Navigating the US Financial Aid Process as an International Student

Universities in the United States offer several types of aid, and it is important to understand your options to make an informed decision.

The maze that is the financial aid process can be confusing for any student, regardless of residency and citizenship status. Universities in the United States offer several types of aid, and it is important to understand your options to make an informed decision. While selecting the best fit both academically and socially is essential, it is also important to understand a school’s true cost.

True cost

The first thing to understand is the true cost of a university, including out-of-pocket expenses throughout the year. While you should subtract any scholarship money you have been offered, it is important to focus on the final cost after the scholarship, not the amount of the scholarship itself.

The best way to establish true cost is to find out the total amount that a school requires for the I-20 form. This typically includes costs for travel, books, personal items, and trips off campus, as well as tuition, fees, room, and board for one full year. While a student may end up spending less than this amount, proof of the available funds must be provided to obtain the I-20 and later, the F-1 student visa. If you are an American citizen or permanent resident, you will not be required to obtain an I-20; however, the amount required for students who need an I-20 will still pertain to true cost.

Two types of admission

There are two types of admission to American universities: need blind and need aware. Need-blind admission does not take your ability to cover the costs of your education into account. This gives all students an equal opportunity for admission based on the quality of the application and required materials.

Need-aware admission reviews your ability to cover the true cost of an education at the school. Some schools will not consider students for admission who cannot cover the full cost of the institution. Other schools will consider a limited number of these students based on the availability and their eligibility for scholarships.

Financial assistance

There are several forms of aid available to all students, regardless of whether they’re domestic or international. It is important to investigate all aid for which you may be eligible.

Need-based financial aid

Most need-based aid at U.S. universities is awarded to American citizens and eligible non-citizens through the Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA). Students should fill out the FAFSA as soon as possible after October 1 of the year prior to the year they plan to begin their university studies. There are federal and state deadlines for these forms, and each university may also have an internal deadline. On the FAFSA, students should list all schools to which they have applied or been admitted. The FAFSA will then calculate the student’s Estimated Family Contribution (EFC) and send this information to all universities listed. The schools will ultimately use the total cost of the university along with the EFC to determine need-based funding available to the student after they are admitted. They will typically provide a financial aid planning letter with personalized funding information as well. The FAFSA needs to be resubmitted every year of a student’s college education, as their eligibility for financial aid may change.

While the majority of universities in the United States award their need-based aid on the FAFSA (more FAFSA help and insights here), there are a number of institutions that also award international students using a form specific to their institution.

Need-based aid can come from several different sources. Grants, for example, can come from the university itself or the government. This is money that does not need to be repaid. Financial aid awarded as loans, however, does need to be paid back, although if the loan is subsidized, it means that the United States government will assist in paying the interest for a fixed amount of time. Work-study funds are provided to students through on-campus employment; these students work a pre-set number of hours per week and earn money for their time, which does not need to be repaid. Although government loans are typically only available to those eligible to fill out the FAFSA, international students who have someone in the United States who is willing to co-sign may be able to take out a private loan.

Merit-based awards

These funds vary greatly among schools, but the credentials that earn them remain the same. To select students for merit-based awards, the school will review exam scores, course work, and grades or GPA. The school may have several different types, such as awards just for international students, as well as specific majors of study or honors programs within the school. It is important to be knowledgeable about eligibility requirements and deadlines for these scholarships. Be sure to research the requirements, policies, and procedures for each school you are considering. You can also ask the school about scholarships for continuing students. If you are not offered a scholarship your first year, you may be eligible for continuing student scholarships in the future.


A part-time job is a great way for students to earn money while they are enrolled in university. There are two types of employment that students can obtain while in school.

On-campus employment is available to both international students and American citizens. Students who are eligible should fill out the FAFSA, as some of these jobs are reserved for students considered eligible through that form. On-campus jobs are a great way to gain practical experience while building your résumé. Off-campus jobs are typically only available to American citizens or permanent residents; however, international students may be considered due to economic hardship.

After finishing their degree, international students are also eligible for Optional Practical Training (OPT). This allows F-1 students to work off campus to gain experience in their field of study prior to going home or to continue on to the next level of study.

Other types of support

International students can also get support from sources outside the university. This may include government or employer sponsorship, a family member, or even a nonprofit organization. These sponsors generally have a vested interest in the degree the student will be receiving. For example, a country lacking engineers may sponsor students for particular degrees in engineering. If you are unfamiliar with a certain company or nonprofit organization, be sure to research them and understand their conditions prior to accepting a scholarship.

It’s important to choose the right school for you, as well as one you can afford. Before you enroll, make sure you will be able to support yourself throughout your education. If you have questions or concerns, speak with an admission officer at the schools you are considering. They will answer your questions and help you through the process of applying, enrolling, and ultimately attending.

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