Higher education in the United States: Wikis


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Higher education in the United States refers to a variety of institutions of higher education in the United States. Strong research and funding have helped make American colleges and universities among the world's most prestigious, which is particularly attractive to international students, professors and researchers in the pursuit of academic excellence. According to the Shanghai Jiao Tong University's Academic Ranking of World Universities, more than 30 of the highest-ranked 45 institutions are in the United States (as measured by awards and research output).[1] Public universities, private universities, liberal arts colleges, and community colleges all have a significant role in higher education in the United States. An even stronger pattern is shown by the Webometrics Ranking of World Universities with 103 US universities in the Top 200.

According to UNESCO[2] the US has the second largest number of higher education institutions in the world, with a total of 5,758, an average of more than 115 per state. The US also has the highest number of higher education students in the world, a figure of 14,261,778,[3] or roughly 4.75% of the total population. The U.S. Department of Education shows 4,861 colleges and universities with 18,248,128 students in 2007.[4]

Harvard University: Harvard Yard with freshman dorms in the background.

The 2006 American Community Survey conducted by the United States Census Bureau found that 19.5 percent of the population had attended college but had no degree, 7.4 percent held an associate's degree, 17.1 percent held a bachelor's degree, and 9.9 percent held a graduate or professional degree. Only a small gender gap was present: 27 percent of the overall population held a bachelor's degree or higher, with a slightly larger percentage of men (27.9 percent) than women (26.2 percent).[5] However, despite increasing economic incentives for people to obtain college degrees, the percentage of people graduating high school and college has been declining as of 2008.[6]

The survey found that the area with the highest percentage of people 25 years and over with a bachelor's degree was the District of Columbia (45.9 percent), followed by the states of Massachusetts (37 percent), Maryland (35.1 percent), Colorado (34.3 percent), and Connecticut (33.7 percent). The state with the lowest percentage of people 25 years and over with a bachelor's degree was West Virginia (16.5 percent), finishing below Arkansas (18.2), Mississippi (18.8 percent), Kentucky (20 percent), and Louisiana (20.3 percent).[7]

According to the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, in 1995 alone, U.S. universities granted 2,142 licenses and options to license patented technology, most of them exclusive; 169 start-up companies were formed in 1995 (more than 1,100 from 1980-95), for which such exclusive patents were the key. The licensing of university-research spin-offs adds more than 150,000 jobs to the U.S. economy each year.



The American university system, like the primary and secondary education system, is largely decentralized, in large part because the Tenth Amendment to the United States Constitution reserves all powers not granted to the federal government or explicitly denied to the U.S. states "for the States respectively, or to the people." Such a degree of autonomy in higher education is rare.

American universities have developed independent accreditation organizations to vouch for the quality of the degrees they offer. The accreditation agencies rate universities and colleges on criteria such as academic quality—the quality of their libraries, the publishing records of their faculty, and the degrees which their faculty hold. Nonaccredited institutions are perceived as lacking in quality and rigor, and may be termed diploma mills.

Colleges and universities in the U.S. vary in terms of goals: some may emphasize a vocational, business, engineering, or technical curriculum while others may emphasize a liberal arts curriculum. Many combine some or all of the above.

The Technology Classroom Building at Portland Community College

Two-year colleges (often but not always community colleges) usually offer the associate's degree such as an Associate of Arts (A.A.). Community colleges are often open admissions, with low tuition. Four-year colleges (which usually have a larger number of students and offer a greater range of studies than two-year colleges) offer the bachelor's degree, such as the Bachelor of Arts (B.A.) or Bachelor of Science (B.S.). These are usually primarily undergraduate institutions, although some might have limited programs at the graduate level. Many students earn an associate's degree at a two-year institution before transferring to a four-year institution for another two years to earn a bachelor's degree.[8]

Four-year institutions in the U.S. which emphasize the liberal arts are liberal arts colleges. These colleges traditionally emphasize interactive instruction (although research is still a component of these institutions). They are known for being residential and for having smaller enrollment, class size, and teacher-student ratios than universities. These colleges also encourage a high level of teacher-student interaction at the center of which are classes taught by full-time faculty rather than graduate student teaching assistants (TAs), who do teach classes at Research I and other universities. Most are private, although there are public liberal arts colleges. In addition, some offer experimental curricula, such as Hampshire College, Beloit College, Bard College at Simon's Rock, Pitzer College, Sarah Lawrence College, Grinnell College, Bennington College, New College of Florida, and Reed College.

