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Education in the US
A Comprehensive Guide About the Education System and International Schools
The education system in the US focuses on developing each student’s individuality and their specific set of skills. This is represented by the ability to concentrate on the desired subjects rather early in the child’s educational journey and the encouragement to take plenty of extracurricular activities. This approach is popular in most public and private schools in the US. For those who do not wish to follow it, local international schools offer different types of country-specific curricula as well.
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The US education system offers plenty of opportunities for anyone who wishes to study. The federal government in the US does not have a set curriculum for the country, which allows for a high variety of schooling options. From preschool to high school and doctorate degrees – whatever you are looking for, you will certainly find in some of the best schools and higher education institutions across the US.
But the main downside of the American education system is the cost. While public schooling is free, if you opt for a private or international school, you have to be prepared to pay fairly high fees. If you or your children decide to pursue higher education in the US, the price tag will be even greater.
This section of the guide also discusses the basics of the educational system, such as grading, school times, and what to expect from a typical curriculum.
The Education System in the US
The US education system is mostly regulated by separate state governments. That is why many rules differ depending on the local laws, such as mandatory schooling age and grade division.
Facts About the US Education System
- The education system in the US is often called K-12, which is short for “kindergarten to twelfth grade.”
- Compulsory education usually starts at 5 or 6 years of age and may go up to 18. This may vary between states.
- In most cases, public education is free from kindergarten to grade twelve.
- A common name for “university” in the US is “college.” While both names are usually used interchangeably, “college” in most cases refers to private universities, while “university” is used when talking about publicly funded higher education institutions.
- Bachelor’s degree in the US is often called an “undergraduate degree,” “graduate degree” refers to master’s, and “post-graduate” is the name for doctoral or other advanced studies.
- “Graduate school” is a common name for university-level institutions that offer master’s programs.
The US School System’s Grade Division by Age
The table below illustrates how the US education system divides its schooling levels and the general age of students in these grades.
Compulsory Education School Levels and Ages
The US Grading System
From elementary to high school years, the public-school system in the US uses both letter (A to F) and numerical (percentage from 0 to 100) grading systems. In high school, students are also introduced to the Grade Point Average (GPA) system that ranks their performance from 0 to 4. Higher education institutions mostly use GPA as their main grading system.
Note that each school might have its own grade calculation method.
What is the School Year in the US?
The school year in the US usually starts in late August and lasts until May (Southern states) or Early September and lasts until June (Northern states). In most schools, the year is split into two semesters: August/September until December, and January until May/June. The number of instructional days is usually 180.
The three main breaks of the school year happen in spring, summer, and winter.
- Spring break (one week): Occurs in late March or early April.
- Summer break (about three months): Occurs late May to late August or early June to early September, depending on the US state.
- Winter break: For primary and secondary students, this break typically last just two weeks from late December until the beginning of January. University and college students receive a full-month off, which typically spans through mid-December mid-January.
What are School Hours in the US?
School hours usually depend on the regulations of each school. Most of the time, they start somewhere between 7:00 and 9:00 and end around 14:00 or 16:00.
The length of a school day varies depending on the grade the student is in. Kindergartens often offer both half and full day options (about three and six hours, respectively). Elementary school students spend about 6.5 hours at school each day, while middle and high schoolers take around 7-7.5 hours.
What is School Like in the US?
Preschool and elementary school students usually have one teacher for all subjects, while middle and high schoolers have a different teacher for each subject.
School uniforms are commonly used in private schools but are usually not obligatory for students of public schools. Many schools provide their students with a locker where they can keep their school supplies; however, they do need to purchase their own lock, in some cases.
Some school districts provide transportation for students to and from schools. Whether or not it is available usually depends on student ages or traveling distance.
Students are often encouraged to take extracurricular activities in the US. Sports, music, arts, communication, technology, and many other types of activities happen outside of normal school hours in both public and private schools. In some cases, the various clubs are supported through donations, and students have to pay for their own equipment and supplies.
What are the Main Differences Between Public and Private Schools?
When comparing the public and private education sector in the US, the main difference is price. As public schools are funded by the government, the education there is mostly free. Private schools, on the other hand, run on funds acquired through student tuition fees.
