- Key terminology
- Universities in the United States
- The US academic year
- The US credit system
In the US the words “college” and “university” mean the same thing. The main thing to remember is that “college” does not mean “high school.”
When we refer to “undergraduate study” in the US we are usually talking about a bachelor’s degree programme.
When we refer to “graduate study” in the US we generally mean any study you do after finishing your bachelor’s degree programme (eg. a master’s degree). In other words “graduate study” is the same as what New Zealanders call “postgraduate study.”
Other differences in university terminology between the US and New Zealand:
A “paper” in New Zealand is called a “course” in the US. When Americans refer to a “paper” they are usually referring to what Kiwis call an “essay” or an “assignment”.
A university “calendar” in New Zealand is called a “catalogue” in the US.
Often American universities will refer to “Fall” or “Spring” semesters. Be sure to remember that the seasons are the other way around in the Northern Hemisphere!
Universities in the United States
Public versus Private Institutions
Publicly supported schools are usually state colleges or universities. These institutions receive most of their funding from the states they are located in. Private schools, on the other hand, do not receive the same primary funding from the state and federal government but often receive financial support from benefactors in the private sector.
Liberal Arts versus Specialised Education
Liberal arts refers to academic work in the humanities, social sciences, and natural sciences. Most American universities require students to take a wide variety of subjects in the liberal arts before settling on a specific field of study. An academic field of specialisation is often referred to as a major, usually completed in the final two years of study.
Unlike New Zealand, the US government does not have a central ministry of education that provides national control over US educational institutions. Each state regulates education to some extent, but universities have considerable independence. Accreditation, a system in which institutions voluntarily agree to be evaluated by their peers, ensures that these institutions achieve basic levels of quality in their programmes, facilities, and services.
There are two types of accreditation: institutional and professional. Institutional accreditation applies to the university as a whole. Professional accreditation exists only in fields where professional competence is of broad concern, such as engineering, nursing, and business. A complete list of accredited institutions and professional programmes can be found in Fulbright New Zealand’s library.
More on Accreditation
For more on accreditation see the Council for Higher Education Accreditation (CHEA) website.
The US academic year
Depending on the university, the academic year starts sometime from late August to mid-September. There are two ways in which the academic year can be organised in US universities:
Most universities use the semester system where there are two major periods of study in each academic year – Fall and Spring. There are 16 or 17 weeks of study in each semester. There may also be a shorter optional period of study in the summer.
Some universities use the quarter system where there are four 10 week study periods (or quarters) during the year. You are usually expected to attend three quarters, but may attend all four to graduate sooner. These are sometimes also called “trimesters.”
The US credit system
Course work is measured in “units” or “credit hours.” Generally, a class that meets for three hours of lectures or discussion a week carries three units of credit – one hour of undergraduate credit means one hour of lecture and two hours of homework, whereas one hour of graduate credit means one hour of lecture and five hours of homework. An average class-load at the bachelor’s degree level is about 15 units per semester, which means about 45 hours of attendance and study are expected each week. At the graduate level the average class-load is about nine units per semester, so about 54 hours of attendance and study are expected each week.
When referring to “units” or “credit hours” people are generally talking about units in a semester system. Each unit in a quarter system equals 2/3 of a semester-unit. So a student who completes 30 semester-units each year in a semester system is doing the same amount of work as a student who completes 45 quarter-units.
At many small colleges, class size averages around 15-20 students, so your classes often consist of a discussion between the professor and the students. You are expected to play an active rather than a passive role. Professors often determine a portion of the course grade based on the quality of your class participation.
In large colleges or universities, it is more common to have large classes (60 or more people) conducted in a traditional lecture style. Undergraduate classes at large colleges and universities are often taught by graduate students (known as teaching assistants) rather than by full professors.