University of California Office of the President in Oakland, California

Universities are research-oriented institutions which provide both undergraduate and graduate education. For historical reasons, some universities—such as Boston College, Dartmouth College, and the College of William & Mary—have retained the term "college," while some institutions granting few graduate degrees, such as Wesleyan University, use the term "university." Graduate programs grant a variety of master's degrees—such as the Master of Arts (M.A.), Master of Science (M.S.), Master of Business Administration (M.B.A.), or Master of Fine Arts (M.F.A.)—in addition to doctorates such as the Ph.D. The Carnegie Classification of Institutions of Higher Education distinguishes among institutions on the basis of the prevalence of degrees they grant and considers the granting of master's degrees necessary, though not sufficient, for an institution to be classified as a university.[9]

Some universities have professional schools, which are attended primarily by those who plan to be practitioners instead of academics (scholars/researchers). Examples include journalism school, business school, medical schools (which award either the M.D. or D.O.), law schools (J.D.), veterinary schools (D.V.M.), and dental schools. A common practice is to refer to different units within universities as colleges or schools (what is referred to in other countries as faculties). Some colleges may be divided into departments–such as an anthropology department within a college of liberal arts and sciences within a larger university.

California State University, Office of the Chancellor in Long Beach, California

Except for the United States service academies and staff colleges, the federal government does not directly regulate universities, although it can give federal grants to them. The majority of public universities are operated by the states and territories, usually as part of a state university system. Each state supports at least one state university and several support many more. California, for example, has three public higher education systems: the 11-campus University of California, the 23-campus California State University, and the 109-campus California Community Colleges System. Public universities often have a large student body, with introductory classes numbering in the hundreds and some undergraduate classes taught by graduate students. Tribal colleges operated on Indian reservations by some federally recognized tribes are also public institutions.

Many private universities also exist. Among these, some are secular while others are involved in religious education. Some are non-denominational and some are affiliated with a certain sect or church, such as Roman Catholicism (with different institutions often sponsored by particular religious orders such as the Jesuits) or religions such as Lutheranism or Mormonism. Seminaries are private institutions for those preparing to become members of the clergy. Most private schools (like all public schools) are non-profit, although some are for-profit.

University of Notre Dame's historic quad in Notre Dame, Indiana with the "Golden Dome" of the administration building visible

Tuition is charged at almost all American universities, except 1) the five federally-sponsored service academies, in which students attend free and with a stipend in exchange for a service commitment in the U.S. armed forces after graduation; and 2) a few institutions where offering tuition-free education is part of their mission, such as Cooper Union, Berea College and Olin College. Public universities often have much lower tuition than private universities because funds are provided by state governments and residents of the state that supports the university typically pay lower tuition than non-residents. Students often use scholarships, student loans, or grants, rather than paying all tuition out-of-pocket. Several states offer scholarships that allow students to attend free of tuition or at lesser cost; examples include HOPE in Georgia and Bright Futures in Florida.

Most universities, public and private, have endowments. A January 2007 report by the National Association of College and University Business Officers revealed that the top 765 U.S. colleges and universities had a combined $340 billion in endowment assets as of 2006. The largest endowment is that of Harvard University, at $29 billion.[10]

The majority of both liberal arts colleges and public universities are coeducational; the number of women's colleges and men's colleges has dwindled in past years and nearly all remaining single-sex institutions are private liberal arts colleges. There are historically black colleges and universities (HBCUs), both private (such as Morehouse College) and public (such as Florida A&M).

"College" versus "university" terminology

The facade of the main building of the University of Texas at Austin

In the United States, the term college is frequently used to refer to stand-alone higher level education institutions that are not components of a university as well as to refer to components within a university. Stand-alone institutions that call themselves colleges are universities in the international sense of the term. Typically in the United States, a university is composed of an academically-diverse set of units called schools or colleges, whereas a college—whether it is a stand-alone institution of higher learning or a component within a university—typically focuses on one academic sector that is self-chosen by that institution, where that college is composed of departments within that sector. Note that the multiple colleges or schools comprising a university are typically collocated on the same university campus or near each other on adjacent campuses within the same metropolitan area. Unlike colleges versus universities in other portions of the world, a stand-alone college is truly stand-alone and is not part of a university is also not affiliated with an affiliating university.

