Washington, 14 October 1998 (RFE/RL) -- Unlike the educational systems of most other countries around the world which are primarily directed and financed by the national government, the American system of education is largely the responsibility of individual state and local governments.
Historically, America was the first of the world's industrialized nations to provide more years of schooling for a larger percentage of children and adolescents than any previous society. But American education began, and still exists today, largely as a collection of local and state traditions, rather than a national, government-directed system.
Although Thomas Jefferson, America's third president and author of the Declaration of Independence, often stated that the expansion of education across America was critical so that newly won freedoms were not lost on an ignorant society, the word education does not even appear in the U.S. Constitution. And because the tenth amendment to the U.S. Constitution says that all powers not specifically delegated to the federal government must be given to the state -- public education in the U.S. is fundamentally a state responsibility. As a result, American schools largely tend to reflect the educational values of the communities where they are located.
In fact, true to the long-standing cultural tradition in the U.S. of less government interference in public life -- for the first one hundred years of America's existence, education remained exclusively in the hands of communities and local authorities.
However, by the end of the 19th century, the U.S. government had mandated a law that called for free public elementary and secondary education for all schoolchildren. Elementary and secondary education runs for 12 years in the U.S.
But there are no U.S. laws that govern higher education. In fact, the first institutions of higher education in the U.S. were private and created by religious organizations. Among the first were Harvard University -- established in 1636; William and Mary College -- founded in 1693; and Yale University -- established in 1701. It wasn't until 1862 that publicly supported state universities began appearing across the nation.
The push for mass higher education didn't come in the U.S. until the 1950s and 1960s. Today there are an estimated 14.3 million people enrolled in U.S. higher educational institutions -- a record high.
American institutions of higher education are classified as follows: community and junior colleges which provide a two-year course beyond a high school degree; technical institutes which offer a two or three year course of training for a semi-professional occupation such as that of a dental, engineering or medical technician; terminal occupational education which are vocational studies beyond high school which prepare a student for immediate employment in a specific occupation; and colleges or universities which offer a complete higher education combining required courses in natural, humanistic and social sciences.
Most colleges and universities are four-year programs offering a Bachelor's Degree. Graduate studies where students can earn a Masters or Doctorate degree are typically completed at colleges or universities after a student has earned a Bachelors degree.
The cost of higher education in the U.S. varies widely. Today, it can cost a student anywhere from $5,000 to $30,000 per year for the total cost of a college education. Much of it depends on whether the student attends a private or a state school and if they live at home or on campus.
State schools are the most inexpensive choices for students as they are subsidized by the state. For students who are residents of a particular state and wish to attend their own state university, the cost is even cheaper. Students who wish to attend the same university but are residents of another state are considered "out-of-state" and must pay slightly more.
Private colleges and universities are the most expensive choice in the U.S. Highly regarded private institutions such as Harvard University can cost up to $30,000 per year.
Still, according to the U.S. College Board, a private organization that monitors colleges and universities in America, today the majority of American students attending a four year college or university actually pay less than $4,000 a year for tuition (not including living expenses or books).
Students are free to apply to however many universities they want and it is largely up to the college admissions board of that particular institution to decide if the student meets their standards and requirements. Although admission policy is decided by each institution of higher education in the U.S., most universities require students take certain national scholastic aptitude tests which determine their educational abilities.
Financial aid funding comes from a variety of sources in the U.S. -- the federal government, state government, private sources, banks, and even the institution of higher learning itself. Financial aid can be based on academic achievement or actual financial need.
There are three types of financial aid in the U.S.: gift aid which is money that does not have to be repaid and is given in the form of scholarships and grants; loans which are based on need and involves low-interest loans to students which must be repaid; and work aid which requires a student to work at a job arranged by the college and the money earned goes toward the total cost of education.
The College Board says that for the educational year 1998-1999, financial aid to students was at a record level of more than $60 billion.
In comparison to other countries -- according to the latest available statistics provided by the U.S. Department of Education -- in 1994 the U.S. spent more money per student on higher education than any other G-7 country, and more than twice the amount spent in France, Italy and Great Britain.
The same statistics show that the U.S. and Japan relied more heavily on expenditures from private sources to finance education, while all the other G-7 countries relied more on the national government for funds.