When considering the finance of US higher education, it’s important to understand the difference between Merit Scholarships, Sports Scholarships and Financial Aid.
Many online and newspaper articles confuse these, which can sometimes make students believe that there is funding available at some universities which is not. In short:
- A merit scholarship is awarded based solely as a result of the student’s aptitude in a particular area: academics, service, the arts of others. 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
- Sports Scholarships (called Athletic Scholarships in the USA) are a more regimented system, governed by bodies which 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, and you would be well advised to consult a specialist in this area.
- Financial Aid is money that is awarded based on the student’s (and their family’s) own financial circumstances, and is often known as a ‘bursary’ at schools in the UK and Europe. Students can only gain this money if they fit within defined financial eligibility criteria.
The price of education
University in the United States can cost from $11,000 to upwards of $80,000 dollars per year. International students are classified as ‘out-of-state’ meaning that if attending a public university run by a particular state, they have to pay a higher fee than residents of that state. Private universities only have one fee that all students pay, regardless of their residency or citizenship status.
When looking to bring down the cost of an American education, a student can take several routes. Not having American citizenship makes receiving financial aid more difficult, but with some hard work it is possible.
Some things you should know
- To get a visa, international students need to prove they have access to funding for the first year of study
- 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
If they are attending a state university and they reside in that state, US residents can also get ‘in-state’ tuition which is much lower than ‘out-of-state’ tuition (as much as three times lower).
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 organizations normally through merit or need
- From having a job, such as working on campus, waitressing, tutoring, or babysitting
- Through loans. While not very common, international students may be able to finance their education through loans. Some banks are willing to provide non-citizens with loans as long as they have a creditworthy U.S. citizen co-sign the loan for them
How much are international students awarded?
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.
Here are some examples of how much US universities awarded international students in the 2016-2017 academic year:
- Amherst College awarded aid to 75 out of a total 112 international students with an average award of $38,395
- Harvard College awarded aid to 435 out of 665 international students with an average of $36,754
- Wellesley College awarded aid to 68 out of 184 international students with an average of $37,199
- Williams College awarded aid to 89 out of 140 international students with an average award of $37,414
One thing that complicates matters (there’s always something complicated with the US applications system!) is that if a university really wants you, they might try extra hard to provide you with the financial resources to attend - and this might not show up when you look at the stats from previous years.
One tip: consider applying to smaller universities that have lower fees to begin with and are always looking to increase the number of international students they host.
Need-blind and full-need met
Only 5 universities in the U.S. are both need-blind and full-need met for all students regardless of their nationality, meaning that if you are accepted, the school will provide you with any finances that may be needed for you - no matter how much - to attend.
These schools are:
- MIT, Massachusetts Institute of Technology
- Harvard University
- Princeton University
- Yale University
- Amherst College
Many more universities operate needs-aware admissions - ie they look at how much financial aid you will require - but if they admit you they commit to providing the full need that you require.
The problem here is that each university has a limited pool of financial aid to draw from, so if a university is comparing two otherwise equal candidates and one requires less aid than another, the richer one is more likely to be admitted. This is important, because asking a university for aid (when you could otherwise actually afford to pay the cost to attend) can place an applicant into a much more competitive applicant pool.
How do you discover sources of aid?
Should they require funding, checking with individual universities to see if they offer aid to international students should be the first thing on a student’s to-do list.
You can do this easily on Unifrog's US Search Tool, and on each university's web pages for their Office of Student Aid or Financial Services.
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.
- 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.
- 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.