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Each state has its own educational scheme, though all have a basic program that provides 12 years' free and compulsory education for every child, plus kindergarten. In addition, most states offer further years of voluntary and free attendance at public (state) school up to the age of 21.
Patterns of education vary considerably, but two of the most usual are: six years or grades of elementary school, three years of junior high school and three years of senior high school; or eight years of elementary school followed by four of high school.
Generally, pupils may leave at 16 (one or two years older in some states), but the system is geared to encourage them to continue to 17 or 18. Promotion from one grade to the next is earned as much by good progress throughout the year as by end-of-year exams. All American public schools are co-educational and racially integrated by federal law.
A college (university) education is highly regarded by Americans, and is the gateway to promotion in many fields. Apart from state establishments - including community colleges (which offer two-year business and technical courses) and junior colleges (which prepare less-well-qualified students for transfer to a full four-year university course) - there are many famous independent universities, such as Harvard, Yale and Princeton. Altogether, there is no shortage of centres of higher education; in the vicinity of Boston alone there are 24 four-year universities, including Harvard, the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and Boston University. In the academic year beginning in autumn 1984,27.1 per cent of Americans aged between 18 and 24 enrolled for higher education.
The success of the education system is illustrated by the USA's record of innovation, as shown by the success of its technology-based industries and by the fact that Americans have won more than twice as many Nobel prizes as the people of any other nation. That only eight were in the literature category belies America's achievements in the arts: from music and literature to architecture, painting and sculpture, the USA is a powerhouse.