Demystifying the US higher education system

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The United States offers a plethora of options for just about everything, including where to attend college or university. There are 4 726 institutions of higher learning to choose from, and 19 per cent of the country’s university students are international (although fewer than three per cent are from Sub-Saharan Africa).
by DAN BROTMAN | Nov 16, 2016

An American undergraduate degree typically takes four years, and is equivalent to a South African honours and sometimes a masters degree. Unlike in South Africa, American universities do not require that undergraduate and graduate degrees match. For example, your child can graduate with a BA in English and then attend Law School. 

Masters programmes are generally two years, although there are many programmes that offer a joint undergraduate and graduate degree in a shorter period of time. Professional degrees (such as law, medicine, accountancy, etc) are only offered at the masters or doctorate levels, unlike in South Africa.

Dan LOWresThe US follows the liberal arts approach to education meaning that undergraduates take a range of elective classes in addition to the university’s core graduation requirement courses. By the end of their second year, they will have hopefully found their passion and declare major(s) and minor(s).

RIGHT: Author Dan Brotman

In many colleges and universities, students can pursue as many majors or minors as they desire. For example, it would be possible to graduate with a BA in international relations and psychology and a minor in communications.

When selecting a college or university, your child must first reflect on what type of institution best meets his/her intellectual, social and financial needs. Community colleges offer two-year associates degrees, and it is best to choose one that has an existing articulation agreement with the state university system.

This means that he/she can transfer credits from a two-year associates degree to a state university, and spend another two years completing their four-year undergraduate degree. This winds up being a cheaper financial option and allows students to forgo taking the SAT or ACT entrance exams.

Private universities may be a more expensive option. They may, however be better resourced to provide financial aid, and can thus wind up costing the same as attending a public university.


Most liberal arts colleges are private. They focus more on undergraduate degrees and emphasise developing intellectual capabilities (such as critical thinking, reading, writing, etc).

Liberal arts colleges generally have the best student-to-teacher ratios, and often have no more than 20 students in a class.


All 50 states support at least one public university system, which offers significantly reduced tuition for in-state residents. Like out-of-state students, international students have to pay higher tuition than in-state students.

Depending on financial aid packages, public universities can be less expensive than private universities. State universities tend to have larger class sizes, although many have exclusive honours colleges, which offer the small class sizes and pedagogy of a liberal arts college.

There are many ways to obtain academic credits outside of class, which can also save money on tuition. Some academic programmes require that students take part in an "international experience" during their studies, which can mean undertaking a for-credit internship abroad or studying in another country for up to one year.

I obtained the equivalent of a semester worth of credits when I came to South Africa to do a three-month internship at the Cape Town Refugee Centre. One can also do local for-credit internships, as well as take core graduation requirement courses at a community college, which charges much lower tuition than a four-year institution.

An F-1 student visa enables international students to work up to 20 hours per week during the academic year, and up to 40 hours per week during university breaks. Shortly before graduation, international students can apply for an Optional Practical Training (OPT), which allows them to work for up to one-year in a job in their related field. 

Students who studied science, technology, engineering and/or mathematics (STEM subjects) are eligible to apply for OPT for up to 17 months.

By the time I turned 23, I graduated summa cum laude (top two per cent) from the University of Oregon, had been awarded numerous scholarships and academic grants, wrote an academically published thesis, and was selected to participate in one of the country’s most competitive paid internship programmes at Nike World Headquarters.

While I started my undergraduate degree (tuition-free for new immigrants) in Israel, I managed to successfully transfer those credits to the University of Oregon when I returned to the US. This meant that I was able to complete a four-year degree at an American university in just 1.5 years and only pay 1,5 years' worth of tuition. 

If your child is interested in pursuing a university education in the US, it is essential that families understand all the institutional options, admission requirements and financial aid opportunities before undertaking such a significant investment.

 Given the enormous competition from students around the world to get into US universities, your child's chances of both being admitted and receiving financial aid significantly increase when one visits these universities in-person and develops one-on-one relationships with the relevant decision-makers. 


Dan Brotman is a director at En-novate, a company co-founded with Investec that links globally-minded individuals to opportunities around the world through bespoke trips. En-novate is running a first-ever trip for South African families to New York and Boston at the end of January to look at colleges and universities for their children. For more information, visit or e-mail [email protected]


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