Other ways private schools are different from public:
- Smaller classes than those in public schools
- Private schools are allowed to have a freer approach to the curriculum, yet still needs to meet certain government standards.
- Teachers employed at private schools do not need to meet state-determined criteria to be hired there. Still, they are often very highly qualified.
- Private schools often have more and better-advanced facilities and technology.
Required Documents to Enroll in School in the US
When enrolling a child in school in the US, you need to prove they meet the school’s requirements. However, the documents you provide do not have to be formal documents. Proving your child’s citizenship or immigration status is not obligatory.
When applying for a school in the US, you need:
- Proof of residence in the school district (copies of utility bills, lease agreements, or affidavits)
- Proof of required immunizations
- Proof of age of the child (most commonly, birth certificate, but a physician’s certificate, adoption papers, or parents’ affidavit might also qualify)
- Prior school records (if applicable)
You might also need to fill out a school-specific application form. Some education institutions might also ask you to provide your Social Security Number or ask to state your child’s race or ethnicity. The latter information is usually required by state or Federal laws and is used in school statistics.
In most cases, school districts are not allowed to ask you to provide information on the child’s immigration status.
Expat children who enter the US as dependents of working migrants should be able to attend any school without major issues. However, if your child is staying in the US under an F-1 visa, the only public schools they can attend are SVEP certified high schools (grades nine to twelve) that are only available to them for up to twelve months. Private school is usually the better option in this case as they do not have such restrictions.
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Daycare and Kindergarten
In the US, daycare and kindergarten refer to two different things. Kindergarten is a schooling level that is part of primary school education, while daycare is considered to be preschool level (also called pre-kindergarten).
The following section covers preschool options. You can find more information on kindergartens in the primary school section later on.
Daycare, Childcare, or Nursery?
All three of these terms are usually used interchangeably in the US. Whether you opt for daycare, childcare, or nursery, you should expect the same type of classroom environment based on play.
Educational Approach of Childcare Centers
As preschool is the first educational experience for children, the activities there tend to be rather easy. Kids are encouraged to learn through games and socializing. The curriculum is usually focused on social, physical, emotional, and cognitive development.
Childcare centers usually offer full-day care from 8:00-9:00 to about 18:00-19:00.
Other Preschool Options
Family childcare centers are daycares organized by a person who looks after children at their own home. Usually these centers need to abide by the state’s licensing regulations; however, the owner does not need to be an educational professional. This type of daycare is usually the cheapest option that also offers a home environment. The size of the group is often smaller than in usual classrooms and the ages of children tend to vary.
Another option could also be preschool programs. These are shorter (two or three hours long) and take place just a few times a week. They are focused on preparing children for socializing in a class environment.
Is Preschool Mandatory in the US?
Daycare and nurseries are not part of compulsory education in the US.
At What Age do Children Start Preschool?
While nursery options are available for children as young as three months old, it is most common for parents to put their kids in preschool between the ages of two and three. In most cases, children stay in preschool until they are five or six years old.
Costs of preschool usually vary from state to state as well as the type of schooling you choose and the age of your child. Nannies tend to be the priciest option, family care centers are the cheapest, and daycare centers land somewhere in the middle. Among the most expensive states are Massachusetts, New York, Minnesota, and Oregon.
The Approximate Annual Price of Childcare Centers in the US
|Price Range (USD)|
|Infant and Toddler Childcare||4—17,000|
Primary and Secondary Schools
Together, primary and secondary education in the US lasts about 13 years, with seven years in primary and six in secondary stages.
Each state in the US is divided into school districts. Children can get free education in the public schools that belong to the district they live in. You can find out which district you belong to and where to find the best primary and secondary schools in your area by using Great Schools map.
Elementary (Primary) School: Kindergarten
As it is considered to be part of elementary education, kindergarten in the US is mandatory. This education level usually lasts a year and typically there are no junior or senior kindergarten stages. Public kindergartens in the US are free of charge.
While there is still a lot of playing involved, a typical kindergartner’s day is usually more structured than a preschooler’s one. The children are introduced to reading, writing, and math through scheduled lessons in between free playtime.
