Higher education in the US is notoriously expensive. But don’t despair: there are ways to fund your studies besides paying out of pocket. This guide will introduce you to the key types of scholarship you can earn.
Newspapers and online guides will often speak really generally about different types of scholarships, which can be misleading when it comes to working out which opportunities are available to you. Here are the three key types of US scholarship:
- Merit scholarship: awarded based solely on your aptitude in a certain area, like having good grades, demonstrating commitment to service, or excelling in art. These scholarships will have defined criteria as to who is eligible for them, and are typically open to all students regardless of their personal financial situation. Our guide breaks down the process.
- Sports Scholarships (called Athletic Scholarships in the USA): governed by bodies that regulate university sports in the USA - the NCAA is the most well known. Gaining an athletic scholarship is a very different process to the standard route of applying to university in the United States, but you can check out our guide as a starting place.
- Financial Aid: money that is awarded based on the student’s (and their family’s) own financial circumstances. It’s often known as a ‘bursary’ at schools in the UK and Europe. You can only gain this money if you demonstrate that you meet certain financial criteria, usually based on your parents’ income. Check out our guide to learn more.
The price of education
University in the United States can cost from $11,000 to upwards of $80,000 per year. International students are classified as ‘out-of-state’ meaning that if you’re attending a public university run by a particular state, you have to pay a higher fee than residents of that state. Private universities only have one fee that everybody pays regardless of their residency or citizenship status.
Not having American citizenship can make getting financial aid more difficult, but it’s definitely possible.
You’ll see a lot of schools talking about ‘need’, which is basically the word for how much you’re able (or unable) to pay to attend university. We have a guide breaking down what the different classifications of ‘need’ mean.
Key things to know
- To get a visa, international students need to prove they have access to funding for the first year of study - either out-of-pocket, or by having scholarships already lined up.
- 600+ US universities offer merit scholarships worth $20,000 or more to international students.
- 250 US universities offer ‘full ride’ scholarships, covering the full cost of attendance.
Who provides funding?
U.S. citizens have more aid available for them than international students because they are eligible for federal (ie central government) funding, which comes in several types:
- Need-based aid
Plus, they can get the much cheaper in-state tuition to their local state university.
Students without US citizenship (or equivalent statuses) don’t have access to federal funding or in-state tuition, so they have to seek aid from other sources:
- Directly from universities through merit, need, sport or niche scholarships.
- From outside organisations, normally through merit or need.
- From having a job, such as working on campus, waitressing, tutoring, or babysitting.
- Through loans. This isn't very common because foreign students in the US aren't able to get the same kinds of government-sponsored loans you'd get if you were studying in your native country, like the UK or many European countries. This means that if you take out a loan as an international student, it will be the same type of loan you'd get to buy a car or some furniture - which means interest rates might be high, and there will be serious penalties if you fall behind on payments. If you find yourself in a situation where you're considering taking out a loan, talk to your university or prospective university's financial aid office, and they'll be able to talk you through your options.
How much can international students get?
Some universities offer a bigger financial package to international students than others. For example, the University of Pennsylvania spends between 6 to 8 million dollars per year on supporting international students, whereas some universities don’t have a budget for it at all.
One thing that complicates matters is that if a university really wants you, they might try extra hard to provide you with the financial resources to attend - and that’s not something that stats from previous years can really reflect. So if you’re getting discouraged by the specific numbers you find while researching your dream school, keep in mind that it could still be worth your time to put together an excellent application and see what happens.
One tip: Consider applying to smaller or less famous universities. They tend to have lower fees, and are always looking to increase the number of international students on campus.
How do you discover sources of aid?
The first step is to check the university’s website to see if they offer aid to international students. You can also email their admissions or financial aid department - they’ll be happy to explain the available options to you.
Unifrog's US Search Tool is also a great way to search universities based on different criteria.
Finding scholarships will be hard, it will take a lot of time and dedication. Be prepared to write lots of e-mails, to ask questions, and to have your parents’ financial documents available.
Students should make sure to identify themselves to their prospective universities as international students whenever given the opportunity.
Depending on the type of scholarship the application process may be different. Generally you should be making the financial aid application at the same time as making the admittance application. You can learn more about the process on our individual guides to each type of scholarship, but generally speaking:
- Merit scholarships are generally awarded to students that surpass the academic standards upon admittance. They may require an application which can be found on the university’s student aid website, but often you’re automatically considered when you apply to the university.
- Need-based scholarship will require students to submit financial records to prove that they are worthy of financial aid, and may require students to submit extra essays. Application information is found on each university’s student aid website.
- Sports scholarships vary from school to school, but generally contacting coaches directly is the best way to go.