American Institutions of Higher Education

While characterized by great diversity, American institutions of higher education are classified in general as follows:

Undergraduate Study

Community and Junior Colleges: provide a two-year course beyond high school or secondary school. Courses are either “Terminal”, leading to employment, or “Academic”, preparing the student for transfer to a four-year college or university where he/she will complete his/her education. Graduates of junior colleges are usually awarded an Associate in Arts (A.A.) or Associate in Sciences (A.S.) degree.

A Technical Institute: offers a two- or three-year course of training for a semi-professional occupation, such as that of a dental, engineering or medical technician.

Terminal Occupational Education: offers one to three years of study beyond secondary level intended to prepare the student for immediate employment. Technical programs, also known as “Vocational” and “Organized Occupational” studies, do not prepare a student to continue higher education at a regular four-year college or university.

Liberal Arts College or University: offers a university education combining natural and social sciences as well as humanistic studies. The term “college” is often used where undergraduate study is concerned. The college may be part of a university which also has graduate and professional schools, or it may be an independent institution offering a Bachelor’s degree program, with little if any instruction at the graduate level. (Thus Harvard College is the undergraduate division of Harvard University; Vassar College, Amherst College and Sarah Lawrence College are examples of independent colleges, also called liberal arts colleges). The academic status of an independent liberal arts college may be just as high as a college which is part of a university.

Fine Arts and Music are often taught in the colleges and universities described above, but may also be available in specialized academies, schools and conservatories. See Directories at the Advising Center for information.

The Bachelor’s Degree: Four years of undergraduate study lead to a Bachelor’s degree in Liberal Arts or in Science, a B.A. or B.S. degree, and qualify the graduate to apply for admission to a graduate school. The Bachelor of Arts (B.A.) or Bachelor of Science (B.S.) degree is awarded on successful completion of a specified number of courses or units and the full degree requirement is usually stated as being 120 credits (about 4O courses) for institutions operating on a semester system, and 180 credits for a quarterly calendar. A Bachelor’s degree program is designed to last four years, the first year being called Freshman year, the second Sophomore, the third Junior, and the fourth Senior. Courses in the first two years are referred to as “lower division” courses and in the last two years as “upper division” courses.

Many institutions have experimented with a wide variety of amendments to the structure of their degrees in recent years. Nevertheless, the original pattern usually survives in some form and consists of:

  • General basic courses sometimes called “core courses”or “distribution requirements,” which must be taken by all students, usually during their first two years. These comprise about a third of the degree and they include subjects such as English, a foreign language, a natural science, social science and mathematics.
  • Courses in which a student wishes to “major”, i.e. specialize, which are mostly taken in the last two years and usually amount to a quarter or more of the total degree requirements.
  • “Elective courses” which the student chooses from any field.

Students from other countries do not necessarily enter an American college or university as freshmen (first-year students). They may be admitted by the college at a higher level or receive advanced standing, mainly through placement tests. Each college or university in the United States determines for itself the level of entry for each student. Students may sometimes complete a Bachelor’s degree in less than four years by (a) receiving credits for pre-college work (i.e. the European Baccalaurate) or (b) taking courses during the summer.

Graduate Study

Graduate and Professional Schools: Provide post-university study leading to the Master’s or doctoral degree.

1. The Master’s Degree

The M.A., M.S., M.B.A. and other professional Master’s degrees require a minimum of one academic year. More often 18 months or two years are needed. Although requirements for advanced degrees vary far more than for the Bachelor’s degree, some number of course credits is always required. The Master’s degree will usually require a minimum of about 30 credits up to a maximum of 60 credits, and an average grade of “B.”

2. The Doctorate Degree

The Doctorate Degree covers many fields of specialization and requires a minimum of three to four years of study beyond the Bachelor’s degree; two to four years of study after the Master’s degree. Most graduate schools do not require that a student fulfill the specific requirements for the Master’s degree before becoming a candidate for the Doctor’s degree, although many students find it desirable to do so. Doctorates in Education, Science and Law are sometimes labeled Ed.D., Sc.D., Jur.D., but most doctorates are known as Ph.D. (Doctor of Philosophy) degrees.

