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 kinds 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 programs, 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.