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Are U.S. Higher Education Institutions Easy to Get Into, But Hard to Graduate From?

Friday | January 4, 2019 | by Jianyang (Donna) Mei

Chinese students in U.S.

Many students and parents in China have heard that U.S. higher education institutions (HEIs) are “easy to get into, hard to graduate from.”

The U.S. college admissions process is relatively easy, compared to China’s National College Entrance Examination. Therefore, Chinese students feel like it will be easy to apply to colleges and universities in the U.S. First, they will probably focus on their entrance exams (such as the TOEFL, IELTS, SAT, and ACT). Next, they might consider financial aid options and think about how they will pay for tuition. Then, they will make preparations to travel and study abroad.

However, this is where the college planning often stops. Few Chinese students will prepare adequately for learning and living in the U.S. And they might not pause to consider if they will have a hard time graduating, once they enroll. 

Chinese students should take note: An acceptance letter is not the end of your study abroad planning—it is the beginning.

Academic Standing

Accredited U.S. HEIs require all students to meet academic standards in order to graduate. U.S. HEIs generally use the 4.0 scale and require undergraduates to maintain a 2.0 GPA or higher to graduate. Specific school demands may differ; for instance, some universities also call for a 2.0 minimum or higher GPA in all major courses.

In the United States, GPA is ranked according to the following categories:

  • Good Standing, which indicates that the student’s cumulative GPA across all terms is 2.0 or higher.
  • Academic Probation, which indicates that the student’s cumulative GPA across all terms falls below 2.0.
  • Final Probation, which usually means that the student’s cumulative GPA for two consecutive terms is lower than 2.0. If the GPA for the most recent term is higher than 2.0, the school may  reconsider giving the student final probation.
  • Suspension, which applies if the student’s cumulative GPA for two consecutive terms is lower than 2.0, or the student has 0.0 for at least six credits in any term.
  • Dismissal, which applies if a student was previously subject to suspension or dismissal, but the student is still not meeting academic requirements.

Academic standing requirements vary across institutes. Check the school’s official website. If you have any questions, consult your academic advisor.

Legal Status in the U.S.

At U.S. HEIs, unlike at Chinese universities, grades that are too low (lowering a cumulative GPA to less than 2.0) affect other aspects of the student experience. Apart from affecting a student’s academic standing and perhaps delaying graduation, low grades can, more importantly, affect an international student’s legal status.

Suspension or dismissal from school will cause an international student’s I-20 to be canceled. When the I-20 is canceled, the student’s F-1 visa, even if current, will also be invalidated. Unless there is another valid visa, remaining in the U.S. is considered overstaying the visa, and the student will need to leave any U.S. territory during the required period of time. To learn more, consult the international student office at the U.S. HEI of your choice.

As noted above, international students in the U.S. must maintain good academic standing (a cumulative GPA of 2.0 or higher) to maintain lawful student status. However, the educational systems are different in China and the U.S. Each country calculates grades differently, as well.

Course Grades

In China, only midterm and final grades affect a student’s final grade. However, in the United States, universities pay close attention the work a student completes all semester. They take into account everyday participation and classroom performance, as well. That includes attendance, class participation, classwork, team projects, papers, quizzes, tests, and midterm and final exams. Some of these things count than others toward a student’s final grade.

Professors list all of the grade requirements on the course syllabus, so read the syllabus carefully. If you encounter difficulties, seek help from professors and teaching assistants. You can also participate in counseling sessions or academic strategy seminars at your school.

Class Attendance

It is easy for Chinese students to overlook one point: U.S. universities consider class attendance to be very important. A certain number of absences will affect a student’s final grade, cause a student to become ineligible to take exams, or even cause automatic failure. Frequent absences can also prevent a student from registering for classes.

If an international student is unable to register for more classes, and their credits fall below the full-time requirement, their I-20 will be canceled. This will invalidate their F-1 visa, and the student will need to leave the country within a specified period.

Plagiarism and Other Forms of Cheating

It is also important to note that plagiarism and cheating of any kind are prohibited in the context of normal course assignments, team projects, papers, or quizzes. U.S. universities observe strict anti-plagiarism policies, which prohibit the copying of other people’s work, peeking at other students’ test papers during exams, and incorrectly citing references in compositions.

If a university discovers plagiarism or cheating, it is a serious infraction. Repeat offenders are likely to be suspended or dismissed. Students must complete their work on their own. Students who do not understand the requirements regarding plagiarism and cheating should check the school’s official website or consult their academic advisor.

Final Thoughts

In order to graduate on schedule and in good standing from a U.S. HEI, you must maintain a high GPA, attend as many classes as you can, avoid plagiarism, and be sure to talk to your professor or graduate assistant if you are having trouble with your grades or are at risk of failing a class.

Related Reading

E-Guide: The U.S. College Application Process

E-Guide: Arriving in the United States


Jianyang Mei

Jianyang (Donna) Mei is a Graduate Assistant at the Neighborhood Student Success Collaborative at Michigan State University. She is also an Expert Ambassador for WES.