International Students and Financial Aid: 4 Commonly Asked Questions

International Student

Meet Fang. She’s an excellent student from China who has always dreamed of pursuing her undergraduate degree in the United States.

She just found out that she got into her dream school, only to learn that she would not be eligible for any institutional financial aid. Her parents have good jobs, but certainly don’t make enough to finance her education and life abroad for four years. What is Fang to do?

The increasing tuition costs of higher education in the US can be a strain on international and domestic students alike. The average debt of a class of 2016 graduate was $37,000, an average that is up two grand from 2015, making this year’s class the most indebted ever. International students in particular should be aware of these trends, as they will not have access to much of the aid that American students do. Here, we will explore the answers to four commonly asked questions regarding international students and financial aid:

Are international students eligible for Federal Financial Aid?

Generally, international students are not eligible for Federal Financial Aid, which includes things like the Pell Grant, SEOG Grant, Stafford Loan, Perkins Loan, and PLUS Loan. There are, however, several categories of non-US citizens that are eligible for federal aid, including US Nationals and those with an Arrival-Departure Record (I-94) or T nonimmigrant status. This includes refugees, asylees, and others.   

Moreover, most international students are not eligible for federal work study or in-state tuition at public universities, which is usually half the price of out-of-state tuition. However, many universities, such as the University of Pennsylvania, offer school-funded work study programs. Some public universities even award in-state tuition to international students that meet certain performance criteria. For example, Georgia State University offers merit-based waivers for all or part of the out-of-state portion of tuition based on academic performance in high school for incoming international freshman.

Are colleges need-aware or need-blind when reviewing international applications?

You might be wondering, what does it even mean to be need-blind or need-aware? A need-blind school does not consider a student’s financial situation when assessing their application. A need-aware school does.

We encourage parents and students to look into the financial aid policies for international students of each school to which they are interested in applying. While a few schools are need-blind for all applicants, including international students, many are need-aware for international students, which means they will factor an international student’s ability to pay during admissions. This usually (if not always) means stiffer competition for international students with need. Cornell, which used to be need-blind but did not offer aid to every international student with demonstrated need, will now become need-aware, with the intention of providing all students with aid packages meeting 100% of their demonstrated need. Other schools that are need-aware but will meet full financial need if admitted include Swarthmore, Brown, Columbia, Dartmouth, and the University of Pennsylvania.

There are only five schools that are fully need-blind and offer full-need admissions for international students: MIT, Harvard, Princeton, Yale and Amherst. However, these five schools are among the most prestigious in the world and have very low acceptance rates, so students should not apply here simply with the tuition benefits in mind.

Which schools are known for giving the most aid to international students?

According to a 2015 report by US News, here are the top 10 colleges and universities that gave the most financial aid to at least 50 students from abroad in the 2014-2015 school year. The dollar amount in parentheses denotes the average aid awarded to international undergraduates during the 2014-2015 school year:

  1. Skidmore College ($56,600)
  2. Yale University ($55,862)
  3. Amherst College ($55,673)
  4. Williams College ($55,119)
  5. Wesleyan University ($54,996)
  6. Trinity College ($54,788)
  7. Columbia University ($53,972)
  8. Stanford University ($53,422)
  9. Harvard University ($53,409)
  10. Duke University ($53,334)

Each school’s policy is different, and what a student receives in aid will depend largely on the applicant’s family/income situation. Every college and university in the US is now required to offer a net price calculator on their website, like this one from Harvard, which students and parents can use to determine how much an undergraduate degree will actually cost them. But even this will not be able to predict exactly what a student can expect to pay. So, international students with dreams of studying abroad in the US should do extensive research before applying to determine what the schools they are interested in can offer them in terms of aid.

What are some great resources for international students interested in studying abroad?

The US News ranking and “fit” tool, College Compass, is a great resources for all prospective college students. Access to the Compass is $30, which includes unlimited access to 500,000 exclusive data points from 1,800 schools, including financial aid information. Students can enter up to 23 criteria to rank schools based on their preferences. As I mentioned above, each US school is required to provide prospective students with a net calculator, which is also a good place to start.

If you discover that the schools you are interested in cannot provide you with the financial support you need, keep in mind that there are many scholarships available to international students interested in studying abroad. International Scholarships is a great resource that publishes information on financial aid, scholarships, grants and loan programs to assist college and university students interested in studying abroad. Scholarships for Development is another great website devoted to helping international students, specifically those from developing countries, find scholarships to study abroad.

Overall, it is as important to choose a school that can meet your needs financially as it is to choose one that has the academic programs that fit your interests. So, start planning early, explore scholarship options and set yourself up to graduate debt-free.

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