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Updated 14 Aug 2018

The US has over 4,000 degree-granting institutions, which opens up an amazing wealth of opportunities for expats moving to the country with children approaching college age. Though the sheer magnitude of options can seem daunting, a bit of research and background knowledge can make it easier to narrow down the school selection process and focus on specific applications.

Note that Americans tend to use the words "college", "university" and even "school" quite interchangeably; therefore the term used in normal conversation may not necessarily denote a difference in size, quality or category.

There are three kinds of institutions that new arrivals in the US ought to consider.


Community colleges in the USA

Community colleges grant graduates an associate’s degree (AA/AS) after two years of study, often at significantly lower cost than at four-year institutions. Many of the courses offered by community colleges are vocational – auto mechanics, secretarial training, medical technology, paralegal education, etc. But they will also offer many courses that will allow students to transfer to four-year institutions after two years. These represent the lowest rung of tertiary education in the United States.


Colleges in the USA

Colleges are institutions that grant bachelor degrees (BA/BS) and in a few instances also master's degrees (MA/MS). They tend to be smaller in size, and they vary quite dramatically in selectivity and in quality. Some of them are state institutions, though the majority are privately owned and run. There are some colleges run by specific religious groups, and also a few women’s colleges.


Universities in the USA

 Universities also award bachelor degrees but in addition, they grant master's and doctoral degrees as well (PhD). Universities tend to be larger – some state schools may have tens of thousands of students – they often have very good research facilities. International students are welcomed at universities countrywide, but some universities may charge higher fees for non-US nationals.


Tertiary education funding in the USA

The universities and colleges in the US tend to be well-financed and often have a number of scholarships or financial aid available to supplement tuition. Though expat children don't usually qualify as easily as American citizens, there are still opportunities available that are worth researching. Additionally, expats should check with government and private organisations in their country of origin to see if a child can take advantage of any available financing.

Andrea Our Expat Expert

After attending high school in Johannesburg, I did both undergraduate and postgraduate studies at Wits. I left South Africa in 1987, and now live in Northern California. Prior to moving to here, I had spent ten years serving as an admission officer for an Ivy League university on the East Coast, reading and evaluating applications from every corner of the globe. Now I have joined the group College Goals, where I work as an independent college admission consultant, counselling client families across the world on the American college application process.

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