Education can be confusing sometimes. There are many different terms for a single form of education. Take elementary school, for instance. It is also known as primary school, primary education, and elementary education, and that isn’t even including its names from countries outside the US. So what is secondary education? Is college included under that umbrella?
In the USA, college is not considered secondary education. Instead, secondary education is any education that takes place between elementary school (primary education), and college (tertiary or post-secondary education). Secondary education is generally considered to be middle and high school.
In this article, we’ll discuss different education levels in the USA, what secondary education means in the USA and other countries, and more about college and its status through the lens of these levels.
What Are the Levels of Education in the USA?
Technically speaking, there are three different levels of education in the USA. The first is primary education. This is the official label of what most people know as elementary school. It is called primary school because it is the first formal education that the students are receiving.
Secondary education is next, which means that this name is the umbrella that covers whatever schooling happens after primary education– to a certain extent. Middle school and high school are considered secondary education. When high school ends, secondary education ends with it.
Though most people don’t refer to it this way, college can be considered tertiary education, because it comes after secondary education. By college, we mean college and university, terms that are used interchangeably among Americans, which can be confusing for foreigners. One good way to think about the difference between the two is to use the metaphor of squares and rectangles. All squares are rectangles, but not all rectangles can be squares. In a similar way, all universities are colleges, but not all colleges are universities. (Source)
Is College Considered Secondary Education?
College is not considered secondary education in the USA. If one wants to be truly technical about it, they could refer to college as tertiary education. However, terms like “primary education”, “secondary education”, and “tertiary education” have become near-obsolete as terms like “elementary school”, “middle school”, “high school”, and “college” have become more popular.
Inside the general college education lies even more divisions. Most often, when college is referred to, people are talking about undergraduate school. This is any 2- or 4-year institution that offers certificates, associate’s degrees, and bachelor’s degrees. Completing a bachelor’s degree is completing one’s undergraduate education. At this point, graduates have the opportunity to stop their schooling and join the workforce, or they can continue their schooling by entering graduate school.
Graduate school tends to only happen at universities, where they offer education past the typical bachelor’s degree. Here, people can earn a master’s degree or doctorate degree (Ph.D.) in their chosen field. Very few people proceed to graduate school unless their chosen profession requires it. In 2019, only about 13.1 percent of Americans have advanced degrees, which, shockingly, is almost double the amount that had them in 2000. (Source)
What is Secondary Education in the USA?
In the USA, middle school, junior high school, high school, and any other regional invention of school that comes after elementary school are considered secondary education. The vast majority of children in the American school system go through elementary school, middle school, and high school, at which point they can decide whether or not to continue on to higher education. (Source)
Though classes taken in high school may sometimes be geared toward future career aspirations, many American students don’t begin taking specialized classes for their desired field in the workforce until college. In 2019, approximately 66 percent of American high school students enrolled in college immediately following high school. (Source)
Secondary Education in Other Countries
The structure of secondary education varies significantly in other countries. Though we can’t look at every country specifically, we’ve gone over the general form of secondary education in France, Germany, and the UK. (Source)
In France, the first cycle of education lasts until grade 5, at which point children enter grades 6 and 7, which are considered transitional. From there, students enter the guidance cycle, grades 8 and 9. By grade 9, students decide whether to go to upper secondary school or to pursue vocational schooling options. There are two “high school” choices: general and technological education (LEGT) and vocational-educational (LEP). LEP prepares students for the workforce, while LEGT is usually the route for students wanting to go to university.
In Germany, children are considered to be completing elementary education all the way up to grades 8-9. At this point, they are given three options to continue their education: Realschule, Gymnasium, and Hauptschule.
Hauptschule is the continuation of elementary education. This takes 4-5 more years, and upon completion, students enter apprenticeship training. Realschule is further general education, prevocational courses, and English language study. At 16 years old, students may transfer to vocational school or apprenticeship training.
Gymnasium is rigorous academic preparation for higher education. This is designated specifically for students with the most academic promise. If they don’t succeed in Gymnasium, students are transferred to Hauptschule, or at 16, they can enter vocational school. If they do complete Gymnasium, they take a test that determines whether or not they can be admitted to a German university.
The United Kingdom
In most countries in the UK, children complete their primary education from ages 5-11. Then, 90% of kids attend comprehensive school (which is the combination of the old system, which separated kids into three different schools). This school includes both academic and vocational programs. Students attend from ages 11-12 to 16 or from 12-14 to 16-18.
Independent schools also exist, and these tend to prepare students for higher education at Oxford or Cambridge. It is also said that these schools are supposed to prepare students for life as upper-class citizens and that they are more geared towards leadership roles. This distinction is frowned upon by some, as it encourages the reinforcement of social distinctions.