Five Quick Points About United States of America
- World’s #1 destination for international students
- Third-largest country in world in terms of size and population
- Largest economy in world, and one of the most technologically advanced
- Some of the highest-quality educational institutions in the world, many with cutting-edge technological resources
- Huge range of educational options: some are broadly focused, some are employment-focussed, some are niche (e.g., arts, social sciences, technical)
Location and Geography
The United States of America (also referred to as the United States, the U.S., the USA, or America) borders Canada to the north, Mexico to the south, the North Atlantic Ocean to the east, and the North Pacific Ocean to the west. At roughly 9.8 million square kilometres, the U.S. is the world’s third-largest country in size and population and one of the most ethnically diverse and multicultural nations.
The U.S. consists of 50 states (48 continental plus Alaska and Hawaii), a federal district, Washington D.C., and small territories in the Pacific and Caribbean. The capital city is Washington, D.C.
With its large size and geographic variety, the U.S. includes most climate types from the tropical atmosphere of Hawaii and Florida to the semi-arid Great Plains; from the arid Mojave Desert to the snow-capped Rocky Mountains, not to mention the cold Arctic climate of Alaska. Because of the climate, the ecology in the U.S. is extremely diverse, with abundant flora and fauna and amazing natural habitats for nature-inspired visitors to explore
History and Population
The United States’ earliest settlers were aboriginal natives (now referred to as Native Americans). The British then began settling on the east coast, and eventually established 13 colonies. These colonies declared their independence in 1776 from Britain as a result of the American Revolution, a war that grew out of the colonists’ protest of the fact that they were ordered to pay taxes but had no representation in the British government. The Treaty of Paris in 1783 officially recognised the United States of America as a sovereign nation, and the U.S. constitution was signed in 1787. The U.S. went on to become a superpower in the 20th century, and it is one of the world’s most influential nations.
Today, the population of the U.S. is approximately 309 million. It is ethnically and culturally diverse, thanks to a long history of immigration, with Caucasians comprising 70% of the population, Hispanic or Latino 13%, Black or African American 12%, Asian 4%, and indigenous native Americans 1%. English is the main language, with Spanish the second-most common language.
Society and Culture
A common metaphor used to describe American culture is “the melting pot,” which means that a variety of ethnicities and nationalities are represented in the population and blend to form a common culture. While it is true that there is a strong sense of “Americanness” among the population, most would agree that there are still very distinct sub-cultures, especially along ethnic lines (e.g., Hispanic or Latino).
The United States is a secular country, with a core principle being the separation of church and state and freedom for individuals to worship as they choose. Another distinctive factor is freedom of expression ensuring individuals the right to express themselves without fear of government reprisals. These individual freedoms help to shape a culture where an individual’s interest and skills can be more important than family or connections in the marketplace – at least relative to other countries.
In recent decades, women, ethnic minorities, and gays and lesbians have made considerable progress in overcoming traditional barriers and prejudices in both the workplace and society at large.
Sports are quite popular in the United States. American football, baseball, and basketball represent the most successful professional franchises, while soccer is popular as a youth team sport. University sports, especially American football and basketball, are also very popular. Elite university football programs, for example, may draw regular crowds of 75,000.
The U.S. is the largest economy in the world, and one of the most technologically advanced. The gross domestic product (GDP) in 2009 was roughly $14 trillion USD (U.S. dollar), with per capita GDP at $47,000 USD. American firms are at or near the forefront of technological advances, especially with regard to computers and in medical, aerospace, and military equipment. The currency is the U.S. Dollar.
The U.S. is a federal republic with a strong democratic tradition founded on the concept of local control. The federal government shares power with strong local governments in each of the 50 states, the district of Columbia, the territories, and multiple counties, cities, and towns. At both the federal and local levels, there are three branches of government: the executive, the legislative, and the judicial, where each has authority over different governmental functions in a system of checks and balances. The U.S. legal code is based on English common law (except in Louisiana, which is still influenced by Napoleonic code).
Living Conditions and Cost of Living
Living conditions and cost of living in the U.S. vary greatly depending on location and lifestyle, but in an overall sense, they are similar to what they are in other affluent nations. Consumer goods are certainly easy to find, and basic needs such as food and household items are affordable to almost all people who live in the U.S. What the visitor will notice is that there is a huge range of quality, and some brands and items will be accessible only to the wealthy. There is a pronounced income disparity between the poorest and richest Americans, and the marketplace reflects these extremes of purchasing power. The income disparity also shows up in living conditions: most places in the U.S. are relatively safe (and some are very safe), but in poorer neighbourhoods, crime rates are higher. As in most nations, the cost of living is higher in big cities than in smaller towns; accommodation can be expensive in the cities.
