As senior-year students spend these weeks mulling over their university options, too many feel like they’re facing a financial brick wall. International students admitted to U.S. schools, in particular, may find themselves scrambling to find and unlock resources that will enable them to accept, and afford, an offer. This is a potential heartbreak-in-the-making that university-bound students who are at an earlier point in the process can avoid.
True, most international students seeking to study in the U.S. are not eligible for federal financial aid. But aid, provided by colleges and universities themselves, there is. Students can find out about the schools that make funds available, organize their application strategy around them, and aim not only for an offer of admission, but the financial means to accept it, and a life without student debt.
A crucial first step is understanding that finding a “right fit” school in the U.S. can be as much about affordability as it is about academics and campus life. How, and how much, families are prepared to pay should be at the top of the agenda when parents and their children begin to talk about what happens after high school. The discussion may point the way to an American degree, or it may suggest other choices, like university somewhere else, a job, or a gap year.
To help determine financial “fit,” the Net Price Calculator is every family’s best friend. This free, online tool is located on the website of every accredited U.S. school, and estimates how much and what types of financial aid a family can expect it to provide. In an exercise that takes about 15 minutes, the calculator asks for a family’s basic financial information, and then generates two numbers: the school’s net price, or the estimated cost of attendance for one year after financial aid, and the contribution the school expects the family to make. For a family that demonstrates financial need, the numbers should be good: the net price will be lower than the school’s advertised, or “sticker” price. The calculations are estimates -- and raise serious questions about the transparency of pricing in U.S. higher education -- but can help families organize their finances and plan an affordable university application strategy early on.
International students should be aware that need-based financial aid can include grants, loans, and even work-study opportunities that allow them to earn money on campus. They may also receive merit awards or scholarships, which are tuition discounts given to students who demonstrate a special quality -- artistic or athletic talent, geographic origin, academic achievement, or demonstrated leadership -- that a school wants. Students may qualify for need-based aid, merit aid, or both.
While not “free money,” student or parental loans are available to international students in the U.S. with an eligible cosigner, normally a U.S. citizen. Families may also take out private loans to bridge financial gaps. Loans can prove indispensable to financing an education, but terms vary widely and can be confusing, and borrowing carries the risk of long-term student or parental debt.
Local communities may also be helpful. The Fulbright program operates in 160 countries worldwide and is a resource for international scholars at all levels of post-secondary school education. The U.S. government portal EducationUSA offers nuts-and-bolts information in numerous local languages about applying to U.S. schools. The Bakala and Kellner Foundations in the Czech Republic both have programs to assist Czech students study abroad. Local employers, professional associations, civic and religious groups may provide scholarships. These programs do not usually run according to a U.S. university admissions calendar, so students should check deadlines and reach out to them early. U.S. schools generally require an enrollment commitment and deposit by May 1, and visa eligibility depends on a student’s ability to demonstrate financing.
Try to resist being seduced by prestige. Ivy League schools hold a special allure for many international students and can offer exceptionally generous aid, but admission rates among them for the 2021 academic year are hovering around the impossible, in the single digits.
Instead, plan ahead, do careful research, and follow the money. There is a long list of high-value U.S. colleges and universities that offer an outstanding education and put out the welcome mat for international students.
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