Understanding the Higher Education System in the United States

If you are a foreign student looking to study in the United States, it is important to understand the American higher education system so that you can graduate on time and with minimal confusion. Designed to accommodate students from all backgrounds, it can be confusing for those who are unfamiliar with it. Unlike systems in other countries, the American system is unique and can be difficult to navigate with its own jargon.

Class or Course = Both terms are used interchangeably.

Major or Program = Can be used interchangeably; however, your “major” is the subject area you’ll earn your degree, while your program is the academic unit in which your major (and other majors) reside.

Credit hours = each course is worth a certain number of credits (or hours) based on the amount of time you can expect to spend in that class. Typically you’ll see one-hour courses (meets one time per week for one hour), three-hour courses (meeting one, two, or three times totaling about three hours per week), and four-credit hour courses (usually a lecture class with additional lab time). Most lecture-based classes are three credit hours.

The standard American four years degree is 120 credits hours of study and consists of 

  • “Core credits” are fundamental courses the university requires of all students. Typically, a bachelor’s degree will require a total of 39 core credit hours.
  • “Program major” are courses that are specific to your major. The number of program classes you have will depend on your major.
  • “Free Electives” are courses you can choose to explore and add academic depth to your college journey. The number of electives you’ll have depends on your major.

Double major = students can work to earn two majors in one degree. For example, you could earn a double major in cybersecurity and computer science with your Bachelor of Science degree. International students are allowed to double major.

Dual degrees = are when you’ve earned enough credit hours to two degrees, typically in different fields. International students are eligible for dual degrees with a minimum of 150 credit hours to graduate.

Full-time student = to graduate with your Bachelor’s degree in four years, you need to take an average of 15 credits per semester. However, a student is considered a full-time student if their course load for the semester is at least 12 credit hours. It’s not recommended that students take more than 18 hours per semester. International students are required to be full-time during their course of studies (fall and spring).

Online, On-Campus, and Hybrid classes = the majority of undergraduate courses will be offered in-person, on-campus. However, some classes will be offered online or in a hybrid format which is a mix of both online and in-person. As an international student, you are only allowed ONE online course during a specific term.

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Need Additional Help?

  • Academic Related questions (major, class registration, and course selection contact: Mary LeCluyse
  • For SEVIS and visa-related questions, contact: Michelle Driscoll
  • For housing-related questions, contact: Daniel Capp
  • For other inquiries or concerns, contact: Hanen Burkee

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