Introduction to the US Higher Education System


This article is adapted from an article in a blog by SMAK 1 Penabur alumni aimed to help SMAK 1 students apply to schools in the US. It is not meant to be an exhaustive article on the US education system. It is co-authored by Jordan Kho, PhD student in Developmental Biology at the Baylor College of Medicine; and Nico Jonathan, UC Berkeley Mechanical Engineering alumni. All opinions our own.

The United States’ higher education system generally follows the liberal arts philosophy, which means it believes in the freedom of the students. If you study in the United States, you don’t have to select your major until you’re in the second or third year, so you will have a chance to try out many different classes.

This is different from the education system in Indonesia. In our country, high school graduates have to choose their major and stick with it until they graduate from college. Yet most high school students know little about what they want to do when they just finish high school. Studying in the US provides better opportunity for exploration.

Types of educational institutions

This is the first thing you need to know. Unlike di Indonesia, there are three main types of higher education institutions in the United States:

  1. Community colleges – Two years, no bachelor degree. After two years, you have to transfer to colleges that award bachelor degrees. Examples of community colleges are Diablo Valley Community College and North Seattle Community College.
  2. Colleges – Four years, award bachelor degrees. All “colleges” without the term “community” in front of them offer bachelor degrees.
  3. Universities – A university is an institution that consists of a college (which offers bachelor degree) and graduate schools (which offer masters and doctorate degrees). So Yale University consists of Yale College, Yale Graduate School, Yale School of Music, Yale School of Architecture, etc.

In other words, you don’t “apply to a university”; you apply to a college in a university.

Community colleges

As mentioned, a community college is a two-year transit from high school to college. After two years, you have to transfer to a college to obtain a bachelor degree.

Two things are very important to note here:

  1. You don’t have to go to a community college before you go to a college. It’s a very common thing to do among Indonesian high school students, but we’re telling you now that it’s an option, not a necessity. You can apply straight to a college if you so choose.
  2. Aside from the classes you take, two years of community college do not equal two years of college. Community colleges are very different from colleges!

Here we split the differences in four sections.

1. Financing

Community colleges ask for lower tuition fee compared to colleges.

  • In 2009, Diablo Valley Community College cost ~$3,000 per semester vs. UC Berkeley’s $15,000.
  • In 2009, North Seattle Community College cost ~$2,700 per quarter vs. University of Washington’s $7,700.

The figures for colleges are higher, but this is not always the case. If you receive financial aid, colleges can be cheap or even free. If you want to find out more about financial aid in schools, contact their financial aid offices.

Also remember that among colleges, public schools and private schools cost differently. Public schools are government-funded institutions (e.g. Universitas Indonesia in Indonesia), while private schools are private institutions (e.g. Bina Nusantara University in Indonesia). Public schools could be cheaper than private schools. Public schools usually have their states as part of their names, e.g. University of California at Berkeley, University of California at Los Angeles, University of Texas at Austin. Schools such as MIT, Harvard, and Yale are private schools.

2. Classes

Quality: Similar. In general, classes in community colleges are of comparable qualities to classes in colleges, but community colleges may not have as wide a variety to select from. For instance, the material science class at the Diablo Valley Community College cannot be transferred to the University of Michigan as the class does not teach a chapter covered in Michigan. This is why some transfer students need to take extra classes once they transfer to colleges.

Grading: Easier in community colleges. Tests in community colleges are easier than tests in colleges. The grading system is also different: grading in community colleges are similar to grading in most Indonesian high schools (anyone with a score above 90 gets an A,  80-90 a B, and so on). Colleges usually use curves, meaning your grades depend on your classmates. If the class average is 96, for instance, anyone with a score of 96 gets a B, above 96 an A, below 96 a C.

Variety and availability of classes: Community colleges have fewer selection, but the classes are easier to get into. Community colleges are not as big as colleges and are less financially endowed, so they have fewer classes to select from. At the same time, there are fewer students at community colleges so it’s easier to get into the classes you want.

Class size: Classes in community colleges and private colleges tend to have fewer people than classes in public colleges. Community colleges have both small classes (~40-50 people per class) and big classes (up to 100+ people). Colleges vary depending on whether they’re private or public: private schools are similar with community colleges, whereas public schools tend to have really big classes (~750 students per class) because they have to accommodate more students.

Why is class size important? Because it affects your student-teacher relationship. Professors in small classes get to know you well and can mentor you, while professors in big classes are unlikely to know your name if you don’t ask questions — they will, however, answer your e-mails and have office hours when you can visit them to ask questions.