To obtain a Ph.D. degree or other doctorate the university generally requires that a student:

  1. Earn a certain number of credits in a required distribution of courses.
  2. Maintain an average grade of B.
  3. Pass a qualifying comprehensive examination after completion of the required courses.
  4. Pass examinations in one or more foreign languages.
  5. Present and defend a thesis which is the result of original research.
  6. Pass an oral examination.

For detailed information about American degrees, consult individual university catalogs or subject reference books in the Advising Center.


If one decides to study in the United States, one should always choose an institution which is “accredited.” An institution is accredited provided that its program of study, professors, and academic facilities meet the minimum standards established by an agency recognized by the Council on Postsecondary Accreditation and by the U.S. Department of Education. Accreditation by a regional agency, such as the Middle States Association of Colleges and Secondary Schools or the New England Association of Colleges and Secondary Schools, applies to the institution as a whole and may be awarded for up to four different levels: Associate degree; Bachelor’s degree; Master’s degree and Doctorate. Accreditation by a professional agency applies only to the relevant school or department; e.g., engineering schools are accredited by the Accreditation Board for Engineering and Technology. Foreign students should not enroll in degree courses in institutions or departments which are not accredited.

The Credit System

American degrees, both undergraduate and graduate, are earned on the basis of the number of courses successfully taken. Each course earns “credits” or “units”, which are known as credit hours, semester hours (for schools on the semester system), quarter hours (for schools on the quarter system) or merely hours or credits. The number of credits earned by each course relates to the number of hours of classroom work involved, but does not necessarily correspond exactly. For instance, a course meeting three times a week for an hour (actually 50 minutes) each time may be expected to give a student three hours credit for the semester or term. On the other hand, an intensive seminar may meet once a week for two hours and also be a three-credit course. Two or three laboratory periods are usually considered to be equivalent to one class “hour”. The undergraduate student program, known as an “academic load”, is normally 15-17 units a semester, or 12 to 15 units a quarter. The graduate student’s normal load is 9-12 units.

Grading System

Students are graded on course work completed, and most colleges and universities use letter grades as follows: A being excellent or outstanding; B means above average; C, average; D, below average; and F, failing. Roughly, the following percentage values and point scales are applicable:

An undergraduate student must maintain a C or 2.00 average in general and a B or 3.00 average in his or her major field in order to receive a degree.

Some schools may also use the “Pass/Fail” grading system in which there are only two possible grades. The student either passes and receives credit for the course or fails and receives no credit. Many schools combine both the “Pass/Fail Option” with the conventional grading system. In this case, a student may take a certain number of courses for a Pass or Fail grade, and his other courses using the conventional A – F grading system.

IMPORTANT NOTE: There are no real equivalencies between the Belgian and American grading systems. Therefore, when supplying U.S. universities with information on the courses you have taken here and the results, always give those results in their original form, i.e., 15/20. Do not attempt to translate the Belgian system into American terms.

A student’s academic standing is often measured by his or her grade point average (GPA). This is the average of the grades that a student has had for all his years of college or for each term. The grade point average is computed by dividing the total number of grade points by the total number of credit hours. For example, a student takes four 3-unit courses with the following results: Business 101 – A; Introduction to Business Law – B; Mass Media and Marketing – A; and Computer Science Techniques applied to Business – B.

Non-degree Students

Students wishing to take courses without enrolling for a degree may apply to register as “special students”. Colleges and universities are increasingly reluctant to accept “special students”, unless they are enrolled for a degree in some other institution and are seeking instruction which is not available in the other institution. Non-degree students do not have access to all the facilities that degree students are able to use, such as limited access to library and computer facilities, and often there is a limitation on the number of credits they can take.

Professional Training

Training for many professions may only be taken as postgraduate study. Thus a law degree takes three years after completion of a four-year Bachelor’s degree; medicine takes four years after a Bachelor’s degree, and social work two. In other professional fields such as dentistry, veterinary medicine and architecture, four years of general college work is usually required before admission to the four-year professional program.