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Higher education in the U.S. is also called postsecondary education, but the latter term also refers to all formal education beyond secondary school, whether higher education (defined as degree-granting education) or not. Postsecondary education is broadly divided into two different sectors: postsecondary vocational education and training, which is non-degree but can produce some transferable credits under certain circumstances; and higher education, which includes studies undertaken in degree-granting institutions for academic credit.

However, the U.S. higher education system is not legally organized into separate university and non-university sub-systems as are some other national systems, but is comprehensive. It is a diverse and autonomous community of publicly and privalely supported institutions.

Current data indicate that there are 6,479 postsecondary institutions, including 4,182 non-degree institutions. Of the degree-granting higher education institutions, some 1,732 award only the associate degree plus sub-bachelor's certificates and diplomas; 702 award only the bachelor's degree; 1,094 award degrees and certificates beyond the bachelor's degree but not the research doctorate; and 654 institutions award the research doctorate. The United States does not use an official classification or typology for its higher education institutions. While different institutions offer varying levels of degrees, U.S. accreditation policies result in degrees at any given level adhering to certain minimum standards regardless of the institution that grants them.

The privately derived but popular Carnegie Classification organizes U.S. institutions according to different schemes. For more information, see:

The U.S. higher education system is characterized by accessibility, diversity, and autonomy and is known for both its size and quality.

The federal government has no jurisdiction or authority over the recognition of educational institutions, members of the academic professions, programmes or curricula, or degrees or other qualifications. Nearly all U.S. postsecondary institutions are licensed, or chartered, by a state or municipal government to operate under the ownership of either a government (if public) or a private corporation (if independent), and may be for-profit or not-for-profit enterprises.
Religious institutions are considered independent, or private. Quality assurance is achieved via the system of voluntary accreditation by specific accrediting agencies that are recognized by the U.S. Secretary of Education and meet the standards for membership in the Council for Higher Education Accreditation (CHEA).

Accreditation is a self-regulating process of quality control engaged in by the U.S. postsecondary education community to ensure minimum standards of academic capability, administrative competence, and to promote mutual recognition of qualifications within the system. Six (6) regional accreditation associations set minimum standards for institutions chartered in the states of their respective jurisdictions.

In addition, there are recognized accrediting agencies for specialized institutions and programmes. While all recognized and accredited institutions are licensed or chartered by state governments, states vary greatly in the degree of supervision and quality control that they exercise, and there is relatively limited reciprocity of recognition across state borders. Accreditation by recognized agencies, therefore, remains the primary means of ensuring academic and institutional quality and the mutual acceptance of credits and qualifications across and outside the United States.



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