I'm looking for some synonyms for to be in higher education. Here's my research after an hour of looking up and down on Google:

  1. in tertiary education
  2. go on to [higher/tertiary] education
  3. pursue/receive [higher/tertiary] education

To me, they are all good, but as a non-native speaker, I can never tell for sure. Could you tell me which phrases are unnatural here so that I can avoid using them in the future?

P.S. I know that sometimes "higher education" and "tertiary education" can be different, but we don't have to be too technical in this test.

  • 2
    all sound ok in the right context. I know this is not your question but for information, in the UK, tertiary education refers to post-16 (including school level) education in a separate institution (e.g. technical college) as distinct from degree level or higher, which is "higher education". Tertiary education can also include "further education" which is post school but below degree level learning. Commented May 6 at 9:08
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    I could be wrong about this but "tertiary education" strikes me as an "international English" term. I don't think any native speaker of American English (my own dialect) would say that they plan on having a career in tertiary education, unless perhaps they're conversing with non-native speakers or writing something with them in mind. In the US it's called "post-secondary". Arbitrary. So the intended audience may drive which phrase you choose to use.
    – TimR
    Commented May 6 at 12:47
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    Per @RootOfAllThings’ answer, I’d advise caution because in higher education also has the different meaning of “employed in the field of higher education.” Commented May 6 at 12:59
  • tertiary education would be used only in the field of education as subject matter. Otherwise, we'd used higher education. I had a career in higher education, for example. Statistics about education would use tertiary.
    – Lambie
    Commented May 6 at 13:27

3 Answers 3


Any of those answers are fine, although (1) can be ambiguous and (2) is less general with the timing.

In colloquial American English "in X" can sometimes be taken as "in the business/field of X". That is, you may see "in higher education" describing people/events who are not actively studying for a degree, because they're related to the broader field of higher education (professors, administrators, etc.) Not a huge concern here, but something you might run into.

For "go on to higher education", this would be strange to describe someone who is actively studying. At age 18, I was going on to higher education. In my biography, it might say "after getting a scholarship, he went on to higher education." But for someone currently studying, they're not going anywhere at all; they're already at higher education!

And, as always, be aware that terms for various levels of education differ around the world and across levels of prestige. Training to be a plumber, lawyer, medical doctor, engineer, and/or historian might fall under tertiary, higher, vocational, higher, continuing, or other such "education" type terms, depending on where you're standing and who you're talking to.

  • 1
    I agree, "go on to HE" is either something you did in the past (I went on to HE) or intend to do in the future (I will be going on to HE), not what you are doing now ("I am in HE"). But note the ambiguity between BrE and AmE mentioned by Root of All Things. Commented May 6 at 11:53
  • So does "75% of British youngsters went on to higher education in 2014" work? It is something that happened in the past, but when I mentioned 2014, I felt that it referred to somebody actively studying at a point in time. That's why I'm still a little confused. Commented May 6 at 17:28

Perhaps the simplest word that you haven't mentioned is "university". You can say that you are in higher education by saying "I'm at university" or "I'm a university student". "College" is also possible, but there are a range of institutions called "colleges" in different education systems, so this may not work internationally. People are often surprised how varied are the education systems of USA, England, Scotland, and that these education systems are different from their own. It is easy to make assumptions that are not true internationally.

Universities generally offer degrees, so "I'm studying for a degree" is a way of indicating that you are in higher education. You could also use the name of a degree, "BA", "MSc" etc.

Finally, in context "I'm a student" might be enough. It could depend on how precise you want to be on the definition of "Higher" education.

What do you do?

I'm a student. I'm studying maths.

A school student would not be only be studying a single subject, so we can infer that this student is at university (or similar).

  • I assume people don't call vocational schools universities, but they are still higher education, aren't they? If that's the case, I guess to be at university might not cover the entire definition of to be in higher education, right? Commented May 6 at 17:49
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    Not higher education in the UK. en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Vocational_school This is what I mean about the diversity of education systems. If you don't need to be "too technical" than "I'm a student" is enough, and you can clarify exactly what level if asked.
    – James K
    Commented May 6 at 17:55

Young Americans may study at college after they successfully graduate from high school, they will continue their studies as undergraduates and may refer to the educational institution as school (what the British would normally call "uni" or "university").

The OP must be aware which nationality is being referred to in the text. If an exam question talks about the number of college students that might suggest American adolescents studying either at college or at university or it could refer to British secondary school leavers entering college.

In the UK there is another level of learning called "further education" for school leavers who wish to continue studying but—for whatever reason–prefer a polytechnic (more widespread in the UK before 1992) or technical college rather than university.


  • A secondary or high school student entering further education (mainly UK) is a young person aged between 16 and 19 who continues studying but not at university level.

  • An undergraduate (USA and UK) is a student who attends university. They are going to study for a degree at a college or university.

  • A postgraduate (college graduate USA) is a student with a first degree studying for a more advanced degree or a doctorate.

I believe the Canadian and Australian higher eduction systems are similar, and the term university is more typically used instead of college.

  • Thanks a lot for your effort but this is pretty complicated and there's so much information that I don't even know what to pick up for my essay... The exam question uses a kinda general term, it gives information about "the percentage of young people in higher education" Commented May 6 at 17:41
  • I agree it's a bit of an overload, especially the first time, so take away only the bits that are useful to you.
    – Mari-Lou A
    Commented May 6 at 18:08
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    @anIELTSlearner and now you have three ways to describe "young people in higher education“ 1. school leavers (entering higher education) 2. undergraduates 3. former high school students. Once the category has been established there's no need to repeat higher education.
    – Mari-Lou A
    Commented May 6 at 18:10
  • Are postgraduates in higher education? I'm afraid that using "undergraduates" leaves out a lot of people being in higher education. Or do you mean to say that I have to mention "people in higher education" first, and then use phrases like "these school leavers" or "these former high school students" later? Commented May 7 at 2:41
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    Postgraduates already have degrees, they are in higher education but they are usually older than school leavers. You probably won't need to nominate them in a report unless they are specifically mentioned in the question. Once you established the data refers to students entering higher education you won"t have to repeat that information for every statistic. You can talk about "former secondary school students" etc.
    – Mari-Lou A
    Commented May 7 at 3:21

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