Each institution may choose from several different schemes of organization using the terms, in most-macroscopic to most-microscopic order: university, college, school, division, department, and office. To illustrate the finer points of how these terms are used, consider four example institutions:

  • Purdue University is composed of multiple colleges—among others, the College of Agriculture and the College of Engineering. Of these Purdue breaks the College of Agriculture down into departments, such as the Department Agronomy or the Department of Entomology, whereas Purdue breaks down the College of Engineering into schools, such as the School of Electrical Engineering, which enrolls more students than some of its colleges do. As is common in this scheme, Purdue categorizes both its undergraduate students (and faculty and programs) and its post-graduate students (and faculty and programs) via this scheme of decomposition.
  • Compare this to Brown University, which is composed of one college (The College, which is for undergraduates) and two schools (the Graduate School, which is for post-graduate students, and the Medical School, which is for the preparation of medical doctors).
  • Likewise, Dartmouth College is a stand-alone institution that names itself using the college term, but is organized similarly to Brown University with undergraduates enrolled in Dartmouth College (directly) and Dartmouth College containing three graduate schools that enroll the post-graduate students: the Tuck School of Business, the Thayer School of Engineering, and Dartmouth Medical School.
  • Compare this to an entirely-undergraduate liberal-arts college that is a stand-alone institution, Carleton College, which is composed of only the college that contains departments for arts, languages, natural sciences, and physical sciences. Carleton is a pure example of a stand-alone college in the USA sense of the term “college”. Carleton confers no graduate degrees. Carleton has no schools that focus on a non-liberal-arts mission, such as a school of technology or engineering or nursing. Analogous to the Purdue University’s use of the term college, Carleton College is an academic sector composed of related departments that share a common liberal-arts philosophy of education. Analogous to the Brown and Dartmouth uses of the term college, Carleton College is entirely undergraduate.

In the Purdue University example, a college as a component of the university is a topical decomposition, focused on an academic sector of directly-related academic disciplines. In the Brown University example, a college as a component of the university focuses on the undergraduate mission. In the Dartmouth College example of a college as a stand-alone institution, a college focusing on the undergraduate mission is the prevailing but distinct identity of what is arguably a university when the collective of college and schools are considered. In the Carleton College example, the purest example of the USA's use of the term college is displayed in two ways:

  • a homogeneous collection of academic-discipline departments that are unified under a common philosophy of education; and
  • an undergraduate focus on four-year degrees.

Admission process

In 2009, UCLA became the most selective public university in the United States.

Students can apply to some colleges using the Common Application. There is no limit to the number of colleges or universities to which a student may apply, though an application must be submitted for each. With a few exceptions, most undergraduate colleges and universities maintain the policy that students are to be admitted to (or rejected from) the entire college, not to a particular department or major (This is unlike college admissions in many European countries, as well as graduate admissions.) Some students, rather than being rejected, are "wait-listed" for a particular college and may be admitted if another student who was admitted decides not to attend the college or university. The five major parts of admission are ACT/SAT scores, GPA, College Application, Essay, and Letters of Recommendation[11]. Not all colleges require essays or letters of recomendation, though they are often proven to increase chances of acceptance.


Two well known college and university rankings guides offer annual issues which rank colleges and universities. They are the U.S. News & World Report [3] and The Washington Monthly's "College Rankings" issue.[4]


2007 movement

On 19 June, 2007, during the annual meeting of the Annapolis Group, members discussed the letter to college presidents asking them not to participate in the "reputation survey" section of the U.S. News & World Report survey (this section comprises 25% of the ranking). As a result, "a majority of the approximately 80 presidents at the meeting said that they did not intend to participate in the U.S. News reputational rankings in the future." [12] However, the decision to fill out the reputational survey or not will be left up to each individual college as: "the Annapolis Group is not a legislative body and any decision about participating in the US News rankings rests with the individual institutions." [13] The statement also said that its members "have agreed to participate in the development of an alternative common format that presents information about their colleges for students and their families to use in the college search process." [13] This database will be web based and developed in conjunction with higher education organizations including the National Association of Independent Colleges and Universities and the Council of Independent Colleges.

