The American academic system, as a whole, is intended to provide a broad education for as many people as possible. There is no screening examination that directs a student, at an early age, into an academic or non-academic area. A high proportion of the population completes secondary school--and secondary school is not as challenging as it is in countries where access to education is more limited. A significant proportion of the population attempts some kind of post-secondary education--and post-secondary study, at the undergraduate level (but it is not free of challenge. At a large, public university such as the UI, only about 51.1 per cent of the undergraduate students who enrolled in 2009 graduated).
The American educational system also produces specialists, people who have studied a limited range of topics in depth. Specialization comes later in the U.S. system than it does in most others. It is not until the second (“sophomore”) or third ("junior") year of undergraduate work that students concentrate on their "major" field. There is further specialization in graduate work, especially as students undertake research for a thesis or dissertation.
It is considered important here to evaluate the work that students do in each class. Therefore, there is a "grading system", which is used to rank and compare students' academic work. A student's grades receive considerable attention in competition for scholarships and assistantships, for admission to universities and graduate schools, and for jobs.
Conflicts of Goals
There are many conflicts among the educational goals. For example, there is pressure for earlier and greater specialization as opposed to pressure for broader "humanistic" or "liberal arts" education. Some people consider the grading system is to be incompatible with developing a true appreciation of learning. As a result of the existence of these conflicts, there is constant discussion of the rules, procedures, and practices of the academic system.