Affordability and the Cost of College: More Than Financial Aid

Director of International Admissions, Gannon University

The universities in the United States are as diverse and abundant as the international students who attend them, students hailing from all over the world with many aspirations and goals. It is no secret that students must make the best all-around match when considering universities; yet, financial considerations and affordability are often excluded when those choices are made. At the end of the day, though it should not be the sole deciding factor, university selection and academic preparation cannot be considered outside the context of affordability.

So, what exactly is affordability? It’s defined as the ability to spare money with little inconvenience, but given that total costs for many universities are well over $40,000 USD per year, one would need to spare quite a bit of money to not be inconvenienced. Yet, every year, countless international students manage to do so. By considering university costs, financial aid, and affordability from a number of angles, you can too.

Affordability begins with cost

There is much confusion and misunderstanding regarding the cost of higher education in the United States. Students often make their choice simply based on their perception of cost to find that quality is not necessarily related or that different costs apply to different people depending on certain conditions. Your ability to obtain an I-20, get a student visa, and sustain your education correlates with your ability to afford your university of choice. Since cost is the foundation of affordability, let’s take a closer look at the variations and implications.

Direct, total, and I-20 costs

These terms are often interchanged but can mean very different things. Direct cost is the sum of tuition, room and board, and fees. Total cost usually includes books, supplies, and travel in addition to direct cost. I-20 cost will often be the higher amount, including all anticipated costs that one might incur during the first academic year: tuition, room, board, books, health insurance, and fees. If you are an American citizen, look at total cost to include travel for financial aid purposes. If you are not an American citizen, you will have to show resources to cover the I-20 cost as listed for any given school.

Double-check: Be sure to ask about total cost or I-20 cost. Do not simply accept direct cost as the answer for the cost of attendance.

Public or private  

Public universities in the United States are operated by the government at the state and county level. Each state has its own system of higher education funded by residents through taxes. Community colleges are typically operated by counties within a state and funded by residents of any one county. Public universities are much less expensive for the residents of the state or county from which the university is located. If you are not a resident of the county or state, then you will pay out-of-county or out-of-state costs, which are often as high as private universities’.

Private universities are not government operated and are not obligated to make accommodations for students based on residency.

Double-check: Be sure to ask about differences in costs based on one’s residency or origin.

Need-blind or need-aware admission

These terms are institutional responses to sources of funding (in relation to cost) that will guide you in your continued interest in any one university. Need-blind admission means the university will only assess your academic profile to determine your admission; however, your finances will be assessed as a basis for issuing the I-20.

Need-aware admission means that the university will assess both your academic profile and finances as a basis for admission. If you cannot demonstrate an ability to fully pay the university’s costs, then you will not be considered for admission.

Double-check: Be sure to ask if the university makes need-blind admission decisions. If not, then you may be wasting your time and effort with universities that will not allow you the time beyond admission to establish sources of funding that are required for issuing the I-20.

Affordability and financial aid

Now that you have a better understanding of cost, you are in a stronger position to consider other aspects of affordability. Without a doubt, financial aid in its many forms helps to make an education affordable. As with cost, applications for financial aid have many terms that cause confusion or misunderstanding. Prepare by examining financial aid categorically, from the sources that greatly affect affordability.

Financial aid awarded by the university is often called institutional or campus-based aid, and it generally takes two forms: need-based or merit-based aid.

Need-based financial aid

As the term suggests, funding is typically a function of the inability to pay for one’s education. If you are an American citizen, you may file the Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA), which will determine your financial need and eligibility for grants and loans as facilitated by the federal and many state governments. The form is both paper-based and available online. It cannot be completed before January 1 of the year when you will begin your studies at the university level; it should be completed as soon after January 1 as possible and no later than May 1 of the same year and subsequent years of your tenure as an undergraduate student. (Yes, you have to complete the form each year as an undergraduate student.) You can file the FAFSA online to save time and expense. The FAFSA is then used to calculate your Estimated Family Contribution, or EFC. The need-based formula goes something like this:

Total Cost of University for One Year - Estimated Family Contribution (EFC) = Financial Need

You can determine the total cost by making inquiries or researching costs for each individual school. You will not know your EFC until you complete the FAFSA and list the schools to which you intend to be considered for financial aid. As long as you list the school on the FAFSA and have been accepted at that school, then you should get a financial aid package based on the above formula.

If you are not an American citizen, you will not be able to file the FAFSA. Yet, there are a number of universities that have need-based aid for international students. For example, many Ivy League schools only have need-based aid (their entire applicant pool is academically stellar, making merit-based scholarships difficult to award!). If a university has need-based financial aid for international students, you will most likely have to complete an institutional/supplemental form. Once the university receives the form, which will most likely include your family’s financial resources and assets, you will be considered for need-based aid.

Typical sources of need-based aid

  • Institutional or government grants. This is free money that is not tied to an academic profile and does not need to be repaid.
  • Loans, both subsidized and unsubsidized. Subsidized means the government will pay part of the interest rate during a fixed time for the loan.
  • Work-study. These funds are provided through campus-based jobs. Unlike loans and grants, work-study monies are paid to you as you work and earn the money, usually on a biweekly or monthly basis.
  • Remember: only American citizens can receive government-level grants, and international students will always need a U.S.-based guarantor (co-signer) to take out a loan.

Double-check: Stay on top of deadlines for forms, and make sure you know what financial aid is available for American citizens versus international students at the universities you’re considering.

Merit-based or gift aid

The most frequent sources of financial aid are merit-based scholarships and awards or what some people call gift aid. Merit-based aid is usually related to three categories: academic, athletic, and non-academic merit. Academic scholarships vary in amount and are tied to one’s academic profile (e.g., GPA, test scores, etc.). In short, the better the profile, the higher the scholarship level. Be careful to note any deadlines and criteria for consideration that might be different than the requirements for admission.

Coaches award athletic scholarships as a way to attract exceptional talent. In the United States, intercollegiate sports are the context for most athletic scholarships. Most universities belong to either the NCAA or NAIA, and these athletic agencies regulate the awarding of scholarships. (Note: schools in the NCAA Division III do not award athletic scholarships.)

Finally, nonacademic merit, or talent, scholarships or awards are not directly related to traditional academic profiles. Many universities will offer awards simply because you come from another country. Some universities will offer talent awards in music, the performing arts, or other applied-arts programs. Art awards typically require an audition or portfolio. As with academic awards, you should verify deadlines and contact information, since admission offices typically do not handle talent awards.

Double-check: Be sure to note deadlines and processes that may be different than the requirements for admission; make note of the staff that handle the processes. International students should make specific inquiries into awards and aid for international students. A university might have merit-based aid, but only for American citizens!


Employment options exist for both American citizens and international students. For American citizens, most employment comes through need-based aid, defined above, and labeled work-study. For international students, employment is restricted to three forms: on-campus, Optional Practical Training (OPT), and
economic hardship.

On-campus employment is permitted for any international student on an F-1 visa—up to 20 hours per week when school is in session and full time when school is not in session. Employment options will vary from school to school.

Optional Practical Training is provided for any international student on an F-1 visa after one attains his or her degree. It typically provides 12 months with an American employer as long as the work is related to the field of study. OPT is available after each level of degree (associate, bachelor’s, master’s, and terminal/Ph.D.).

Off-campus work is only available when sources of funding have been compromised (economic hardship), such as when a family business closes or a death occurs. This type of employment must be approved by the federal government and cannot occur during the first year of study. All three forms of employment are facilitated through campus-based processes and usually through an international student office.

Double-check: Be sure to ask about employment opportunities on campus that are not related to university work-study and need-based funds.

Third-party support

After campus-based aid, most sources of funding come from governments, the corporate community, foundations, and the nonprofit sector. The sources are many and vary across regions and in requirements. It is not uncommon for corporations to sponsor students who will attain their degrees and return to work for the company. Similarly, non-government organizations (NGOs) have funding opportunities in some countries but not others, depending on their mission and goals. There are many governments that have generous levels of sponsorship, as demonstrated by the Saudi Arabian Cultural Mission, the Embassy of Kuwait, or the newly created program for Iraqi students. The American government also has a number of funding opportunities for international students through its Fulbright Scholarships or USAID.

Double-check: Be sure to research third-party funding sources, especially through the Internet. Embassies often have information on sources that originate in their respective countries as well.

Affordability and the family

Regardless of your citizenship, you may have additional costs to cover after all external sources of funding have been considered, and before you can begin your classes. If you are an international student, this consideration is central to obtaining your student visa. Financial support from one’s family continues to define over two-thirds of the overall sources of funding for international students. These sources need to be accessed—if necessary—to support your education for one academic year as determined by a university’s I-20 cost. In fact, a university will not be able to issue your I-20 until all of your sources of funding equal or exceed the cost of attendance as required by the I-20. Bank statements or a statement of financial assets from a financial institution are the most common documents used to show family financial support.

Whether you are an American citizen or an international student, it is natural for your family to exhaust external sources of funding before using personal resources; thus it is critical for you and your family to fully understand the total cost and the other sources of funding you can obtain.

Double-check: What is the remaining cost of all educational expenses after all sources of financial aid are considered? Does your family have personal resources in any form to cover these expenses?

Affordability and the visa

If you are an American citizen living abroad, you have the convenience of being spared the necessity of an F-1 visa before entering the United States. If you are an international student, you will not be able to get your F-1 visa until a U.S. consular officer approves you. You cannot make your visa appointment at the U.S. consulate until you receive your I-20. You will not receive I-20 until you have been accepted academically and have demonstrated financial ability for any one university. You can see by this sequence just how important affordability will affect your final ability to come to the United States. In fact, the consular officer has the discretion to make further inquiry into your financial ability in relation to the university where you intend to study. Requests for income statements and a greater scrutiny of a family’s financial assets are not uncommon—they ensure that you do not go to a school that you ultimately cannot afford, now or in the future.

Double-check: What other documents does the U.S. Consulate need for your visa interview? Do they include additional financial statements?

Affordability after the start of classes

Both American citizens and international students will have other methods to support their educational expenses once they get to campus. One of the most overlooked considerations is the tuition payment plan in its many variations. Most universities will not require you to pay in full the total cost for each semester or period of study; instead, you may have up to 12 months to pay your educational expenses in increments, in return for a small processing fee.

As for financial aid, some academic departments will provide small scholarships as an incentive to perform well in your studies. You should ask about the availability of such funds and the requirements for consideration. (Be aware that most scholarships awarded will be available throughout your education provided that you maintain a minimum GPA. Be careful to not fall below this minimum level, or you may risk your scholarship.)

Double-check: Are there payment plans or other forms of financial aid after the start of classes? Will you need to maintain a minimum GPA to keep any form of merit-based aid?

All things considered, you can see how affordability can help or hinder your bid for a U.S.-based education. Yet, you now know that affordability is not just determined by financial aid; it includes a number of considerations that may impact your admission, your chance to get a student visa, and the ability to achieve your educational goals. None of these considerations are “rocket science” or excessively complicated.

With careful reflection and consideration, you can ask the right questions of the right people to form a collective profile of your best university choice. The cost of not going to the university that best suits your needs—or of not going to university at all—is far too great, both now and in the future.

Not sure? Ask!

Use this checklist of important financial questions to make sure that you don’t forget a step or miss an opportunity.

  • What are the costs as either an American or international student?
  • Is there a difference in cost based on residency at any level?
  • Will the university determine admission without regard to sources of funding?
  • Does the university have need-based financial aid for international students?
  • What are the options and requirements for merit-based aid?
  • Does merit-based aid at any level apply to international students?
  • What are the deadlines and processes for either merit- or need-based aid?
  • Are there employment opportunities on campus outside of need-based aid?
  • Are there employment opportunities on campus for international students?
  • Are there third-party sources of aid that apply to your condition or context?
  • What are the payment plans for prorating educational expenses?
  • Are there other forms of financial aid after a student begins classes?


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