CBO - Winter 2018

Exploring All Options: the wide variety of higher education choices in the United States

There are more than 4,700 U.S. higher education institutions (HEIs) in the United States, compared to approximately 100 universities and 150 colleges and institutes in Canada. With thousands more options available, it is no surprise that there is a wide variety of U.S. post-secondary opportunities. Let’s explore how Canadian and U.S. HEIs differ, in order to understand the possibilities available south of the border.

Canadian colleges vs. U.S. two-year colleges

Canadian colleges and U.S. two-year colleges are similar in that they offer diplomas or study concentrations in both academic training (for university transfer) and technical training (for entry into the job market). Typically, a U.S. two-year college will be called “community college” or “junior college,” but this is not always the case. In Florida, all the two-year colleges are indicated by either “state college” like Seminole State College, or by the region they are in like Miami Dade College. While the overall concept of two-year colleges is similar to Canada, there are several major differences, including admissions requirements, transfer agreements, and degree types.

In Canada, the admissions requirements for college programs can sometimes be quite strict, and include not only that a student has taken very specific high school coursework, but also that they have achieved at least a minimum grade in certain subject matter. This can lead to students needing to do additional academic upgrading after finishing high school, if they have not met the proper prerequisites for the college course of study which interests them. On the contrary, in the United States, community colleges are open enrollment, with the exception of a few impacted majors/fields, such as Nursing. What this means is that a potential student only needs a high school diploma or equivalency, like the GED, in order to enroll. Thus, community colleges serve as the institutions where students do academic upgrading in the United States, which often includes remedial academic and language courses.

In the United States, community colleges have been designed as transfer institutions in order for students to improve their academics, save on tuition, or both. It is common for U.S. students to choose to live at home in order to save thousands of dollars in tuition and living costs, and then transfer to a four-year institution to complete their final two years to receive a Bachelor’s degree. Community colleges are funded by U.S state tax payers, and they often have agreements with state-funded universities. For example, in California, Community colleges have a 2+2 program called Transfer Admission Guarantee (TAG), which guarantees admissions to seven California campuses and many private and out-of-state campuses. Students are eligible for TAG if they complete a certain set of required classes while maintaining a high GPA (minimums different for each institution). This program is also open to international students.

In Canada, colleges grant a wide variety of diplomas, certifications, and degrees, which sometimes includes Master’s degrees or certificates. In the United States, community colleges only award Associate’s degrees, known as Associate of Arts (A.A.) or Associate of Science (A.S.). Typically, if the Associate degree is specifically for transfer it will have a “T” at the end, i.e. Associate Degree for Transfer (A.D.T.). These programs require 60 units to graduate and are meant to be completed in two years. Community colleges also offer certificates, which tend to be programs that are 30 units or less.

Canadian and U.S. universities (four-years)

Compared to universities in the rest of the world, U.S. and Canadian universities share many commonalities. The strongest of which is the expectations of the students. Both systems require that students speak up in class, answer questions, and challenge the professor. The school year, semester system, testing structure, and performance expectations are closely related. This means that a student who would like to study abroad during their undergraduate or perhaps complete a graduate degree in the United States will not feel a large culture shock in their new classroom. However, there are many ways that the two countries HEIs differ from one another, including admissions requirements, public vs. private institutions, and liberal arts colleges.

Admissions requirements

Admissions processes for Canadian and American undergraduate programs are incredibly different from each other, which can be shocking to Canadian families. In Canada, universities will only look at a small number of your grades. For example, in Ontario, universities only consider your top grades in six “U” level courses. Then, to be admitted to the university, you must achieve a certain minimum average, as well as taken prerequisite coursework, depending on the major. Lastly, your scholarship dollars are also linked to a student’s grades. Even though Canadian students have International Baccalaureate (IB) and Advanced Placement (AP) courses available to them, they are not necessarily advantaged in the Canadian admissions process.