On 22 June 2007, U.S. News and World Report editor Robert Morse issued a response in which he argued, "in terms of the peer assessment survey, we at U.S. News firmly believe the survey has significant value because it allows us to measure the "intangibles" of a college that we can't measure through statistical data. Plus, the reputation of a school can help get that all-important first job and plays a key part in which grad school someone will be able to get into. The peer survey is by nature subjective, but the technique of asking industry leaders to rate their competitors is a commonly accepted practice. The results from the peer survey also can act to level the playing field between private and public colleges." [14]In reference to the alternative database discussed by the Annapolis Group, Morse also argued, "It's important to point out that the Annapolis Group's stated goal of presenting college data in a common format has been tried before [...] U.S. News has been supplying this exact college information for many years already. And it appears that NAICU will be doing it with significantly less comparability and functionality. U.S. News first collects all these data (using an agreed-upon set of definitions from the Common Data Set). Then we post the data on our website in easily accessible, comparable tables. In other words, the Annapolis Group and the others in the NAICU initiative actually are following the lead of U.S. News." [14]


An Ohio University professor and member of the Commission on the Future of Higher Education, has been a vocal critic of how institutions of higher education are financed. He claims that tuition increases have rapidly outpaced inflation; that productivity in higher education has fallen or remained stagnant; and that third-party tuition payments from government or private sources have insulated students from bearing the full cost of their education, allowing costs to rise more rapidly.[15]

Another issue is the rising cost of textbooks.[16] There are textbook exchanges for students who will accept a used text at a lower price.

Many students lack the financial resources to pay tuition up front and must rely on student loans and scholarships from their university, the federal government, or a private lender.[citation needed] All but a few charity institutions charge all students tuition, although scholarships (both merit-based and need-based) are widely available. Generally, private universities charge much higher tuition than their public counterparts, which rely on state funds to make up the difference. Because each state supports its own university system with state taxes, most public universities charge much higher rates for out-of-state students. In 2002, state governments gave their state colleges a total of $66 billion to partially subsidize students tuition. The average tuition then of a state college was $4,081 annually for a four-year college. The average cost of a private school was $18,273.[17]

The total cost of all higher education in 2002 was $289 billion.[17]

Annual undergraduate tuition varies widely from state to state, and many additional fees apply.In 2009, average annual tuition at a public university (for residents of the state) was $7,020.[18] Tuition for public school students from outside the state is generally comparable to private school prices, although students can often qualify for state residency after their first year. Private schools are typically much higher, although prices vary widely from "no-frills" private schools to highly specialized technical institutes. Depending upon the type of school and program, annual graduate program tuition can vary from $15,000 to as high as $50,000. Note that these prices do not include living expenses (rent, room/board, etc.) or additional fees that schools add on such as "activities fees" or health insurance. These fees, especially room and board, can range from $6,000 to $12,000 per academic year (assuming a single student without children).[19]

College costs are rising at the same time that state appropriations for aid are shrinking. This has led to debate over funding at both the state and local levels. From 2002 to 2004 alone, tuition rates at public schools increased by just over 14 percent, largely due to dwindling state funding. A more moderate increase of 6 percent occurred over the same period for private schools.[19] Between 1982 and 2007, college tuition and fees rose three times as fast as median family income, in constant dollars.[20]

To combat costs colleges have hired adjunct professors to teach. In 2008 these teachers cost about $1,800 per 3-credit class as opposed to $8,000 per class for a tenured professor. Two-thirds of college instructors were adjuncts. There are differences of opinion whether these adjuncts teach better or worse than regular professors. There is a suspicion that student evaluation of adjuncts, along with their subsequent continued employment, can lead to grade inflation.[21]

Government coordination

Every state has an entity designed to promote coordination and collaboration between higher education institutions. A few are listed:

Student exchange

262,416 American students studied outside the country in 2007-8. 671,616 foreign students enrolled in American colleges in 2008-9.[22]


U.S. Government Accountability Office (GAO) investigations revealed the relative ease with which a diploma mill can be created and bogus degrees obtained.[23] Records obtained from schools and agencies likely understate the extent to which the federal government has paid for degrees from diploma mills and other unaccredited schools. Many agencies have difficulty in providing reliable data because they do not have systems in place to properly verify academic degrees or to detect fees for degrees that are masked as fees for training courses. Agency data obtained likely do not reflect the true extent to which senior-level federal employees have diploma mill degrees. This is because the agencies do not sufficiently verify the degrees that employees claim to have or the schools that issued the degrees, which is necessary to avoid confusion caused by the similarity between the names of accredited schools and the names assumed by diploma mills. It was found that there are no uniform verification practices throughout the government whereby agencies can obtain information and conduct effective queries on schools and their accreditation status.