Elementary (Primary) School
Children attend primary schools from ages 6–7 to about 12–13. Typical primary school curriculum involves:
- Mathematics (basics)
- English language (reading and writing skills)
- Social studies (geography and history)
- Arts and crafts
- Physical education
- Foreign language (some schools)
Around the age of twelve children graduate from their elementary schools and enter middle school (or junior high school) where they stay for two or three years. After that, they move on to high school (also known as secondary school), where they study for another four years before receiving their High School Diploma.
A typical curriculum in middle school involves the following subjects:
- English language (reading and writing skills)
- Mathematics (algebra and geometry)
- Social studies (ancient, medieval, and US history and geography)
- Science (earth and life)
- Foreign language (French, Spanish, or Latin)
- Computer Science
- Arts and crafts (painting, woodworking, and others)
- Music (instrumental music, choir, or band)
- Physical education and sports
High School (Secondary School)
High school curricula are usually comprised of core and elective subjects. In order to graduate high school in the US, a student needs to collect a set amount of credits by attending a certain number of subjects over four years. In most cases, each subject per semester stands for one credit. Each state has its own regulations regarding the number of credits needed; however, most of them still require credits from a varied spectrum of subjects.
Typical high school core subjects are:
- English (literature, creative writing, journalism, etc.);
- Mathematics (algebra, geometry, calculus, etc.);
- Science (biology, chemistry, astronomy, etc.);
- Social Studies (politics, sociology, law, etc.);
- Art (music, theatre, dance, etc.).
Students usually choose their elective subjects based on the career path they are planning to take.
Preparing for Higher Education in the US
To receive your high school diploma, you are usually required to take a graduation or exit exam, although not in all states. There aren’t any national standardized tests. Instead, these tests may be defined at a school- or state-level.
When entering universities in the US, students are assessed on their graduating Grade Point Average (GPA). Most higher education institutions also require their students to take the Scholastic Aptitude Test (SAT) or American College Test (ACT). Both tests are comprised of multiple-choice questions and a writing task. In general, these tests are considered to be easier than high school graduation tests in Europe or Asia.
Preparing for Higher Education in the US: Scholarships
There is a number of scholarships for international students wishing to study in US universities. Usually, they do need to take the SAT or ACT to receive the scholarships; however, their scores are not the only criteria that might help them qualify. Other eligibility requirements might include:
- Financial needs
- Country of origin
- The subject/area of study
- University or location
Here are a few examples of international scholarships:
- Fulbright Foreign Student Program offers one of the most popular scholarship programs for international students.
- The Aga Khan Foundation aids students from developing countries
- The American Association of University Women offers fellowships for women pursuing post-graduate programs
Public education in the US is free; however, if you opt for a private school, you will be faced with fairly high tuition fees.
|The Most Expensive Average Annual Private School Tuition*|
|Area||High School Tuition (USD)||Elementary School (USD)|
|District of Colombia||30,000||20,500|
|The Cheapest Average Annual Private School Tuition*|
|State||High School (USD)||Elementary School (USD)|
*According to Private School Review
While, in general, the school system in the US offers plenty of opportunities for international students, the curricula of international schools are appealing to many expat families. The US offers a variety of international schools, with a notable number of them located in the metropolises of the country.
Top International Schools
- French-American International School (PK-12, San Francisco, CA)
- Lycée Français de Los Angeles (PK-12, Los Angeles, CA)
- Lycée Français de Chicago (PK-12, Chicago, IL)
- Lycée Rochambeau (PK-12, Bethesda, MD)
- Lycée Français de New York (PK-12, New York, NY)
- British International School of Chicago, South Loop (PK-12, Chicago, IL) and Lincoln Park (PK-5, Chicago, IL)
- British International School of Boston (PK-12, Boston, MA)
- British International School of New York (PK-8, New York, NY)
- British International School of Houston (PK-12, Houston, TX)
- British International School of Charlotte (PK-12, Charlotte, SC)
- German International School (PK-12, Washington, DC)
- German International School New York (PK-12, New York, NY)
Other International Schools
- United Nations International School (PK-12, New York, NY)
- International School of Indiana (PK-12, Indianapolis, IN)
- Austin International School (PK-5, Austin, TX)
- The Awty International School Houston (PK-12, Houston, TX)
What are the Tuition and Fees for International Schools?
