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The U.S. Course and Credit System

Academic work at U.S. institutions of higher education is organized in concentrated modules of subject matter called courses. The U.S. use of the term "course," therefore, bears no resemblance to the definition of a course used in some other systems. Each U.S. academic course occupies a scheduled amount of instructional time each term, in addition to laboratory, field exercise, homework, and research or creative requirements associated with the course. In some cases, courses may be called lecture courses, laboratory courses, studio or performance courses, fieldwork courses, practica or clinical courses, seminars, or independent research. These terms simply denote the type of academic experience provided by the course.

Successful completion of a course results in the student's academic record being marked with both a course grade and a set number of credit hours accumulated. Credit hours are the number of hours of instruction that the course is scheduled for per week. Degree programs require that a specified number of credit hours, and therefore courses, be accumulated by the student as one of the graduation requirements.

U.S. courses are not always classroom lectures, and therefore you should not assume that an accumulation of U.S. course credit hours means that a student has only completed a "taught" curriculum. Lecture courses are usually identified as such. Laboratory, fieldwork, seminar, and independent study courses all involve concentrated research studies and the preparation of reports and papers. Studio or performance courses (ensemble, individual coaching, etc.) involve both supervised and independent creative study and expression in the arts. Practica or clinical courses involve supervised exercises in real professional work settings.

U.S. Grading Systems

U.S. educators use a variety of grading systems depending upon the nature of the work being assessed and the philosophy of the faculty or institution regarding judging student work.

The most common grading system is the assignment of a numerical or alphabetical letter score to the results of examinations or submitted reports. projects, and papers. Numerical grading systems usually are arrayed on a scale running from 0 to 4.0, with 4 representing outstanding work. Letter systems generally run from A to F, with A representing outstanding work and F representing failure. Sometimes these systems are fractional, so that indices such as "2.5" or "A+" or "A-" appear on records. Fractional usage means that a student's work was judged to be slightly better or worse than the average for that grade but not sufficiently different to justify awarding a lower or higher whole numeral or letter.

Some undergraduate faculty and institutions do not use numerical or letter grades, but rather prepare detailed comments on student's work, progress, and capabilities. Institutions that do not award grades are usually able to translate their reports into a grade scale if that is required by another institution or an employer.

Advanced academic work, such as studio or performing arts projects, theses and dissertations, or clinical practica are frequently graded on a "pass-fail" basis, which can sometimes be augmented by appending terms like "honors" or "outstanding." This approach is often used when the requirement is absolutely essential to a degree award and is either met or not.

Credentials Awarded

Two degrees are awarded at the undergraduate level, the Associate Degree and the Bachelor's Degree.

Associate Degrees

The associate degree represents the successful completion of academic, professional, or vocational programs that are designed to require two full academic years of full-time study. Since many students enroll on a part-time basis or stop out temporarily, the actual time taken to complete an associate degree is often longer than two years.

Associate degrees are awarded by community colleges, private junior colleges, and some 4-year colleges and universities that offer short programs at less than the bachelor's degree level. The credits earned in associate degree programs are generally recognized by 4-year institutions as fulfilling part of the requirements for the bachelor's degree. Many public colleges and universities have formal transfer agreements with community colleges located in the same state.

Associate degree programs may consist of some general education requirements plus a concentration, or they may be entirely specialized in a single field. Specialized associate degrees are usually in professional or vocational fields such as nursing, allied health professions, business specializations, or technological subjects. Associate degrees in the academic areas are generally not specialized because the length of the program is too short. Instead they usually correspond to the general education requirements of a bachelor's degree program with a possible emphasis on a broad area such as the humanities. Persons who enter academic associate degree programs often intend to eventually transfer into a bachelor's degree program, and may sometimes do so without completing all the associate degree requirements.

Bachelor's Degrees

The bachelor's degree is the most commonly awarded undergraduate degree and is required of students who seek to enter graduate-level research programs and study for higher degrees. Most bachelor's degree programs are designed to require 4 academic years of full-time study. However, there are exceptions to this rule.

Bachelor's degrees in architecture (B.Arch.) and some engineering specialties require at least 5 years of full-time study.

As with the associate degree, many students at the bachelor's degree level are also enrolled part-time or stop out. The time taken to complete a bachelor's degree program is thus often longer than 4 years, with 5.5 years being the current average due to the large number of part-time adult learners.

The nature of the major concentration generally determines the specific title of the bachelor's degree to be earned. Majors in the humanities, social sciences, philosophy, religious studies, and interdisciplinary or cultural area studies frequently receive a Bachelor of Arts (B.A. or A.B.). Programs in mathematics, the physical sciences, engineering, and some professional fields may receive a B.A., a Bachelor of Science (B.S. or S.B.), or a degree with the specific name of the subject studied (such as business administration--B.B.A., education--B.Ed., or nursing--B.S.N., etc.). Selection of the degree name is done by the institution through its academic policies.

Other Undergraduate Awards

Students at the undergraduate levels may earn certificates or diplomas in addition to degrees or instead of them. Certificates and diplomas are generally awarded under the following circumstances:

  • By community and junior colleges as awards for study programs for which the associate degree is not available or as an alternative for students who do not wish to have a degree. Certificates are usually awarded for short programs of less than 2 years duration, while diplomas are awarded for longer programs that may require more work than some associate degree programs and can take up to 3 years to complete.
  • By 4-year colleges and universities as certification that a student has completed a specialized program of some kind, such as mastering a foreign language or a technical skill such as computer programming. These awards are generally called certificates and may either be awarded simultaneously with a bachelor's degree or completed by students not enrolled for a degree.
  • By 4-year colleges and universities to graduates already holding a bachelor's degree who elect to remain enrolled in order to achieve a specialized qualification, such as completing the state requirements to be certified to teach school. Awards of this kind are sometimes referred to as post-baccalaureate certificates. Such work is still at the undergraduate level and so these certificates do not rank as graduate awards.

Article excerpted from the U.S. Network for Education Information.

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