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Education in the USA

As an expat living in the USA, you will come to appreciate the country for its varied scenery and its multitude of cultures. Its diversity is reflected in its society, geography, and even climate. Our Expat Guide briefs you on healthcare, education, and public transportation in the USA.
With a good school, expat children will feel right at home.

Generally speaking, education in the United States is administrated on three levels. The US Department of Education operates on the federal level, but the main educational authority effectively lies with the various State Departments of Education. In some states, much of the decision-making is even done by local or district authorities and their elected Boards of Education.

Schooling is compulsory for all children living in the USA. Most attend school from age five to age 16, in most states to age 18. Younger children can be sent to preschool or a nursery, but there are no government-sponsored childcare facilities.

Going to School: The US School System

A child’s educational progress is divided into the following three levels.

  • Elementary school (grade 1 through 5 or 6)
  • Middle school or junior high (up to grade 8 or 9)
  • High school or senior high (up to grade 12)

While high school is intended to prepare children for college, the high school diploma doesn’t automatically grant access to any higher education institution. Students must apply to each college or university separately and it may be necessary to take further tests or fulfill more requirements.

Successful high school graduates then go on to a college or university, where they study for four years in order to obtain their bachelor’s degree. Further studies leading to a master’s degree or beyond can be continued at universities across the country.

There are a number of very prestigious universities across the USA, especially the Ivy League universities, such as Harvard, Princeton, and Yale. Places at these schools are, however, in very high demand, and the tuition is quite high. The U.S. Network of Education Information will be able to assist with the recognition of overseas qualifications.

There is a lot more to say about the US school system, of course. Read our Extended Guide article for a more detailed account of schools in the US.

Finding the Best School for Your Children

Expats in the USA have the choice of sending their children to either public (=state) schools or private schools. Children are free to attend public schools, but because there’s no nationwide curriculum or funding plan, standards can vary greatly from region to region or even from school to school.

Therefore, parents should gather as much information as possible before enrolling their child at a local public school. Internet research and contacting the local school district are good ways to start.

Real estate agents also offer valuable information. Most of them can provide dossiers about a particular neighborhood in order to assist potential customers in deciding where to live. Try to arrange a visit to the nearest schools and talk to the staff.

Also an Option: Private and International Schools

There are plenty of private schools available, including international schools and boarding schools. While they are usually very good, they are also rather expensive. International schools offer the International Baccalaureate program and might be better suited for children planning to later attend university outside the US.

The International Baccalaureate Organization’s website has a comprehensive list of all such schools in the USA, while Peterson’s offers help with finding private schools.

Some expats choose a normal public school rather than an international school, especially for younger children. The National Center for Education Statistics offers a search tool for both public and private schools. Some parents also choose to hire the services of a professional educational consultant.

Homeschooling is an increasingly popular option across the USA. It is legal in all states, and every local school district should be able to provide information on educational aids for parents and students.

Not sure how to choose a school for your expat kids? Our in-depth article on international schools in the US has more information on admission, tuition and fees, degrees, and accreditation.


We do our best to keep this article up to date. However, we cannot guarantee that the information provided is always current or complete.

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