Last Updated: Oct 7, 2016
“I was once told by one of my teachers in high school, back in Islamabad, that ‘if you live in one part of the world and you have an opinion about another part of the world, it is bound to be wrong in some way,’” says Arham Muneer, who came from Pakistan to study in the United States. “These words always stuck with me and became a major factor in deciding where I would go to college.... I knew I wanted to go abroad for college if my parents could afford to send me.”
Fortunately for Muneer, he received significant need- and merit-based grants from Ithaca College in upstate New York, where he is now a Television-Radio major. He also helped cover costs by seeking out departmental and endowed scholarships and becoming a resident assistant on campus.
Hundreds of thousands of international undergrads like Muneer come to the United States for college each year. But while America offers some of the best educational opportunities in the world, its universities also have some of the highest price tags. To make sure US dollars don’t get in the way of your US college dreams, you’ll need to understand how financial aid for international students works.
Calculate the true cost
To know if you can afford a particular US university, you need to understand its true full cost. This is the total amount you and your family will need to pay at the end of four years. And cost of university goes far beyond tuition, room, and board; you’ll also have to take into consideration things like books and supplies, health insurance, personal items, travel, and more.
“It’s very important that international students plan for all expenses. You don’t want to get here and be stuck,” says Lisa Hoskey, Director of Student Financial Services at Ithaca College.
One of the best ways to determine the full cost of a university is to find out the total dollar amount the school requires for the I-20 form (required for your student visa). Once you have this figure, keep in mind that tuition and fees generally increase between 1%–5% each year.
Finally, don’t lose sight of the total cost of attending a university, even after you receive any financial aid. Yes, $20,000 in aid is a lot of money. But if a university costs $40,000, you may be better off going to the $25,000 college that only offered $10,000.
Find the right financial fit
International students often focus heavily on America’s most famous or well-known colleges, where financial aid is either highly competitive or extremely limited. But there are more than 4,000 schools in the United States! Conducting a thorough US university search opens up more options—often at a lower cost. Don’t forget, college in the United States is all about taking advantage of the opportunities available to you.
“International parents and students don’t have a whole lot of information to go on, so they end up focusing heavily on college rankings,” says James Dorsett, Director of the Office for International Students and Scholars at Michigan State University, which enrolls a huge number of international students each year. “But if you plan on returning to your home country and it’s most important you went to college in the US, did well in school, became fluent in English, and so on, you might be better off going to a school that’s a little cheaper.” Another idea is to consider a university in a suburban or rural area, where the cost of living is lower. (Online cost-of-living calculators can help you compare expenses by city and state.)
Be aware of need-aware admission
Once you have determined the best fit for your financial situation, there are two types of admission you need to know about: need-blind and need-aware. Each university takes a different approach, and sometimes they even use a combination of the two.
With need-blind admission, universities do not pay attention to how much you and your family can afford to pay when deciding whether to accept you as a student. With schools that are need-aware, however, if you can't pay the total cost, it decreases your chance of admission.
This means if you and your family can afford a university with a need-aware admission process, it may be wise to not apply for financial aid to give yourself the best chance of being accepted.
“Financial resources are tight right now, and some schools have been cutting resources to international students,” says Pallas Snider Ziporyn, author of The International Student's Guide to American Colleges. “Unfortunately, the number of schools that are need-blind for international students has shrunk over the past few years.”
Prepare to make an investment
According to the Institute of International Education (IIE)’s annual Open Doors report, international students and their families end up covering the bulk of college expenses by themselves. In the 2014–2015 academic year, personal and family income made up an estimated 80% of the total cost of college, with a remaining 8% coming from the school and 9% from a foreign government or university. An additional 3% came from other sources, like a sponsor organization.
What’s more is that international students are actually required by US law to prove they or their family can afford to pay for the entirety of their university studies in the United States. This is taken into account during the visa application process.
How to apply for US financial aid
In order to assess your ability to pay, you will need to provide your potential US universities with information about your and your family's income and assets. While US citizens and permanent residents fill out a form called the Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA), international students are not eligible for government aid and need to fill out different documents. Some colleges also use a standard form called the CSS/Financial Aid PROFILE, while other schools may use a form that is unique to them. In any case, you will likely need to provide official documents ranging from bank statements to letters confirming your parents’ employment.
Be sure to check with your university on its specific requirements and deadlines. The admission and financial aid processes start early, usually about 18–24 months before you graduate from high school/secondary school. Given the competitiveness and complexity of securing financial aid as an international student, you may want to start even earlier.
“One of the most common mistakes is not completing all information on the required forms and not submitting them by the deadline,” says Edward Monks, Director of University Placement, Academic and Experiential Learning, at IIE, which administers a number of international student scholarships, among other services.
Also, if you anticipate needing financial aid at any point during your four years of university—for example, maybe a younger sibling will start school two years after you—you may need to tell your university at the time of admission. Some schools don’t let international students reapply for additional aid after the first year.
Understanding types of financial aid
Financial aid comes in many forms, such as scholarships, which do not have to be paid back, and loans, which do have to be repaid. Unfortunately, international students are not eligible for loans from the US government—but there are some private student loan companies.