The American higher education system is administratively managed at three levels: primary (generally ages 5–11 or 5–12), secondary (generally ages 12–18), and post-secondary or tertiary (generally ages 18 and up). Students are required to remain in school until the age of 16. Ninety-nine percent of the U.S. population is literate; 85% achieve a secondary school leaving certificate (diploma); and 27% achieve a post-secondary leaving certificate (diploma). In 2009, there were over 77 million students enrolled in some level of education.
To understand the American system of education, it is critical to understand the concept of local control. Local control means that locally elected education entities, typically in the form of governing boards, at the city, state, and institutional level, control issues including the nature of the curriculum, admissions standards, and funding for schools, colleges, and universities. This means that the federal government of the United States has relatively little say in how education is managed and does not govern or provide control over degrees, standards, or curriculum – which is typically the role of the Ministry of Education in other countries.
Based on the above, in the United States, governance and support of post-secondary educational institutions falls into one of two categories, public (government supported) or private. American colleges and universities are roughly evenly divided between these two types of institutions. Whether a higher-education institution is public or private has no relationship to educational quality, although the very most competitive ones tend to be dominated by privates. Whether an institution is public or private, it will set its own admission standards, and prospective students must apply separately for each.
For the same reasons, quality assurance for educational institutions is not the role of any branch of government. Rather, it is the responsibility of voluntary non-governmental accrediting agencies. There are two kids of accreditation – institutional and programmatic. With both kinds, peer review means that standards are set and reviewed by volunteer boards composed of fellow educators and specialists, and not by government officials. Institutions that successfully complete this process at the total institution level gain either regional or national accreditation. In the U.S., “regional” is more prestigious than “national.”
Specific programmes, such as business, education, pharmacy, or engineering, have professional associations. These associations have the same kind of peer review process. If an institution completes that process successfully, it earns professional accreditation from the association. In a similar but separate process, core academic programmes, for example, architectural training, are also subject to accreditation.
Information Specific to International Students
The U.S. has the world’s largest population of international students: nearly 600,000.
Since September 11, 2001, the United States has increased security at all of its borders and increased scrutiny for all visa applications to the U.S. Visitors must meet stringent criteria to obtain a visa prior to entering the country, including documenting financial capabilities to support the program of study and demonstrating compelling ties to the home country.
Visas are issued by the State Department (DoS) at U.S. embassies and consulates. The Department of Homeland Security (DHS) oversees both Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) and Customs and Border Protection (CBP) agencies. CBP inspectors are responsible for admission of travellers to the U.S. at the port of entry, for a specified status and period of time. ICE is responsible for immigration enforcement and matters within the U.S.
International students pursuing degree program generally need an F-1 (non-immigrant) or student visa. After being accepted to study at an authorized institution, the student will need to apply with the Department of State at an U.S embassy or consulate for an F-1 (student) visa. There are visa fees to be paid, an interview to schedule, and an application to fill out. The authorized school will issue a SEVIS (Student and Exchange Visitor Information System) I-20 form, which will also be needed to apply for the F-1 visa.
Those coming for cultural exchanges or those who are financially supported by their home government may qualify for a J1 exchange visitor visa. International students must have insurance to cover accident, illness, medical evacuation, or return of remains in case of death. They must be able to support themselves financially during their stay.
An F1 visa student is permitted to work part-time on-campus (20 hours per week) but not off-campus during the first year of study. After the first year of study, permission to work off-campus may be granted by the school in cases of curricular work requirements (those in co-operative education programs or with required internships or other work needs necessary for degree completion). The DHS/ICE may grant permission for off-campus employment after the first year in cases of demonstrated economic hardship. F1 students are also eligible for 12 months of optional practical training. Students in science, technology, engineering, or mathematics fields may be eligible for up to 29 months of optional practical training. J1 students are eligible for 18 months of academic training (three years if completing a doctoral degree).
Important U.S. Government Agencies/Departments
- DoS (Department of State): Issues visas at U.S. embassies and consulates.
- DHS (The Department of Homeland Security): Oversees ICE and CBP.
- ICE (Immigration and Customs Enforcement): Responsible enforcing immigration and customs laws in the U.S.
- CBP (Customs and Border Protection): Responsible for border protection; inspectors at the port of entry.
- SEVIS (Student and Exchange Visitor Information System): Online student tracking system. U.S. Institutions use the SEVIS system to issue the form I-20 for students.