Financial Tips for Disadvantaged International Students

University can be expensive for international students in the US. Here's how economically disadvantaged students can pay for their education.

With the effects of the coronavirus pandemic in full swing, international students face unprecedented uncertainty about studying in the United States. But that doesn’t mean students should give up on their goals of attaining an American education. However, US colleges often come with hefty price tags, and economically disadvantaged students will need to do their homework to find funding. If you’re an international student hoping to make your higher education more achievable and affordable, here are a few hidden ways that can help you pay for university.

Find a school that offers you funding

Many international students and families focus on well-known, highly ranked, ultra-competitive universities when starting their search; for example, Princeton University had a 5.8% acceptance rate in 2020. Some of these top-ranked private schools have generous need-based aid for international students, so they’re worth a shot, but experts suggest widening your university search.

Professionals agree the best way to pay for a US education is to look outside of U.S. News & World Report rankings for non-name-brand universities where you can stand out. Many schools have scholarships and grants for international students because they want a wide range of students on their campus. “If a student is willing to look at a school where they might be a very attractive applicant, their opportunities are going to be greater than if they look like every other student at an elite school,” says Stacey MacPhetres, Senior Director of College Finance at Bright Horizons College Coach. It could be a school like the College of Wooster, University of Vermont, or Valparaiso University—it’s a matching game. And while private “sticker prices” are usually higher than public university costs, a private school might have more scholarship awards to offer, and it could end up costing less.

“Many colleges are trying to diversify their student body, and being a lower-income, underserved international student can give you leverage,” says Tiffany Johansen, Placement Manager at the Institute of International Education (IIE). For example, North Central College in Naperville, Illinois, awards merit scholarships as well as “campus enrichment awards” that help with campus living costs, says Kimberly Larsen, Executive Director and Assistant Dean of the North Central’s Center for Global Education. Another example is the University of Minnesota, which offers renewable Global Excellence Scholarships to first-year international students. The US has thousands of colleges, so finding a good financial fit will take work—but it will be well worth it. 

Related: University Search: Thinking Beyond Rankings and Name Brands

Prepare an application that stands out

Your application for admission should highlight why you’re a unique candidate, showcasing valuable skills, grades, test scores, strong personal essays, and any achievements or awards. With the impact COVID-19 is having on US students, admission officers are changing their focus on what’s important—for example, SAT and ACT test scores aren’t required at many schools this year because of canceled test dates—so be sure to find out what your schools of interest are emphasizing as you get closer to preparing your applications.

Also ensure that a university is right for you before you do anything else. Confirm that it’s strong in your field of study, and consider class sizes and if it’s in an environment where you’ll thrive (such as a big city or rural area, a small or large campus, etc.), Johansen says. Geographic location alone can influence university cost, with schools in the middle of the country generally having lower living costs than ones located on the more expensive coasts. 

File your application and financial aid forms early

International students should fill out any financial aid forms early to qualify for institutional aid, either the CSS Profile or a form unique to the school. Ask the financial aid office at your school(s) of interest what’s required, paying close attention to all deadlines. With the complexity of application and scholarship deadlines, it’s advisable to begin gathering materials at least six months in advance and submit your applications early, Johansen says. That way, if the university notifies you of a missing document, you’ll have time to submit it before the deadline (typically beginning around October 1). Sometimes priority deadlines for scholarships are even earlier, so ask about those as well.

Look for private scholarships

Outside of institutional funding (generally the best source of money), you should scour the internet for outside scholarships. Many countries have scholarships or grants to help their students study abroad. However, these scholarships may put limitations on your field of study, so be sure to explore the requirements. Research your country’s education foundation to learn more, or contact a StudyUSA office (for a fee), which are located in many countries around the world. 

EducationUSA, the US Department of State network of advising centers around the world, posts scholarship information from US universities as well as outside scholarships. IIE also administers a number of international student scholarships among other fee-based services. Some organizations such as the United Nations and the World Health Organization have scholarships, though many are for graduate degrees. And if you need more options, scholarship search tools abound online. 

Related: How COVID-19 Is Affecting International Students

Consider community college as a stepping-stone

Completing your first two years at a community college then transferring to a four-year university is another path to save money that many American students take, since tuition at two-year schools is usually considerably lower. However, it’s best to know where you plan to transfer before you enroll at a community college so you can track transferable credits. Contact academic advisors at both institutions to research course information and articulation agreements (formal partnerships between institutions of higher education that help ensure your credits transfer seamlessly from one school to another). Many four-year institutions offer bigger merit scholarships to incoming freshmen than to transfer students, so you’ll need to take that into consideration as well; community college might not be the cost-savings path you expect.  

Calculate full costs and plan before committing

It’s best to stay open to all your university options until final numbers are tallied. After scholarships, your family will need to be able to show they can cover the balance for the year by completing a Certification of Finance form with documents such as bank statements, MacPhetres says. Most often, families pay with student and parent savings, extended family contributions, or possibly a sponsor. “To avoid financial stress, it’s important to follow the estimates the university has outlined for students,” Johansen says. A school’s I-20 form, part of your student visa application, will list a total dollar amount the school requires. Be sure your family can cover that cost before you say yes to a particular university. 

Plan to work on campus

Many colleges offer work-study jobs that are available to international students. These jobs are part-time on-campus positions (up to 20 hours per week) that build job skills and give students another way to connect on campus, Larsen says—in addition to earning money for school. Her office encourages students to work because earnings can help cover costs like books and personal expenses; your school can help you with the process.

Be prepared for surprising fees

American health care costs and schools’ health insurance policies (up to $3,000 per year) often surprise international students. “Students need to understand the difference between a primary care visit, an urgent care visit, and an ER visit and the costs of prescriptions,” Johansen says. Another surprising cost is the upfront price tag for living off campus, including first and last month’s rent and a deposit. However, you may find that living off campus with roommates and a grocery store budget may be less expensive than on-campus living. Also be sure to factor in a school’s annual tuition increase as you calculate four-year costs. 

Related: 11 Unexpected College Costs You Should Know

Build a budget

Living within your means is key to keeping your university costs affordable. Larsen says her office works closely with international students to help them understand the American cost of living, encouraging students to buy or rent used textbooks, shop at thrift stores, and cook together with other students rather than going out. “We help them look for ways to save in a regular way,” she says. Students also need to budget for summer living costs if they’re not returning home between semesters. You might consider summer volunteer opportunities that offer free or reduced housing, MacPhetres says.

Stay up-to-date on coronavirus impacts

American universities have been hit hard financially by the COVID-19 pandemic. It’s too soon to tell what the individual effects will be on a particular institution, experts say, but some schools may need to reduce their budget for scholarships. Keep in touch with representatives at your universities of interest, and remain open-minded about where you want to enroll in the future.

For more information and updates on the coronavirus pandemic, check out our COVID-19 student resources page.

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