CISL’s Pathway Program gives international students the chance to study at a U.S. university or college. Students have the choice of attending any of CISL’s partner schools: this includes community colleges, private colleges and universities, and even technical schools such as aviation academies and film schools! Before you hit the books*, make sure that you understand the U.S. college and university system. Enjoy our explanation of the U.S. academic system and then learn all of these useful college-related vocabulary words!

*Hit the books = study 

Types of Colleges/Universities

Community college

A community college is a publicly funded school that offers two-year Associate of Arts or Associate of Science degrees.

Many students who attend community colleges transfer to a four-year college or university. In California, community colleges have guaranteed transfer degrees with schools in the California State University system. If you complete the required courses, you are guaranteed to be admitted to a partner school. This removes a lot of stress for students!

Community colleges also offer many certificate courses for people looking to change jobs or continue with their education.

Pathway examples:

Would you like to go to a community college? CISL has partnerships with the following schools.

  • Palomar City College (San Marcos, California)
  • El Camino City College in Torrance, CA (Los Angeles)
  • Santa Barbara City College
  • Mission College (Santa Clara, CA)
  • College of Alameda (Alameda, CA)
  • Berkeley City College (Berkeley, CA)
  • Laney College (Oakland, CA)
  • Merritt College (Oakland, CA)
  • Santa Rosa Junior College
  • Seattle Central College (Seattle, Washington)
  • Southwestern Oregon Community College (Coos Bay, Oregon)
  • Whatcom Community College (Bellingham, Washington)


Four-year college

A four-year college offers Bachelor of Arts or Bachelor or Science degrees. Depending on the school, there might also be post-grad courses such as degrees in law or master’s programs.

A four-year college is typically a smaller school and offers fewer programs. Students often transfer from a community college and then attend a four-year college.

Pathway Examples:

Most CISL Pathway students first attend a community college and then transfer to a university using a guaranteed transfer degree. Students also have the option of attending the University of Houston-Victoria directly.




A university also offers Bachelor of Arts or Bachelor or Science degrees (and in many cases, PhDs). The difference is that a university is made of many colleges: for example, a College of Letters and Sciences, a College of Law, a College of Engineering, etc. Requirements and curriculum differ for each college, but every four-year student receives a BA or BS degree.

Pathway Options:

  • All schools in the California State University (CSU) system (after attending a community college)
  • Indiana Institute of Technology


Private college/university

A private college or university does not receive public funding. The schools often have more expensive tuition but offer very small class sizes and unique curriculum designed for students with specific academic and career goals.

Pathway Examples:

  • Alliant International University
  • California College of the Arts
  • Fisher College
  • Full Sail University
  • Los Angeles Film School
  • Lincoln University
  • New York Film Academy



Years of College

Did you know that each year of school, you have a different title? Check these out!

Year One: Freshman/freshmen

Year Two: Sophomore

Year Three: Junior

Year Four: Senior

Year Five: Super senior/Fifth year


Post-secondary Terms

Undergrad: The first four years of school when students are working to receive a BA or BS.

Grad school: Master’s degree programs, PhD programs, or other programs after a student receives a BA or BS.

Post-grad: An adjective to describe people or things related to grad school.


Educational Terms

Do you know all of these important college-related vocabulary words?

Major: The focus of a degree; this can be used as both a noun or a verb. For example, “I majored in English at UC Davis” or “My major was English.”

Minor: Another degree focus, usually an option for students but not obligatory. The required course load is much smaller for a minor. This can also be used as a noun or a verb. For example, “I minored in Art History” or “My minor was Art History.”

General Education (GE): The first two years of undergraduate education at a college or university. Students take courses in many subjects, including the arts and sciences, to ensure that all students are well-rounded and receive an education on many subjects.

Upper division: The last two years of undergraduate education at a college or university. The courses are more specific to the student’s major.

Pre-recs: short for “prerequisites” or “prerequisite courses.” These are the courses you must take before you are allowed to take the upper division courses.

Credits/Units: what you earn after successfully completing a course. Each course is worth a different amount of credits: typically, they are worth 2-4. The course credits depend on how many hours the course is.

Semester: The traditional length of time for college classes. Typically, the Fall Semester begins in late August and ends mid-December and the Spring Semester begins late January and ends in late May. There is also a shorter Summer Semester for many schools.

Quarter: A 10-week course length schedule that is common for schools in the University of California system. Classes begin in October and end in December for Fall Semester; early January to late March for Winter Quarter, and then April to mid-June for Spring Semester. There is also a shorter Summer Semester.

GPA: short for “Grade Point Average.” The score you get based on the grades you earn.

Midterms: Exams taken the middle of the semester or quarter.

Finals: The last exams taken before the semester or quarter ends.



What types of degrees can you get when you study in the U.S.? In addition to many certificates, here are some of the more popular degrees.

AA: Associate of Arts

AS: Associate of Sciences

(Both of these come from a community college.)

BA: Bachelor of Arts

BS: Bachelor of Sciences

(Both of these come from private or public four-year colleges or universities.)

MA: Master of Arts

MS: Master of Sciences

MBA: Master of Business Administration

MFA: Master of Fine Arts

PhD: Doctor of Philosophy

(These degrees come from accredited universities with intensive programs. Each school is different and offers different combinations of these degrees.)


Want to learn more? Check out CISL’s University Pathway page or these articles: