Funding Your U.S. Education

For many students and their parents who may be helping pay for a higher education overseas, the total cost of a U.S education can be overwhelming. To think that the cost of a bachelor’s degree might be more than a cost of a family home is a hard concept to understand. The good news is that there is a difference between the “sticker price” of what the total cost is as advertised and the actual price of the education minus any scholarships or financial aid a student might earn or qualify for during the process of applying to U.S. colleges and universities.

Level of study

Understanding what kind of financial aid and/or scholarships that might be available to you will depend on your intended level of study. Here’s a quick breakdown of what those levels are:

  • Undergraduate – first post-secondary school degrees
    • Associate (2 years) – generally students who complete this type of degree start their studies at a community college which are often cost the least of any US higher education institution. Many international students start their undergraduate education at community colleges to save money in their first two years before they transfer to a 4-year college or university to complete their bachelor’s degree. Because of the lower cost of community colleges, few offer much in the way of scholarships for international students.
    • Bachelor’s (4 years) – Most international students enrol in 4-year colleges or universities for their undergraduate degrees. The costs will vary from lower cost public institutions and the out-of-state tuition rates for international students to very expensive elite private institutions where the total cost can be close to $100,000 a year when all expenses (tuition and fees, room and board, books and supplies, and other living costs) are factored. Scholarships are perhaps most readily available for international students at the bachelor’s degree level.
  • Graduate – degrees available after completion of a bachelor’s degree
    • Master’s (1-2 years) – For many international graduate applicants, starting with a master’s degree is where to begin. Most institutions do not necessarily have significant money available for first year master’s degree students but might have either on-campus scholarships or other types of aid available for continuing/2nd year students.
    • Doctoral (3-5 years) – In general terms, international students admitted to doctoral programs generally qualify for the most significant aid as many PhD programs invest heavily in the students they bring in each year.

How students are funded

According to the Institute of International Education’s annual Open Doors Report, the primary source of funding for overseas students is international funding (60%). U.S. institutions are the primary source for another 39% of international students.

International funding consists of money from the student, his/her family and home country sources from private foundations or governmental scholarship programs. U.S. funding generally is from the institutions that enrol the students or US governmental or foundation scholarships.

Undergraduate sources

As international students, there are 4 general categories of assistance you should ask the institutions you are applying to for details on what is available to you:

  • Merit based scholarships – generally cover a portion between 10-50% of the tuition costs. Some more selective colleges do offer a small number of full-tuition scholarship which are obviously quite competitive. Merit awards can be for academic, music, art, athletic, leadership, or service based scholarships.
  • Need-based scholarships/grants – typically this kind of aid is only available to international students at the most selective of institutions. This type of money does not need to be repaid.
  • Loans – Some U.S. banks now offer loans (that must be repaid over a period of years after a student graduates with a degree) to international students, some requiring a co-signer who is a U.S. citizen or permanent resident. There may also be banks in your home country that offer low interest educational loans to help you pay for your education as well.
  • Work on campus – Legally, international students who are in the U.S. on an F1 student visa are eligible to take a job on the college campus (as a student worker in various offices and departments) up to 20 hours a week while school is in session.


Graduate sources

For international students pursuing master’s or doctoral degrees, there are slightly different kinds of financial assistance available:

  • Fellowships – generally reserved for doctoral level students – merit-based awards.
  • Assistantships – students with this aid work for a department for up to 20 hours a week for a more significant wage that can cover much of a students living expenses – room and board, books and supplies – each year.
  • Scholarships – these awards tend to be fairly small but can cover a portion (up to 20-30% of tuition costs). Some of these scholarships may be specific for books.
  • Loans – very similar to the loans available to undergraduate international students.
  • Work – the same legal requirements for graduate international students apply to on-campus work.

Where to find scholarships

There are many databases out there where you can search for scholarships. Be wary, however, of any that would charge you a fee for accessing their databases. The best ones are free! Here are the links to three specific US scholarship search sites:

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