In the United States, however, the admissions process is holistic and takes into account all of a student’s grades during high school (Grades 9-12), as well as any other activities the student is involved in, like sports, arts, clubs, paid work, volunteering, religious activities, and/or travel. Because U.S. universities assess the whole student, there are many more application requirements. Besides submitting transcripts and an application, U.S. universities may require the following: standardized tests (SAT or ACT, SAT Subject Tests, and/or proof of English language proficiency), letters of recommendation, essays/personal statements, and a list of extracurricular activities. Because of all the requirements a student must meet, it is a great idea for students to begin their research on which schools they want to apply to and begin standardized testing in Grade 11. Application deadlines in the United States begin around November 1st of their Grade 12 year, so Grade 11 is also the most important academic year in the U.S. admissions process.

U.S. admissions officers are looking to admit students who are active in their communities, who have demonstrated leadership, and who are participating at a high level in an activity outside of their studies. This has been referred to in the past as being “well-rounded.” This phrase is becoming more and more passé, but the underlying idea is that U.S. institutions see value in the B+ students who are incredibly active and successful in other endeavors in their schools or communities. Additionally, another big difference is that students apply to the university, rather than the program of study. This means that there is a lot more flexibility in specific prerequisite classes. Rather, the emphasis is put on how the student has perform academically over time, and if they have challenged themselves with AP courses or the IB curriculum, when available.

Public vs. private institutions

In Canada, almost all four-year universities are public, whereas the private institutions are mostly technical and career college focused. The United States is very different in this regard. With no national Ministry in charge of uniformity across American institutions, absence has created space for diversity. While the United States has public institutions that are regulated and at least in-part funded by individual states, there is also a wide variety of private institutions.  Private institutions include research universities, technical institutes, arts institutes, religiously-affiliated colleges, and liberal arts colleges.

Identifying which schools are public vs. private by name alone can be a challenge. There are some rules that you can follow, but just like French grammar, there are always exceptions! First, the large, public, research-focused, doctorate-granting institution in any given state is usually called “The University of [state name].” For example, the University of Michigan or the University of Kansas. One big exception is Pennsylvania, where the University of Pennsylvania is a private school part of the Ivy League, and the public school system is called Penn State. Second, the medium to large sized, public, Master’s or doctorate-granting institutions in any given state typically have the word “state” in their name. In Minnesota, the “state” universities, like Bemidji State University, tend to have a larger focus on career-orientation.

Third, the word “institute” indicates an institution that specializes in either technology or the arts, and is always private. Technology institutes tend to only have majors in the Sciences, although larger institutes, like Rochester Institute of Technology, will have some Social Sciences options in order to provide an interdisciplinary approach to science majors. Arts Institutes mostly award Bachelors of Fine Arts (B.F.A) degrees. B.F.A.’s differ from traditional Bachelors of Arts (B.A.) or Bachelors of Sciences (B.S.) in that the degree focus is more on practical application of the art, rather than theory. For example, a B.F.A. is Creative Writing will include many more classes that require the student to produce original works, whereas a B.A. in Creative Writing will have more classes in reading literature and theorizing about the subject matter. Admissions to an Arts Institute oftentimes relies heavily on a student’s portfolio or an audition.

Last, the word college does not just mean two-year schools in the United States. College can also be used to indicate smaller, teaching focused, private, Bachelor’s only institutions. There are two major types of four-year colleges in the United States: liberal arts and religious-based. Think of these two categories as a Venn diagram. There are many religiously-based colleges that also consider themselves to be liberal arts schools. On the flip side, not all private institutions have a religious affiliation, or, in many cases, the institution may have been founded under a religious faith, but the institution no longer strongly associates the school’s teachings with religion. Harvard University is an excellent example of a school that was originally founded to train clergyman, and is named after the first benefactor, clergyman John Harvard. However, the university now is not considered religiously-affiliated, although it does have a strong College of Theology. This example, bring us to the last usage of the word college. Oftentimes the division of schools within a university are called “colleges.”

