Student and Graduate Publishing

USA Undergraduate Degrees for International Students

Wednesday, 16 April 2014 14:13

By Stephanie Augustin

 - Of 819,644 foreign scholars in America, the Open Doors 2013 report by the Institute of International Education (IIEE) found that for the 2nd year running, international undergraduates have outnumbered international graduate students. This is due to factors such as financial aid, degree of flexibility, partnerships with USA institutions, and more recognition of foreign qualifications.

The American education system is unique in its flexibility. Unlike the UK and many other countries that train students for standardised tests like the A Levels, high schools in the USA award diplomas to students based on internal exams. Admission into two-year colleges and universities depends on scores in external tests like the ACT or SATs.

On top of that, unlike the UK which charges international non-EU and EU students much more than local students, USA tuition fees are across the board, unregulated, and up to each college. What does this mean for international students? Simply put, no matter where you come from, your age, career goals, or your budget, getting an undergraduate degree from the USA is possible. Here is a guide to understanding the USA undergraduate system.


year institutions
By far the most popular destination by the international cohort because it is the most recognisable, there are 2,870 such universities and colleges to choose from. From Ivy League members such as Harvard, Princeton, Dartmouth, and Cornell to public universities like California State University and University of Texas, four-year institutions follow a similar system.

• Freshman and sophomore years: In these first 2 years, students will be taught a broad range of subjects like history, languages, social and natural sciences, and mathematics. This gives them time choose a specialty or career path. At this stage, students can load their coursework with elective subjects on top of core modules as long as they complete a minimum 60 credit hours.

• Junior and senior years: The latter half is when students declare majors (the main focus of their degree) and minors (specialisation within the major, or an unrelated subject of interest). Modules will then be more focused on a certain subject and specific tracks. Depending on the type of degree (BA or BS), there will be less course flexibility at this point.

• Specialisation: If you have chosen a career that requires professional qualifications, like engineers, doctors, and lawyers, you may need more time to study for professional papers or be required to take additional SAT Subject Tests in the subject of your choice.

• Flexible study: Ambitious students have actually managed to graduate quicker in 3 years by loading on more subjects and specialising earlier on. If you are looking to apply to one of these universities, approach each individual admissions office via email or check the website.

• Accelerated entry: If your GPA, SAT, and TOEFL English language scores are high, you may even gain accelerated entry into the course of your choice, depending on what educational qualifications are recognised by individual colleges.

• Financial aid: Due to annual fees ranging from $10,000 to $50,000, both merit and need-based scholarships abound. Americans take their college sports teams seriously, so if you are strong in a specific sport check with your target universities for a possible sports scholarship.

year community colleges
Many international students strapped for cash tend to put off their USA study until the postgraduate years, but in recent times, two-year community colleges awarding Associate Degrees in Arts (AA) and Science (AS) have grown more popular due to the global downturn. The American Association of Community Colleges reported more than 146,500 international students enrolled across 1729 community colleges in 2012.

While also flexible, two-year colleges have lower English language and GPA requirements, are considerably cheaper, and are a great way to get international students used to the culture of choosing modules. It is equivalent to the first 2 years of a four-year program, as associate degree holders can transfer to junior years at four-year institutions.

• Associate in Arts (AA): Psychology, Journalism, Business, Information Technology, Education, and History are common AA specialisations offered by many colleges. For instance, in Business you may take several General core units, but additional units will be specific to the humanities, social sciences, and mathematics tracks.

• Associate in Science (AS): Subjects such as Engineering, Mathematics, Physics, Chemistry, and Biology are offered. For example, Engineering students will have to take more credit hours in the natural sciences, mathematics and IT tracks than the social sciences.
• Chosen route: Many top universities source international students from recognised community colleges for their track record of academic performance, so if you have a particular university in mind, check their website for most-sourced affiliate colleges. Some universities already have pre-existing transfer arrangements, as long as you have the minimum GPA score.

• Cheaper study: Yearly fees can be as low as $2,000 to $9,000 depending on the community college you choose, so financial aid is rare. You can also choose to take a gap year or work, before continuing on to a BA or BS.

Find out about postgraduate study in the USA.