International Student and Scholar Services

Higher Education in the United States


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Higher Education in the U.S.
In the United States, students begin "higher education" after completing 12 years of primary and secondary education. Institutions of higher education include two-year colleges (known as "community" or "junior" colleges), four-year colleges, universities, institutes of technology, vocational and technical schools, and professional schools such as law and medical schools. Higher education is available in public and private institutions, institutions affiliated with religious groups, and profit-making institutions. Size varies, too. Some excellent colleges enroll fewer than a thousand students; some large universities enroll fifty thousand or more students. Because post-secondary institutions in the United States are not regulated or managed by the federal government, their philosophy, policies, and practices vary considerably. In the paragraphs that follow we focus on the most common degrees.

Undergraduate Education
The undergraduate bachelor's degree typically takes four years to complete. At most institutions the four years are known as the freshman, sophomore, junior, and senior years of undergraduate study. Many students complete their first two years at a junior or community college, earning an associate degree, and then transfer to a four-year college or university to complete two more years for a bachelor's degree. The curriculum of many undergraduate programs is based on a "liberal arts philosophy" that requires students to take courses from a range of subjects to form a broad educational foundation. During the first two years, students have the opportunity to explore various fields of study such as social sciences, humanities, and natural or physical sciences. These courses are often called a "core curriculum" or "general education." By the end of the second year, students at many institutions are asked to choose a specific field of study-known as the "major"-on which to focus for the remainder of the undergraduate program. Students then spend the remaining two years taking more courses directly related to their major. Students who major in certain fields such as business, engineering, or science find that the curriculum is more tightly structured than it is in the humanities or social sciences. Business, science, and engineering majors may have to take more courses related to their major field of study and have fewer "elective," or optional, courses.

Graduate Education
Graduate education can result in a variety of degrees. The most common include the master's in arts (MA), sciences (MS), business administration (MBA), fine arts (MFA), law (LLM), social work (MSW), and specialist in education (EdS). The most common final degrees are doctorates in a variety of fields (PhD), education (EdD), science (DSc), and religion or divinity (DD). Master's degrees are the most frequently awarded graduate degrees, usually obtainable after one or two years of graduate-level study. A doctorate usually takes five to seven years to complete. It may take less time to obtain a doctorate if you enter the doctoral program with a completed master's degree. Unlike undergraduates, graduate students begin specialized study on the first day of classes. You will be required to take certain courses and may be allowed as few as two or three electives.

Credits and Grades
UM-St. Louis uses a credit system in which each course is allotted a specific number of "credit hours," representing the number of hours the students in the course spend in class each week. In the United States, a normal course load for undergraduate students is 12 to 15 credit hours per semester, or 4 to 5 courses. This means that you will be in the classroom between 12 and 15 hours each week, or more if you take courses requiring labs or studio work. Graduate students usually take 6 to 12 credit hours each semester.

Academic performance in each course is evaluated by the professor using number or letter grades. At the end of the semester you will receive a number of credits corresponding to the courses you have successfully completed. Your credit hours are multiplied by your grades to determine your "grade-point average" (GPA). GPA's provide a general indication of your overall academic performance and are used by admissions offices and employers interested in your academic history. The grading system used by most colleges and universities to evaluate students' academic performances is based on a four-point scale, with .3 variations for plus and minus grades (i.e. an A- equals 3.7, while a C+ equals 2.3):

A=4.0 B=3.0 C=2.0 D=1.0 F=0

Undergraduates are expected to complete their studies with a C average or better; graduate students are expected to complete their studies with no less than a B average.

Transfer Credits
It is occasionally possible to obtain credit for work you have done at another university. While it is a relatively easy process for transfer credits from other American universities, it becomes more difficult with foreign universities. To obtain transfer credit, you will need to have at least a syllabus and list of books used for each class you would like credit for. Come to ISSS for more information about this process.

Academic Advising
Take advantage of opportunities to meet with an academic advisor or faculty member to discuss your academic choices. Although the staff in ISSS usually cannot offer academic advice, we can help you to find the right person at UM-St. Louis to do so.

Undergraduate students can go to the University Advising Center in 225 MSC for assistance with choosing classes, developing an educational plan or learning about majors and minors at UM St. Louis. The following academic units also have advisors available: College of Business 487 SSB, Engineering 228 Benton Hall, College of Nursing 235 Administration Building, and the College of Education 155 Merillac Hall.

Graduate students are assigned a faculty member as an academic advisor. Academic advisors offer you information, guidance, and advice throughout your academic program. They may provide this information in a group setting with other students or in private sessions with you. Without the advice of your academic advisor, you may take incorrect courses, resulting in problems later. Specifically, academic advisors identify degree requirements and help you balance your course load, so you do not take too many demanding classes in one semester. They can also tell you which classes have "prerequisites" or other restrictions. Your academic advisor may guide and supervise your thesis or dissertation preparation.

Seek the advice of your academic advisor at any time to discuss important educational issues. If you have difficulties in a particular course, your academic advisor can help you find the assistance you need. Some academic advisors are not aware of immigration regulations relating to your academic course load, so you should always discuss academic changes with an international student advisor as well.

Registering for your courses typically involves a series of preparatory steps. The most important items you need are the University Bulletin (, a course schedule (, and a registration guide. These publications will outline the procedures for registration, the dates of registration, and the cost and payment schedules for the courses you choose.

UM-St. Louis requires students to register for courses after they have arrived on campus. If you are unable to register during the normal registration period, contact ISSS for advice.

During registration you not only register for courses, but also enroll in the mandatory health-insurance plan. After registering, go to the Admissions Office to receive your student identification card, which will give you access to the computer labs, library, and sports center, as well as public transportation in the St. Louis area.