If you’re new to the United States or considering moving to the US with school-age children, you might wonder what the American education system looks like. Early childhood education availability and funding vary greatly between states, and higher education costs look very different in the US compared to other countries. Our guide below to the American education system outlines the education offered at every stage of development and what options there are for public and private education.

Early Childhood Education: Daycare & Preschool (Age 2-5 years)

In the US, early childhood education includes daycare and preschool. Depending on where you choose to enroll your child, daycare can start in infancy, and preschool can begin as early as two years old. The US does not require preschool education. Outside of social programs for lower-income households, preschool education is private and must be individually funded. Preschool education focuses on social and language skills and prepares children to adjust to the structure of a school day.

Kindergarten (Age 5 years, eligibility typically based on turning 5 years old before a specific date — usually in August or September)

Publicly funded kindergarten varies by state. Depending on where you are in the US, you may have full or partial-day kindergarten available, or even a dual-pay model wherein parents are responsible for some costs associated with kindergarten if they would like their child to attend a full-day rather than a half-day. 

Elementary Through High School (Age 6-18 years)

American children begin elementary school, or primary school, around age six and will continue to move up a “grade” each year through age 18, as long as the student meets the academic standard for their grade. The academic calendar usually begins in August or September and continues through May or June, depending on the area.

Public schools are funded by a combination of national, state, and local taxes and typically do not require additional individual payment. Which school your child is eligible to enroll in is typically based on location. And if you choose to enroll your child in a public school outside of your area of eligibility, you may be required to pay additional fees. 

The rise of charter schools in many parts of the US has changed the landscape of public education. And depending on where you live, you may have the option to choose to enroll your child in either public or a charter school at no additional cost to you. Charter schools are publicly funded and operate independently from the local school district and, in some areas, have even replaced public schools entirely. Charter schools don’t have to follow the same regulations set by states, municipalities, and school districts as traditional public schools.

In addition to public schools and charter schools, the US is also home to many private and religious-affiliated schools. In the US, private schools account for 25% of all schools and 10% of all students from age 5-18 years. While not all private schools are religiously affiliated, 78% of all private school students attend a religiously affiliated private school. Most private schools feature smaller enrollment numbers; 87% have fewer than 300 students enrolled. While private schools are associated with tuition fees, many private schools offer a limited number of scholarships at a free or reduced tuition rate based on need or merit.

Continuing Education: College, University, and Trade Schools

Following the 12 years of education mandated by US law, some students go on to pursue vocational training or a degree from a college or university. The terms college and university are used interchangeably in the US, though universities are generally assumed to be large institutions. Some universities refer to programs within their system as colleges, such as a College of Law or a College of Medicine. At the undergraduate level, there are both private and public institutions. Private colleges and universities are typically more expensive to attend than public colleges or community colleges. With the exception of grants or scholarships, all higher education in the United States requires tuition expenses.

Trade schools and vocational schools prepare students for specific careers and skill fields. Depending on the trade or skill certification, these programs can vary in length from several weeks to four or more years and often provide a direct route to employment via apprenticeship. 

The American education system and its network of public and private funding can be confusing at first, particularly if you’re accustomed to publicly funded early childhood education and care programs and publicly funded higher education institutions. 

As part of our Partnership Program, Global Nurse Partners supports nurses and their families throughout their transition to life in the US and offers guidance every step of the way, including enrolling your children in school. Learn more about our partnership program here and how to take your nursing career to the US.