International schools in the US are often pricey. In most cases, the fee depends on the state you are in as well as the ranking and popularity of the school. The table below shows what you should expect from annual school tuition fees across the country.
|Grade Levels||Annual Tuition (USD)|
|Application fee||50–200 USD|
|New Student fee||2,000–4,000 USD|
|Parent Association fee||50–100 USD|
*This may be refundable in some cases.
What are the Requirements to Enroll in an International School?
When applying for an international school, you might be asked to provide the following documents:
- record of school transcripts;
- prior teacher evaluation forms;
- parent questionnaire;
- teacher recommendations;
- language test results.
Some schools conduct interviews with their students and require them to complete entry exams. The application forms can usually be filled online.
Depending on the school you are applying to, the child might need to speak the school’s language (e.g., French schools might require their students to speak French); however, kindergartners and lower level students are usually an exception.
The application process usually takes about a year.
The Ivy League are a group of eight prestigious top universities in the US. They are often highly ranked in terms of student graduation and alumni hiring rates.
- Brown University (Providence, RI)
- Columbia University (New York, NY)
- Cornell University (Ithaca, NY)
- Dartmouth College (Hanover, NH)
- Harvard University (Cambridge, MA)
- Princeton University (Princeton, NJ)
- University of Pennsylvania (Philadelphia, PA)
- Yale University (New Haven, CT)
Of course, these are not the only highly regarded US universities. There are plenty of other higher education institutions that offer distinguished academic programs to their students.
Other Notable US Universities
- Massachusetts Institute of Technology (Cambridge, MA)
- University of Chicago (Chicago, IL)
- Stanford University (Stanford, CA)
- Duke University (Durham, NC)
- Johns Hopkins University (Baltimore, MD)
Notable Liberal Arts Universities
- Williams College (Williamstown, MA)
- Amherst College (Amherst, MA)
- Swarthmore College (Swarthmore, PA)
- Wellesley College (Wellesley, MA
- Middlebury College (Middlebury, VT)
Best Universities for International Students in the US*
- Massachusetts Institute of Technology (Cambridge, MA)
- Columbia University (New York, NY)
- California Institute of Technology (Pasadena, PA)
- Amherst College (Amherst, MA)
- Stanford University (Stanford, CA)
*According to Forbes magazine
How Much Does It Cost for International Students to Study in the US ?
University tuition fees in the US are notoriously high and leave many young people in debt before they have the chance to start their career. In addition to the price of education, many students, including international, need to account for other expenses such as housing and day-to-day living. This is why price range varies not only depending on the university of choice but also the area it is situated in.
Below is a table of the Average University Costs in the US, according to US News.
|Average University Costs (USD) in the US|
|University Name||Annual Tuition||Room and Board||Total|
|Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT)||52,000||15,500||67,500|
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There are plenty of language schools in the US that offer English as a Second Language (ESL) courses for internationals of any age. Another name for similar courses of this kind is English for Speakers of Other Languages (ESOL).
Usually, there are two types of language courses a person can take depending on their needs: Intensive English Program (IEP) and American Language and Culture Program (ALCP).
Intensive English Program
- Taken for personal or professional reasons.
- Does not require specific knowledge of English, can be taken at any level.
- The program usually takes 20-30 hours of in-class studying per week.
American Language and Culture Program
- Taken as academic credit (for people that wish to study in US colleges or universities).
- Requires intermediate or advanced knowledge of English.
- The program usually takes a semester.
Foreign Language Tests
You can also choose from language programs that prepare for Test of English as a Foreign Language (TOEFL) or International English Language Testing System (IELTS).
You can consult a complete list of language schools and institutes that teach English as a Second Language (ESL) in the US. However, no matter what language course you choose, make sure it is accredited by visiting the directories of Accrediting Council for Continuing Education and Training (ACCET) and Commission on English Language Program Accreditation (CEA).
Language School Fees
The price for language classes in the US varies depending on the program of your choice. If you choose to study at a highly regarded educational institution or at one of the big cities in the US, you should expect to pay a higher fee than when choosing a language school away from the metropolises.
- For a full-time IEP course that lasts around 4 weeks, you should expect to pay 1,500–2,500 USD.
- A semester of studying ALCP can cost you around 5,000–10,000 USD or more.
- Prices for programs that prepare for the TOEFL test range from 350 to 2,500 USD
- IELTS test preparation courses can cost you from 600 to about 1,500 USD.
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