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You are an international student who needs money to help pay for college in the US.
You are in a tough spot.
There are limited resources available to international students, but don’t lose hope. There are options.
When I work with students, I help them figure out what strategy makes the most sense for them based on their academic background, financial situation, and aspirations.
Here are some of the most common solutions for making college work for international students who need financial aid.
Need-based aid is aid offered to you based on your family’s ability to pay.
The aid comes in many different forms.
Some schools that offer need-based aid offer it to only a small percentage of international students whereas others offer it to the majority.
Some schools offer an average aid package of $50,000-$60,000 per year while others have an average package of just $2,000-$5,000.
Some schools are committed to paying 100% of demonstrated need, but others are working with much more limited resources and may give you much less than you would realistically need to attend.
Just because a college offers need-based aid doesn’t tell you much. You need to look at the numbers.
My article, 65 Colleges that Give Generous Aid to International Students, gives an overview of some of the most generous schools out there, but anytime you add a new school to your list, make sure you look up the specific figures.
There is little point in applying to schools that you know don’t have the financial resources to support you.
Keep in mind that just because a school offers need-based aid, it doesn’t mean that merit isn’t taken into account.
At most colleges that offer need-based aid, your need is taken into account when the admissions committee makes an admissions decision (this is called a “need aware” admissions policy).
If you need lots of aid and you are a mediocre student, you most likely won’t be accepted.
In order to be accepted and receive significant aid, you need to be all that much better than the average admitted student.
I recommend focusing on schools where your grades and scores hit close to or above the 75th percentile mark when looking for good match options.
Need-based aid is a good strategy if: You have grades/scores that are close or above the 75th percentile mark and the schools on your list offer need-based options.
Merit-based aid is offered on the basis of your achievement or personal characteristics you offer.
Sometimes merit-based aid can be based on your grades and scores alone, but other times it can be based on your athletic or artistic skills, you community service work, demonstrated leadership abilities, an essay, or a combination of all of those things.
That said, your ability to pay for college is typically not taken into consideration (with a few exceptions).
Some merit-based scholarships require a separate application while others consider you automatically when you submit your application for admission.
The goal with merit-based scholarships is to find one that values your strengths. Every program is different so you need to do your research.
There are merit-scholarships specifically for international students, but don’t forget to ask about general merit scholarships as well which in many cases are open to both domestic and international students.
It never hurts to ask.
Here is a list of some of my favorite merit scholarships open to international students:
You should note that merit-based scholarships are not offered at every college, and many schools will choose to either offer need-based aid or merit-based aid.
For example, Harvard University does not offer merit-based aid. This doesn’t mean that Harvard does not offer good financial aid. In fact, it is quite the opposite.
Harvard offers some of the best (if not the best) financial aid to international students, but all of it is distributed through its need-based program.
So if you come from a family that earns $500,000 per year and doesn’t really need aid to attend, Harvard is not going to give you any (though a school with a merit-based program might).
However, if you come from a family earning $50,000 US and are a strong enough applicant to get into Harvard, you are going to be eligible to get good aid at Harvard or through a merit-scholarship at another school because you are a top student who also demonstrates need.
Merit-Based Aid is a Good Strategy If: You stand out in a particular area (grades, scores, extracurricular activities, art, athletics, community service, leadership, etc.). Note that while there are some amazing full tuition merit-based scholarships, the majority of merit-scholarships are for $15,000 per year or less. Some students combine multiple merit scholarships to increase their total award package.
If you need a significant amount of money, merit-based aid may be a good strategy (look for full tuition scholarships especially), but you may be better off focusing your list on need-based options.
Low Cost Public Colleges
Public colleges often have limited resources to support international students through scholarships, but don’t write them off.
The good news is that while they may be lacking in scholarship money, they make up for it in their lower tuition rates.
Certain public colleges can be so much less expensive than public options that paying full tuition as an out-of-state student can still be less than attending a private university with a $20,000 or $30,000 scholarship.
Here is a list of some of the lowest cost options in the country:
Low Cost Public Colleges are a Good Option If:
You can pay up to $30,000 per year and may not have the profile to aim for the Ivy League or equivalent colleges.
Community Colleges (occasionally referred to as “junior colleges”) are 2-year public institutions that grant Associates degrees.
They are located in most regions throughout the United States and can be a great place to start your college education.
Many students eventually transfer from a community college to a 4-year institution and graduate with a four-year Bachelor’s degree.
For American students, most community colleges offer open enrollment where any student can enroll regardless of grades or scores.
The admissions rate is 100% provided the proper paperwork is completed on-time.
While some schools offer very close to open enrollment for international students (at a minimum, you will need to verify that you can pay the tuition and living expenses), some require international students to complete a basic proficiency test in English and/or math.
Still, the admissions requirements are significantly lower than for most 4-year institutions, and even better, the tuition rates are also often much lower than at 4-year schools.
It is not unrealistic to expect to pay between $15,000-$25,000 per year to cover your tuition, books, and living expenses (though the rate varies in different parts of the country).
Note that community colleges are unique in that they serve many non-traditional students. These include people who are going back to school after being out for years or even decades.
They also primarily serve the local community though usually welcome international students.
Almost all community colleges offer advising resources that will help you transfer to a 4-year school after completing your Associates degree.
Community Colleges are a Good Option If:
You don’t have the SAT scores or grades to get into and/or get aid at other colleges, but you are determined to come to the US.
They can also be a good option for non-traditional (i.e. older) students.
Tuition Free Colleges
What is better than free college for everyone?
Well tuition free colleges aren’t exactly free, but they close.
These are colleges that don’t charge tuition. Some of them make up for that by asking you to do 10-20 hours of work on-campus of work per week to help support the institution.
A select few just have really generous endowments that allow them to cover tuition for all students for nothing in return.
Still, at many tuition free schools, you will need to pay for your living and travel expenses which can still add up but a budget of $12,000 to $15,000 may be enough to get by.
You can find a list of tuition free colleges here:
Tuition Free Universities are a Good Option If:
You have $12,000-$15,000 per year to spend and are open to alternative styles of education and possibly working during college.