Liberal Arts Colleges

Unique to the American education system, liberal arts colleges are four-year universities that serve small, undergraduate populations (sometimes with limited or no graduate programs) and have curriculums that encourage exploration and interdisciplinary studies. The goal of liberal arts schools are to provide small class sizes where students have a lot of one-on-one instruction with professors who will challenge students to hone their critical thinking skills. Many liberal arts colleges allow students to wait until the end of their second year to declare a major. While others, like College of the Atlantic, allow students to be the designers of their course requirements on route to their degrees.

Additionally, liberal arts colleges consistently top the list as the most generous institutions when it comes to financial aid. Approximately 65 universities in the United States meet 100% demonstrated need for international students. This means that a family gives their financial information to the university during the application process and the school will determine the amount the student is expected to pay towards tuition and living costs. For low-income families, these schools are absolutely the most affordable. Table 1 provides data on the top 10 most generous universities to international students, published by U.S. News and World Report on October 2, 2018.

(Reference: https://www.usnews.com/education/best-colleges/the-short-list-college/articles/universities-that-offer-international-students-the-most-financial-aid)

Finding the right choice

Now that you understand what is out there, how do you help a student find the right choice for them? At EducationUSA, we use the following to really help narrow down the options for students to make the search process fun, rather than overwhelming. First, determine the answers to the following questions:

  1. How much financial aid will your family require? This is absolutely one the most important first questions to ask a student. The more aid a student needs, the more this will restrict their list. The number one place international students receive aid is from the university that they attend, so it is very important to consider the generosity of a universities scholarship policy during the search process.
  2. What are is your Grade average and test scores? Every school has a middle 50% range of where their current students scored on standardized tests and performed academically in high school. The website collegeboard.org publishes a lot of data around this to help students see which schools may be an academic fit.
  3. How far from home do you want to be or is there a specific location you are targeting? If a student wants to easily be able to come home from holidays, it makes sense to narrow the search to schools within drivable distance or perhaps near an accessible airport. Additionally, there are some students who target a specific location due to affinity for a city or ties to family or friends.

Now that you know your initial parameters for the student (financial, academic, physical), start asking questions to determine what kind of campus environment will best suit the student and their interests.

  1. Do you know what you want to study? Some students will have a very strong sense of what they want to major and maybe even minor in. Others may be more flexible or completely unsure; liberal arts schools or schools that encourage students to enter undecided can be a good fit these students.
  2. Do you have a narrow focus or do you want to explore? Students who want to do coursework solely in their field may be more attracted to institutes or universities with specialty colleges for their field. While students who want to explore will appreciate a liberal arts approach.
  3. Big classes or small classes? Do you mind classrooms with hundreds of students, or would you prefer more intimate conversations with professors? Public universities tend to have much larger class sizes, while private schools have smaller class sizes.
  4. What campus activities do you want to be involved in? Do you want the atmosphere of the “big game?” The opportunity to join Greek life? Do you prefer quirky traditions? A more “artsy” vibe? A political leaning? Is there a specific club you want to join? Or, are you not sure and just want a lot of options?
  5. Would you like your campus to have a religious affiliation? Many private, liberal arts schools are currently or were once affiliated with specific religions. Understanding the denomination of an institution (if it has one) and what role religion currently plays in the everyday lives of students will help narrow your search. All public universities are completing unaffiliated with religion.
  6. Would you like a women’s only or a historically black college or university (HBCU)? Gender only colleges and institutions with a strong link to the African American community began out of necessity, when education was segregated by gender and race. Now, these campuses with a very unique history provide a learning environment unavailable in Canada.

Once you have these answers, you and your student can start narrowing down what kind of campus and learning environment will be the best fit! For additional support in this process, you can always use EducationUSA resources and advising resources found at educationusacanada.ca.