are available across levels along with special education. 

Here is a glimpse of the major higher education qualifications in the USA: 

  • Intermediate Graduate Qualifications- These represent research and studies going beyond masters degrees, although they are not the same as research doctorates. They are mostly in professional study fields. These include advanced and specialist certificate programs and diplomas along with degrees like Doctor of Psychology, Doctor of Ministry, and so on. 
  • First Professional Degrees- They require students to have completed particular undergraduate coursework before enrollment and are perceived as graduate-level courses in the system. Degree holders may take up further graduate study in their fields. 
  • Bachelors degree- It is the common first qualification in the higher education system in USA. A bachelors degree usually needs four years of full-time study while some degrees may be completed in less than four years as well. 
  • Masters degree- It is the first graduate-level educational qualification and usually takes two years. The tenure may be more or less, depending on the structure and nature of enrollment. There are both research and professional masters degrees available too. 
  • Research doctorate degree- It is the Doctor of Philosophy or PhD degree or any equivalent title. They are advanced study programs that have various requirements. 
  • Postdoctoral research programs- There is no degree given after a PhD or any equivalent degree. However, advanced research programs are available for some specific fields. These are postdocs for biomedical science, natural sciences, and applied sciences. 

Type of Educational Institutes 

Here are some of the major types of institutions in the education system in USA with a few examples. 

Institution TypeWhat it MeansExamples
Public Schools State-accredited, funded, and approved schoolsNorth Carolina School of Science and Mathematics, Payton College Preparatory High School
Private SchoolsState-approved and accredited but non-funded private institutions Philips Academy Andover, Trinity School, New York, Horace Mann School, New York 
Public UniversitiesState-funded higher education institutionsUniversity of California, Los Angeles, University of Florida, University of Virginia, University of California, Berkeley
Private UniversitiesNon-funded by the state and rely majorly on tuition, endowments, and donationsDuke University, Rice University, Brown University 
For-Profit Private UniversitiesThey not only offer education but also generate revenue for stakeholdersUniversity of West Los Angeles, Grand Canyon University, DeVry University
Non-Profit Private UniversitiesPrivate but not focused on profitNorthwestern University, Bay Atlantic University, Georgetown University
Research UniversitiesFocused on research and can be both public and non-profit private universitiesUniversity of Michigan, Columbia University, Purdue University, John Hopkins University
Ivy League SchoolsEight elite institutions regarded worldwide for their academic prowess, selective admissions and overall statureHarvard University, Princeton University, Yale University, Columbia University, University of Pennsylvania, Cornell University, Dartmouth University, Brown University
Liberal Arts CollegesInstitutions with programs in social sciences, humanities, and sciencesWilliams College, Wellesley College, Pomona College
Community CollegesTwo-year institutions for higher education offering associate degrees, certificates, and diplomasSanta Barbara City College, West Valley College, Central Wyoming College 


Summing Up 
The education system in USA is well-developed, with a flexible and holistic approach towards learning and development. There are numerous options available for learners at every level, along with quality academic and research infrastructure.


Is the education system tough in USA?

The USA is regarded to have one of the world’s most advanced education systems. There are innumerable choices in terms of research and academics, while the system stands out for its dynamism and flexibility too. While it may appear tough, it is more focused on encouraging creativity, problem-solving, critical acumen, and learning at one’s own pace. 

How is the education system in USA ranked globally?

According to U.S. News global rankings, the USA is ranked at number 1 in the list of countries with the best higher education systems. It is followed by the UK, Germany, Canada, and France.  

What are the benefits of studying in USA?

Some of the biggest benefits of studying in the USA include plenty of choices in terms of academic programs, fields of study, and educational pathways in addition to flexible systems and advanced research and learning infrastructure. Other benefits include globally-renowned faculty, excellent support mechanisms for international students, and a friendly and welcoming community. 

upGrad Abroad Team

upGrad abroad Editorial Team

We are a dedicated team of study-abroad experts, ensuring intensive research and comprehensive information in each of our blogs. With every piece written, we aim at simplifying the overseas education process for all. Our diverse experience as journalists, content writers, editors, content strategists, and marketers helps create the most relevant and authentic blogs for our readers.

See More