I'm taking for granted several fact about higher-education system in the US, such as:

  • Professors can move freely between universities, even ones outside US. They are in this regard like professional football players. (Not every country wholeheartedly allows this.)
  • Lecturers can obtain tenure position. (Some countries are in the habit of "perpetually in 5-year contracts")
  • There is such a thing as liberal arts education. (Not all countries have this!)
  • An undergraduate student can take a major and a minor in their study. (Some countries prefer to have only majors)
  • ...

My question: where can I find documents regarding all these higher education system rules and statute? Which part is governed by the government (state/federal), and which part is decentralized to the univ. management?

Links to such documents (US/UK/Australia/Can.) or Wikipedia pages would be greatly appreciated.


  • 3
    Not all of that is true at all schools. Many, many lecturers are non-tenure-track, and the number is rising (in fact, just about no one with the title "Lecturer" in the US is eligible for tenure review; unlike some other countries, in the US "Lecturer" generally means a non-tenure-track position, and tenure track has the word "Professor" in there somewhere). Not all schools have minors; Yale doesn't, for instance. Not all schools are designed for a liberal arts education (some are there to teach a specific trade).
    – cpast
    Commented Nov 18, 2014 at 3:01

2 Answers 2


One of the key things about U.S. system of higher education is that it is, for the most part, not regulated by statute. For all of the "rules" that you explained, there are institutions that do not follow them (except the freedom to depart, which is guaranteed not by regulation, but by the lack of regulation, which creates a free market).

In theory, anybody in the US can found an institute of higher education, at any time, for any reason. People in fact do create all sorts of new institutions all the time: some turn out very well, and some do not. In practice, admission to the "club" of credible institutions is regulated by accreditation organizations, such as this one. Every institution that can meet the fairly basic requirements for accreditation can set its rules as it wishes. Public universities are typically regulated by the state that runs them (e.g., U.C. Berkeley) or the relevant federal agency (e.g., the Naval Postgraduate School), but private institutions like Harvard have a great degree of freedom in how they organize themselves.

In short: there is no document for the rules on how the system works, because the nature of the system is that there is no system, only a market loosely managed by accreditation.

  • That explains a lot. Thanks! May I ask again, with that free market nature, who gives professorship to an individual? Is it the university? And, is it more or less the same situation in the UK and Australia (or western countries in general)?
    – fajar
    Commented Nov 18, 2014 at 1:30
  • 1
    @fajar Yes, the professorship is given by the university. As for other Western countries: I personally don't know for certain; you'd do well to ask it as a new question if you want an in-depth answer.
    – jakebeal
    Commented Nov 18, 2014 at 1:35
  • 3
    Even freedom to depart isn't necessarily always there: I imagine that military officers who are professors at service academies can (at least in theory) have their resignation denied, and be required to stay in their posts. Otherwise, freedom to depart is (sort of) guaranteed by a law: the 13th Amendment.
    – cpast
    Commented Nov 18, 2014 at 3:15
  • @cpast Good point... I hadn't even thought of that part, but you are absolutely correct.
    – jakebeal
    Commented Nov 18, 2014 at 3:39
  • In some sense the freedom to depart is also guaranteed by state regulation of contract law, to prevent enforcement of a contract in which someone can never leave. The number of academics in the US who would take such a contract even if it were their only job offer on the table is probably very small, and may even be 0, but I think it's pretty generally agreed that nobody with any influence is interested in finding out for sure by permitting contracts of indefinite indentured service :-) Commented Nov 18, 2014 at 10:26

Much of what you've mentioned is simply customary within the US system of higher education rather than being mandated by law.

The federal government does have some involvement in higher education in the US, most importantly through the system of federal financial aid for students. Without federal financial aid, most public and private institutions would cease operations. The federal government also provides some funding for educational activities to universities through the Department of Education. Historically, the federal government provided support for the establishment of universities through the land grant acts of 1862 and 1890.

An additional important influence on research universities is that the federal government (through the National Science Foundation, Department of Defense, National Institutes of Health, and other agencies) sponsors research at universities- universities must follow the rules of these agencies in applying for grants and research contracts and conducting the research. For example, there is a "common rule" (common among the funding agencies) concerning ethical activity in research involving human subjects.

The Higher Education Act is the federal law that sets the policy of the US federal government on higher education and finacial aid in particular. The act has been repeatedly amended with the most recent substantial changes in 2008.

At the level of the 50 states, many states provide a substantial fraction of the funding for public universities. However, in recent years state appropriations to the universities in many states have decreased and in some cases the remaining percentage of state funding is very small- these institutions are becoming effectively independent of state funding.

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