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The Structure of American Education

Figure 1 shows the structure of education in the United States: the three levels of education—elementary, secondary, and postsecondary—and the approximate age range of people at the elementary and secondary levels. Students ordinarily spend 6 to 8 years in the elementary grades, which may be preceded by 1 to 3 years in early childhood programs and kindergarten. The elementary program is frequently followed by a middle school or junior high school program, which generally lasts 2 or 3 years. Students then may finish their compulsory schooling at the secondary or high school level, which may last 3 to 6 years depending on the structure within their school district. Students normally complete the entire program through grade 12 by age 18.

High school completers who decide to continue their education may enter a technical or vocational institution, a 2-year college, a 4-year college, or a university. A 2-year college normally offers the first 2 years of a standard 4-year college curriculum and a selection of career and technical programs.

Academic courses completed at a 2-year college are usually transferable for credit at a 4-year college or university. A technical or vocational institution offers postsecondary technical training leading to a specific career. The term "degree-granting institutions" used in this report refers to colleges and universities that offer associate's or higher degrees and whose students are eligible to participate in Title IV federal financial aid programs. An associate's degree requires the equivalent of at least 2 years of full-time college-level work; a bachelor's degree normally can be earned in 4 years. At least 1 year beyond the bachelor's is necessary for a master's degree, while a doctor's degree usually requires a minimum of 3 or 4 years beyond the bachelor's.

Professional schools differ widely in admissions requirements and in program length. Medical students, for example, generally complete a 4-year program of premedical studies at a college or university before they can enter the 4-year program at a medical school. Law programs normally require 3 years of coursework beyond the bachelor's degree level.

Other types of educational opportunities for adults are offered by community organizations, libraries, religious institutions, and businesses.