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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 higher education institutions (HEIs) in the United States are “easy to get into, hard to graduate from.” Compared with China’s competitive National College Entrance Examination, which students must pass to enter university, the U.S. college admissions process is relatively easy. But most Chinese students preparing to study in the U.S. are unsure just how difficult it is to graduate from a U.S. HEI. This blog post explores that tacit question.

As part of their study abroad preparations, many Chinese students focus on entrance exams, such as the TOEFL, IELTS, SAT, and ACT, but few prepare adequately for learning and living in the U.S. Receiving an admission letter is not the end of a student’s study abroad preparations—it is the beginning.

Academic Standing

Accredited U.S. HEIs, particularly those that are highly ranked, require all students, domestic as well as international, to meet certain academic standards, otherwise the students cannot 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 U.S., GPA determines a student’s academic standing, which 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, because of differences in the educational systems in China and the U.S., the way grades are calculated at U.S. universities is very different from the approach at Chinese universities.

Course Grades

In China, only midterm and final grades affect a student’s final grade, but U.S. universities pay close attention to most or all grades earned over the semester. They take into account the everyday learning and classroom performance of students, including attendance, class participation, assigned work, team projects, papers, quizzes, tests, and midterm and final exams—though some are weighted more heavily than others when the final grade is calculated.

All the standards for calculating grades are listed in detail on the course syllabus, so read the syllabus carefully. If you encounter difficulties, seek help from professors and teaching assistants, or participate in the counseling sessions and academic strategy seminars your school provides.

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 automatically cause a student to be barred from registering for classes.

If the student is unable to register for more classes and the number of credits falls below the limit required for a student to be considered full time (usually 12 credits each in the spring and fall terms), unless relevant procedures are conducted in a timely manner, the I-20 will also be canceled, resulting in an invalidated 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 plagiarism and cheating are discovered at a U.S. university, 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.