The role of and background to higher education in the USA

7.1 Education is highly-prized by the citizens of the USA and this is reflected in the 7.5 per cent of gross domestic product spent on education, amounting in 1994-95 to just over $500 billion. About 60 per cent of the education spend is on schools and 40 per cent on post secondary education.

7.2 Education in the USA is organised on three principal levels: elementary, secondary and post-secondary. Compulsory elementary education starts at the age of six years, compared with five years in the UK. Post-secondary education is the term used to embrace all education post-school including higher, adult and technical education. The term ‘higher education’ covers the provision made by two- and four-year colleges, universities and professional schools. The philosophy underlying this system is that of a liberal education, an ideal which extends into the first two years of university. The high degree of specialisation which occurs in the UK from the age of 16 is quite alien to this approach.

7.3 In Autumn 1995 about 73 million people, out of a total population of 263 million, were engaged in some form of education either as employees (8 million) or pupils/students (65 million). Enrolments in higher education, at just over 14.4 million, included 11.3 million in public and 3.1 million in private institutions. Thirty-nine per cent of higher education enrolees were aged 21 and under, and 31 per cent were aged 30 and above. Undergraduates accounted for 86 per cent of the enrolments; graduates 12 per cent; and first professional candidates, 2 per cent. Just over 5.5 million students attended two-year public and private higher education institutions of whom about 3.5 million were part-time. Of the nearly nine million students attending four-year colleges, just over three million were part-time. In 1994-95, 540,000 associate degrees; 1.2 million bachelor’s degrees; 400,000 master’s degrees; and 40,000 doctor’s degrees were awarded. In 1994, 22 per cent of the USA population of 25 years of age and older had received four years of college education.

7.4 Each state has the right and responsibility to organise and operate its education system as it deems appropriate. The role of the federal government in education is to provide financial support and leadership on educational issues of broad national concern. The work of the US Department of Education is supported by a number of advisory bodies which, with few exceptions, are specifically related to a single education programme authorised by Congress.

7.5 Public education at school level is funded principally from taxes generated at local, state and federal levels. In higher education funding is obtained from both public and private sources and from tuition fees. Private institutions receive government aid but they are, for the most part, financially autonomous.

7.6 One of the great advantages USA higher education institutions have over their UK counterparts is the wide range of funding sources on which they can draw. For example, in recent years cut backs in state and federal government funding have been compensated for by increases in tuition fees and at least in one state, Florida, by contributions to the recurrent funding of higher education from the state lottery. Additionally, education and capital building programmes in Virginia are funded through state bond issues.

7.7 Higher education programmes are offered in both public and private institutions. These are generally classified as two-year and four-year institutions. A four-year institution is legally authorised to offer at least a four-year programme of studies leading to a bachelor’s degree. A university is a four-year institution which typically comprises two or more professional schools e.g. medicine, law, engineering. A two-year institution, often termed community college, is legally authorised to offer at least a two-year programme of studies leading to an associate degree. In 1994-95, there were 3,688 two- and four-year institutions of which 1,473 were two-year and 2,215 four-year institutions. 156 of these were universities (Table 7.1) and just over 200 are doctoral – awarding. The State governments have been particularly successful in controlling academic research drift in the four-year institutions.

7.8 Higher education institutions in the USA offer four principal qualifications: the associate degree, which requires at least two-years college level work; a bachelor’s degree, which can normally be earned in four years; a master’s degree, requiring a minimum of one year’s study beyond the bachelor’s degree; and a PhD, which requires a minimum of four years’ study following the bachelor’s degree. In general, higher education courses aim for breadth of study, are modular in nature and assessment is based on regular tests, coursework, assignments and end of unit examinations. Professional schools for the study of subjects such as medicine and law differ widely in the requirements for admission and length of study programmes. Medical students, for example, generally complete a four-year programme of pre-medical studies before they enter the four-year programme at medical school. The academic requirements for the award of a degree are shown in Table 7.2.

7.9 One programme credit is achieved by a student who attends, for example, one lecture of one hour’s duration each week throughout a semester (half an academic year). Courses involving laboratory work are not so generously rated and two to three hours of laboratory work per week often rate only one programme credit. A full-time student on an associate degree is expected to study for about 15 semester credit hours over a period of four semesters; one on a bachelors degree is expected to study for about 15 semester hours over a period of eight semesters.

7.10 Degree programmes consist of a compulsory core plus major and minor specialist programmes of study. A student has some choice within the compulsory core and more extensive choice among the major and minor specialisms. It is not usually necessary to choose the major specialism until some time in the second year of the bachelor degree programme. The range of subject choice and attendance patterns are flexible. The latter is necessary because many students often finance their way through college by taking part-time employment. In state universities and community colleges, the majority of students have some form of paid employment, which is often provided or organised by the higher education institution.

