'The more you learn, the more you earn", said the pop singer Cyndi Lauper as she accepted her high school diploma -- at the age of 35! Although Cyndi made it without a high school degree, most people don't. In the USA today, about 75% of jobs require some education or technical training beyond high school. The lowest wage earners in the USA are those without high school degrees; college graduates out earn those without a college education; people with master's degrees outearn those with only a bachelor's: and the highest incomes of all are earned by people with advanced professional or academic degrees. These generalizations explain why the majority of young Americans go to college. However, despite the average, more diplomas don't always mean more money. Many skilled blue–collar workers, salespeople, business executives, and entrepreneurs outearn college professors and scientific researchers. And great athletes and entertainers outearn everyone else!
But college education is not only preparation for a career; it is also (or should be) preparation for life. In addition to courses in their major field of study, most students have time to take elective courses. They may take classes that help to understand more about human nature, government, the arts, sciences, or whatever else may interest them.
Going to college, either full-time or part-time, is becoming the automatic next step after high school. Today, more than half of American high school graduates enroll in college. But recent high school graduates no longer dominate the college campuses. Today it is quite common for adults of all ages to come back to college either for career advancement or personal growth.
American faith in the value of education is exemplified by the rising number of Americans who have at least a bachelor's degree. About 20% of Americans are college graduates. However, among younger adults and working people, the percentage is at least 25%, much higher than in most other major nations. In the USA, a college education is not viewed as a privilege reserved for the wealthy or the academically talented. Virtually everyone who wants to attend college can do so.
American colleges and universities vary a great deal in size. Some colleges have student bodies of just a few hundred, while some state universities serve more than 100,000 students on several different campuses. At smaller schools, students generally get to know their classmates and professors better and are less likely to feel lonely and confused. Larger schools offer a greater selection of courses and more activities to attend and participate in. When selecting a college, the student must consider which type of environment best suits his or her needs.
There are two main categories of institutions of higher learning: public and private. All schools get money from tuition and from private contributors. However, public schools are supported primarily by the state they're located in. On the other hand, private schools do not receive state funding. As a result, tuition is generally lower at public schools, especially for permanent residents of that state.
Schools can also be grouped by the types of programs and degrees they offer. The three major groups are community colleges, four-year colleges, and universities. Community colleges offer only the first two years of undergraduate studies (the freshman and sophomore years). The number of these schools has grown very rapidly in the past 40 years. In l950, there were about 600 in the USA. Today, there are about l,300, and they serve about five million students (about 55% of all college freshmen). Most community colleges are public schools, supported by local and/or state funds. They serve two general types of students: (a) those taking the first two years of college before transferring to a four-year school for their third and fourth (junior and senior) years; and (b) those enrolled in one- or two-year job training programs. Community colleges offer technical training in many areas of study, such as health services, office skills, computer science, drafting, police work, and automotive repair.
Newcomers to the USA often ask, "Exactly what is the difference between a college and a university?" Some assume that the difference is merely one of size, but it is much more than that. A university is bigger than a college because the scope of its programs is much greater. A university offers a wider range of undergraduate programs and also offers graduate studies. Part of the responsibility of a university is to encourage its faculty and its graduate students to do research that will advance human knowledge. Colleges, on the other hand, are primarily undergraduate schools with no commitment to train students for research.
Many excellent colleges are liberal arts schools, which means that they offer studies in the humanities, languages, mathematics, social sciences, and sciences. Liberal arts colleges generally do not offer degrees in engineering, business, journalism, education, and many other specific vocations that a student can train for at a university. However, students at a liberal art colleges (like college students elsewhere) still major in a specific area of knowledge.
Some colleges specialize in training students for one particular occupation (as agricultural colleges and teacher's colleges do). Many specialized undergraduate institutions that are not called colleges also provide higher education in one specific occupation - for example, conservatories for music students, seminaries for students of religion, and fine arts schools for artists. For those wishing to prepare for military careers, the United States government maintains four special academies.
At the college level, the academic year is about nine months long (usually from September until early June or from late August until May). After completing four academic years with acceptable grades in an approved course of study, the student earns a bachelor's degree. Some students complete college in less than four years by attending summer sessions. At most colleges, the academic year is divided into either two or three terms, excluding the summer session. College grades, from highest to lowest, run A, B, C, D, and F. An F is a failing grade; if a student receives an F in a particular course, he or she does not get credit for having taken the course. College students must maintain at least a low C average in order to remain in school.
American universities offer three main categories of graduate degrees. In most fields of specialization, a master's degree can be earned by one or two academic years of study beyond the bachelor's degree. A Ph.D. degree (Doctor of Philosophy) usually takes at least three years beyond the master's. To earn a Ph.D. in almost any field, generally the student must pass oral and written examinations in his or her speciality, produce a long research paper which makes an original contribution to his or her field of study, and pass reading examinations in one or two foreign languages. There are also graduate professional degrees in medicine, dentistry, and law, among other fields.
In recent years, the graduate student population has become much more diversified than even before. It now includes more women, foreign students, minority group members, older students, and part-time students. Also, the variety of degree programs offered has expanded greatly. Today's graduate students can choose from about l,000 types of master's degrees and about 60 types of doctorates.