3. Opportunities and resources

Research opportunities: Normally there’s little research opportunity at community colleges because there’s no funding. Colleges, on the other hand, have more money. Not everyone has to do research, but if you’re thinking of graduate school (a master’s or doctorate degree) in the future, it can give you a plus point. Students’ involvement in research also grows over time –you are given more responsibilities the longer you stay in research–so it’s better to go to a college directly if you’re interested in research.

Lab classes: Depends on which community college. Normally the laboratories in community colleges are not as well-equipped as the ones in colleges as they have less resources, but some community colleges are also well-funded. The main point: choose your community college wisely if you want to do lab work.

Extracurricular activities
: Fewer in community colleges. There are fewer students at community colleges so the variety of extracurricular activities is also limited. Colleges have a lot more, ranging from sports to music to politics. Extracurricular activities are not compulsory, but they’re great to make friends, network with people, and learn about a particular subject. All of us highly recommend it!

4. Admissions

Acceptance rate: It’s easier to get into a community college. Community colleges accept almost 100% of their applicants, while colleges accept only ~15-20% of theirs. The higher the school’s rank, the harder it is to get in. For instance, Harvard’s acceptance rate is ~7%.

This is the case because community colleges exist to give people a second chance. If you need to brush up on your English, they provide ESL (English as a Second Language) classes for you to learn English. If your high school grades aren’t that good, you can start over. Remember, though, that transfer rates from community colleges vary:

  • Some colleges are friendly to transfers and accept many transfer students each year. Examples: Berkeley, Cornell, Michigan.
  • Some colleges accept very few transfer students (near 0), so your chance is higher if you apply directly as first-year students.

So think about this when considering your ideal school.

Major: You don’t have to decide your major when you enter community college or college, but you have to choose when you transfer. In a transfer application, you must specify the major you want and you cannot change it. Sometimes you can specify second and third choices, but it’s really hard to write one personal statement that covers all three majors.

Standardized tests: You don’t have to provide SATs score to get into community college, while it’s necessary for college. Community colleges also accept lower TOEFL scores compared to colleges. Transferring requires SATs.

Deadlines: Community colleges have much later, more flexible deadlines than most colleges.


Additional information

Grades: You can only keep your grades from community colleges before you transfer to a college. After transferring, you start over and you graduate with whatever GPA you obtain in college.

Choosing the “right” community college
: Community colleges sometimes act as “feeder” to colleges in the same state, meaning that community colleges have their own track records of sending graduates to certain colleges. An example is Diablo Valley Community College and UC Berkeley: both are in California and DVC is a “feeder” school for UC Berkeley, so UC Berkeley accepts more transfer students from DVC than other community colleges each year. This means that most classes from DVC are transferable to Berkeley. Knowing “feeder” schools can save you time and money so that you don’t have to take extra classes in college.

5. Finally, some very important advice

Don’t just follow other people. Not everyone has to start with community colleges, not everyone wants to go straight to colleges. Choose a place that fits your needs, don’t just follow your friends. This is your life and you need to start thinking carefully about your future. Remember that anywhere you go, you will make new friends.

Don’t let the education agents choose for you. Some education agents tell students to go to community colleges regardless of whether you need or want it.If you are certain that you want to apply directly to colleges, do it.

There is no easy option. Going to a community college does not make your life easier. Even though it’s easy to get in, the transfer process to colleges is difficult. Adjusting to life in a community college might be easier, but you will have to transfer and you will have to do adjust to a new life again in college. You will be separated from your friends in community college as they will go to different schools.

On the other hand, applying directly to college is also tough. If you don’t receive financial aid, college is expensive, and classes can be difficult. The truth is neither community college nor college is easier than the other: you will have to adjust to a new life wherever you go.

Don’t give up. If your grades are mediocre, community college can give you a second chance. You will need to work very, very hard, but you can still transfer to a great school.

Colleges and Universities

Now that you know the differences between community colleges and colleges, there are two types of colleges:
  1. Colleges under universities – These are colleges under universities such as Yale, Harvard, Princeton, Pennsylvania, Berkeley. All these universities offer masters and doctorate degrees.
  2. Liberal arts colleges – Theses are colleges that do not offer masters and doctorate degrees, only bachelor, e.g. Amherst, Williams, etc. (Don’t be confused because these colleges have the same name with the “liberal arts philosophy” we mentioned above. They are called “liberal arts colleges” because most of them adopt the liberal arts philosophy.)

You can visit to see the list of colleges under both types and see the rankings.

Why do people choose colleges under universities? Because they have more resources. Universities are better endowed and may provide financial aid. They also allow you to take graduate school classes. There are also more professors teaching in these colleges.

Why do people choose liberal arts colleges? Because they are smaller in size and you can interact more closely with professors and fellow students.

And with that, we conclude our short introduction to the US higher education system. Good luck to all applicants!

Photo credit: Microsoft



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