7.11 The first two years of the bachelor’s degree, known as the freshman and sophomore years, have a core content of general education with some specialisation. They lead to the award of an associate degree in arts or sciences, when taken at a two-year community college, and this can be used as a qualification in its own right. This is particularly the case with the associate degree in applied sciences which is designed for those intending to enter the workforce as technicians or high level operatives. About two-thirds of associate degrees are of the applied type, the most popular programmes being in business studies, health and engineering technologies. The last two years of the degree programme, known as the junior and senior years, are devoted to specialist studies and the student will major in a chosen specialism taking the required minor courses in support of the major specialism.

Access and participation

Admissions to higher education
7.12 The existence of 51 states, each with a statutory right and responsibility to operate its educational system, makes it difficult to both monitor and maintain standards of awards across the USA. Since there are no national criteria on standards, American universities and colleges use a range of screening devices to select their students for admission. Criteria used to select students include their achievement in the high school diploma, the reputation of the school attended and the recommendations of school teachers. One of the key determinants of students’ acceptability is the admissions testing programme. There are a number of such tests including the scholastic assessment tests (SAT I), the American College Testing (ACT) programme and the advanced scholastic assessment tests (SAT II) which help colleges decide an applicant’s suitability for a bachelor degree programme. Additionally, outstanding high school pupils may follow advanced placement test (APT) programmes. APTs earn students degree credits in advance of going to university. The Graduate Record Examination (GRE) is used to determine suitability for a graduate programme of study.

7.13 The SAT I is a multiple choice test that measures verbal and mathematical reasoning with student performance measured on a scale of 200 to 800. The SAT I is a good predictor of performance in the freshman year, but there is no strong correlation with performance in the final stages of the bachelor degree programme. Additionally, the better four-year colleges expect students to undertake the advanced placement tests which are designed to measure knowledge in a specific subject area and the ability to apply that knowledge. The mean scholastic assessment test scores of entrants in the nine universities visited are shown in Table 7.3.

7.14 Community colleges form a distinctive and important part of the system. They introduce flexibility at a local level and can accommodate a wide range of students, many of whom were not successful at high school for one reason or another and are looking for a second chance. Entry requirements are not stringent and some of the work is essentially remedial. The average age of students is around 29 years. Increasingly, American students are opting to take the first two years of their bachelor degree programme in two-year community colleges. This is made possible by the articulation agreements between many state universities and the state’s community colleges which have entered into agreements through which students undertaking associate degree studies at the community college are given full credit towards their bachelor’s degree for all credits achieved during their associate degree studies. In three of the states visited, Florida, Maryland and New York State, the state had legislated to guarantee junior level status to all associate degree graduates of the state’s community colleges. In all three states, admission via this route doubled the size of the bachelor degree programme. Interestingly, in Virginia, where transfer between two- and four-year institutions is encouraged but is not backed up by legislation, transfers from the state’s community colleges to the junior year of the state university are at a lower level of about 10 per cent. Even Harvard University, an elite institution with an international reputation, in 1996 admitted 100 freshmen out of a total intake of 1,600, from the community college sector, with some credit transfer.

7.15 Such transfer arrangements offer a number of benefits to the student. These include the lower cost of tuition in the two-year colleges, the ability to remain at home whilst studying at the local two-year college and the greater emphasis placed on teaching by faculty staff in the two-year colleges.

7.16 Sixty-two per cent of the 2.5 million who graduated from high schools in the USA during 1994 continued their education in college – 22 per cent in two-year and 40 per cent in four-year colleges. Of these freshmen, 1.31 million were white, 162,000 black, 87,000 were of Hispanic origin and 805,000 were women. About 40 per cent of those enrolled in USA institutions of higher education are aged 18-21, 17 per cent 22-24, 14 per cent 25-29 and 29 per cent 30 years and above.

7.17 Although many American high school graduates continue their education in either two- or four-year colleges, it is common for college students to enrol, leave, possibly return and not finish their study programme in the minimum period of time. For example, only about one quarter of first year community college students continued for a second year, eight per cent pursuing a bachelor's degree in another institution and 17 per cent continuing at two-year college. Of those who complete two years of college education about one third continue their education: 22 per cent pursue a bachelor's degree at a four-year institution, six per cent remain at the two-year college; and two per cent pursue other forms of post-secondary education.

7.18 Table 7.4 illustrates the relatively low completion rates in all forms of USA post-secondary education. Completion rates in the minimum period, ie two years for the associate degree and four years for the bachelor’s degree, at 12 per cent and around 50 per cent, respectively, are low by UK standards. The data in Table 7.4 are incomplete for the 1989 cohort who would not complete their four-year programme until 1993. However, the retention rate in Spring 1992 on bachelor degree programmes is consistent with what we were told during our visit, namely that the success rate on the bachelors programme was about 50 per cent in the minimum four years rising to about 70 per cent after six years. The reason generally advanced for these low completion rates in four years was the need for students to work at the same time as they studied in order to meet the costs of their higher education tuition fees and subsistence.

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