Most universities post the average amount of financial aid students received in previous years on their websites, which can be very helpful. “When evaluating a school, look at the total aid dollars given to international students and the number of students supported to assess the full scope of resources available,” Ziporyn says.
Scholarships, sometimes called grants or awards, may be merit-based or need-based. US universities and academic departments, nonprofit organizations, private companies, and foreign governments or universities are all potential scholarship sources. If you are accepted into one of the United States’ more elite schools, they will likely be able to provide more scholarships and grants thanks to large financial endowments. At most universities, however, scholarships are highly competitive and typically reserved for top applicants.
That said, it is always worth trying to get free money. “It’s work to obtain scholarships,” says Dorsett. “If you want to get free money, it doesn’t come free. You have to work for it.”
You can learn about scholarship opportunities on your university’s website. But you should still call both the financial aid office and future academic department at your intended universities to make sure you’re aware of all financial aid opportunities available to you.
“Sometimes there are scholarships that are not posted on the website,” says Ziporyn. “Also, the person at the aid office might be the one making decisions about how to allocate resources. Showing interest and asking questions may increase your odds of receiving aid.”
You should check for scholarship opportunities from sources outside your university as well. Several free, searchable databases are available online (like right here!). One of the best scholarship search tools specifically for international students is offered through IIE at fundingusstudy.org. Its database can help students pinpoint scholarship opportunities from both universities and other sources, like foreign governments.
These opportunities can vary from year to year and are often unique to particular countries or areas of study. For example, in recent years there was a special scholarship for engineers from Brazil, which the IIE helped administer to 27,000 students who came to the United States.
One last important detail: as you research scholarships, especially on lesser-known websites, be cautious of potential scams. Never send money, bank account numbers, or credit card numbers to any organization that promises a scholarship in return.
While US citizens and permanent residents can apply for federal loans, only private loans are available for international students. Typically, these loans require a creditworthy cosigner who is a US citizen.
“In my experience, it can be very difficult for students to find a loan,” says Hoskey. “But that’s not to say they don’t exist.”
If you are able to secure a loan, carefully review its terms, especially interest rates, which can vary widely (and a difference of a couple percentage points can translate into thousands of dollars in additional debt).
Other ways to offset university costs
Most students, international and domestic, end up paying for school through a combination of different types of financial aid and other cost-saving methods. You just need to get a little creative…
Although international students are not eligible for federal “work-study” from the US government, many universities offer their own work-study or other part-time jobs that can help offset living expenses.
“Work-study primarily helps supplement living expenses or provides pocket money,” says Dorsett. “But a lot of international students do work, and it can contribute significantly—especially if they can work in the summer, like with a paid internship.”
International students will need to review the regulations for their specific visa to determine whether they can work, what kind of work they can do, and how many hours a week they can do it. Typically, international students are limited to 20 hours a week during school.
Start at a community college
It’s becoming increasingly popular for international students to attend a community college for the first two years of university, where classes are less expensive, and then transfer into a four-year institution.
“For students who have limited English skills, this is a particularly attractive option because community colleges typically have lower admission standards or open enrollment policies and are more accepting of students coming in at different levels,” says Ziporyn. “Plus, there is the added benefit of having two years to improve grades and extracurricular activities so you can enroll and graduate from a better institution than might be accessible immediately.”
The earlier you graduate from university, the less money you’ll pay. “A lot of students try to take college-level courses in high school and have those courses transfer,” says Monks. “That can significantly reduce the time it takes to complete the degree in the US and, therefore, reduce costs.”
Once you’re enrolled, depending on your schedule and workload capabilities, you could also take more credits per term. “For example, a student could take intersession or summer session classes—sometimes that’s included in the cost of tuition—and accelerate the time to degree,” adds Monks.
Remember, even once you’re enrolled in university, emergencies can happen. Dorsett reminds students that ignoring bad situations only makes them worse and to immediately seek help from the financial aid or international students offices if your financial situation changes.
“It can be as simple as they’re supposed to pay a bill by this Friday and can’t,” says Dorsett. “But if they talk to the right people, their due date could be extended by four weeks. Sometimes that can take care of it. But if they hadn’t done anything and Friday came, their classes could have been cancelled. That would put them out of status and would have all sorts of repercussions.”
Universities want you to succeed. Some schools even have emergency tuition awards for students in their last two semesters who are struggling to make ends meet. According to Dorsett, Michigan State provides such an award to 20–25 students a year.
The point is, if you need help, ask.
Financial aid is available if you know where to look
Making sure you have all the information about financial aid is the first step to successfully paying for college. The next step is to be persistent as you look for help covering costs.
“One thing I would definitely tell international students is that no matter what college you go to, there will most likely be numerous opportunities for you to help bring the bill down a little bit in the form of scholarships, paid on-campus positions, and other ways,” says Muneer.
“However, do not simply assume that things will happen on their own and you just need to worry about paying for the first semester or first year. It is important to understand that college is an important, albeit pricey investment, and while you can absolutely get help with it, you need to seek out those opportunities.”