Blog 🍎 School 22nd February 2017

How International Students Can Afford to Attend US Universities

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James Leach

James is senior content marketing manager at BridgeU. He writes and directs content for BridgeU's university partners and our community of international schools

US universities are among the world’s most expensive. But if you’re an international student, there’s plenty of aid out there to help you afford your dreams.

If your students are thinking of applying to study in the US, but anxious about paying the fees, we’re here to help.

Applying for financial aid in the US is often a fraught process, especially for international students. Whilst applying to US colleges as an international student myself, I was initially unaware that I was even eligible for aid, and didn’t realise I would have to fill in financial aid forms that meant asking my parents to verify their assets and convert everything from HKD to USD.

This confusing state of affairs means that fewer than 20% of international undergraduate students end up receiving financial aid. International students often rely on personal or family funds, but they might be missing out on all the different types of aid that they could receive. 

According to the College Board, the average cost of tuition and fees for private colleges was $33,480 per year. For public universities, out-of-state tuition averaged $24,930 each year. 

This heavy price tag means that many international students will often need to turn to aid in order to study in the US. There are two primary types of financial aid available to international students: need-based and merit-based awards.

Understanding the difference between need-based and merit-based aid, and how much of each you might qualify, is a crucial first step when it comes to affording an international education.

Do international students qualify for financial aid?

International students are often under the presumption that they do not qualify for need-based aid but many colleges, especially private ones, aim to distribute aid as equitably as possible.

For example, Harvard University’s Financial Aid Office states that foreign students have the same access to financial aid funding as US citizens. What’s more, Harvard students whose parents make less than $65,000 a year do not need to pay tuition.

Smaller liberal arts colleges, such as Amherst College, also provide aid to international students, with around 50% awarded aid in 2014-15.

Need-based financial aid is awarded according to the demonstrated financial need of each student, such as family income and cost of living (which differs according to the student’s home country).

Some colleges are need-blind, meaning that an admission decision is made regardless of whether the student requires financial aid, whilst some colleges are need-aware in that they look at who can afford funding before making an admission decision.

Although these are the two main forms of financial aid policies, there are also colleges that can meet full demonstrated need but are need-aware. For example, Brown University and Cornell University are need-aware for international students.

These colleges can grant full financial aid to a student, but it becomes more difficult for that student to gain admission compared to someone who has the necessary funds.

Merit-based scholarships

Another avenue of aid international students can consider are merit-based scholarships, which are often academically focused but the amount offered is usually less than need-based aid.

For example, University of Southern California offers a variety of scholarships: some are full-tuition, but a majority are one-time awards. These can be ‘automatic’, in that students are automatically offered a scholarship if they meet the threshold.

Unlike need-based aid, merit-based aid can be highly competitive due to academic thresholds, essays and interviews. Merit-based aid can also take the form of athletic, talent or special population scholarships based on regional, alumni or religious status.

Merit-based aid may be perceived as more ‘prestigious’ than need-based aid but students need to be realistic about the amount of money offered by merit-based scholarships.

These scholarships can be ‘stacked’ on top of need-based financial aid, which is why they are not the sole means of aid and are more often used to fill the gap between the need-based financial aid package the college offers and what the student is able to pay.

However, students need to keep in mind that these scholarships can be taken away if they do not meet the requirements throughout the year.

Athletes that are not able to play in their second or third year, for example, will not have their scholarships renewed.  

International students need to make sure they have a realistic plan for funding their university studies in the US.

Even if students believe they have the means to pay for basic tuition, there are often unseen costs for international students ranging from visa application fees to plane tickets and health insurance and taxes on non-tuition aid such as room and board.

At UC Berkeley, the cost of attendance excluding tuition is approximately $18,864, whilst at universities based in expensive cities, such as NYU, the cost of living is much higher, and expenses can go up to $28,000 or higher.

School advisors should emphasize financial aid information to parents during the university preparation process. Students will need to fill in their cost of living, parental income, and expected support in forms such as the International Student Financial Aid Application (IFSA) and CSS Profile (College Scholarship Service).

Finances can be a huge barrier to some students hoping to attend the school of their choice and the key to success when filling in financial aid forms is to honestly represent finances and advise students to plan ahead.

Despite financial barriers, there is a multitude of resources available to international students when it comes to applying for financial aid.

Counsellors are a great point of resource, and websites such as NASFAA also provide information about financial aid for international students.

Students may be put off by the hassles of applying for financial aid but they need to consider the value of a US education, which is globally unprecedented due to the flexibility of academic options, value on personal development and a diverse student population.

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