See also


  1. ^ The Academic Ranking of World Universities formula was based on alumni winning Nobel Prizes and Fields Medals (10 percent), staff winning Nobel Prizes and Fields Medals (20 percent), "highly-cited researchers in 21 broad subject categories" (20 percent), articles published in the journals Nature and Science (20 percent), the Science Citation Index, Social Sciences Citation Index, and Arts and Humanities Citation Index (20 percent) and the size of the institution (10 percent).
  2. ^ http://www.aneki.com/universities.html
  3. ^ http://www.aneki.com/students.html
  4. ^ "The Almanac of Higher Education". The Chronicle of Higher Education LVI (1): 5. August 28, 2009. 
  5. ^ "Educational Attainment." American Community Survey and Puerto Rico Community Survey, 2006. United States Census Bureau.
  6. ^ [1]." Outside the Belt Way, 20068. Outside the Belt Way Blog.
  7. ^ "Percent of People 25 Years and Over Who Have Completed a Bachelor's Degree: 2006." American Community Survey and Puerto Rico Community Survey, 2006. United States Census Bureau.
  8. ^ Beth Frerking, Community Colleges: For Achievers, a New Destination, The New York Times, April 22, 2007.
  9. ^ "Basic Classification Technical Details". Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching. http://www.carnegiefoundation.org/classifications/index.asp?key=798. Retrieved 2007-03-20. 
  10. ^ "NACUBO Endowment Study" (PDF). January 2007. http://www.nacubo.org/documents/research/2006NES_Listing.pdf. 
  11. ^ US Application Process2009
  12. ^ Jaschik, Scott (20 June 2007). "More Momentum Against ‘U.S. News’". Inside Higher Ed. http://www.insidehighered.com/news/2007/06/20/usnews. 
  13. ^ a b "ANNAPOLIS GROUP STATEMENT ON RANKINGS AND RATINGS". Annapolis Group. 19 June 2007. http://www.collegenews.org/x7131.xml. 
  14. ^ a b Morse, Robert (22 June 2007). "About the Annapolis Group's Statement". U.S. News and World Report. http://www.usnews.com/blogs/college-rankings-blog/2007/6/22/about-the-annapolis-groups-statement.html#read_more. 
  15. ^ Vedder, Richard (July 2004). "Going Broke by Degree: Why College Costs Too Much". American Enterprise Institute. http://www.aei.org/books/bookID.780,filter.all/book_detail2.asp. 
  16. ^ http://www.nytimes.com/2005/09/04/business/yourmoney/04text.html?_r=1&scp=2&sq=textbook%20exchange&st=cse
  17. ^ a b Linda Gorman (2009-12-05). "State Education Subsidies Shift Students to Public Universities". National Bureau of Economic Research. http://www.nber.org/digest/dec03/w9720.html. 
  18. ^ Michelle Singletary (2009-10-22). "The Color of Money:Getting through college these days almost requires a degree in thrift" (in English). Washington Post. pp. 20A. http://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-dyn/content/article/2009/10/21/AR2009102103664.html?sub=AR. 
  19. ^ a b Tuition Levels Rise but Many Students Pay Significantly Less than Published Rates. The College Board (2003). URL accessed on June 20, 2005
  20. ^ Broder, David S. (columnist) (December 7, 2008). College affordability about future. Burlington Free Press (and other column subscribers). 
  21. ^ Clark, Kim (November 17-24, 2008). Does it Matter That Your Professor Is Part Time?. US News and World Report. 
  22. ^ Marklein, Mary Beth (16 November 2009). "More U.S. students groing abroad, and vice-versa". USA Today. pp. 5D. http://www.usatoday.com/news/education/2009-11-16-opendoors16_ST_N.htm. 
  23. ^ [2]

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