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What financial aid opportunities are available for international students?

December 22, 2018

Being an international student comes with many challenges, one of which being financial difficulties. According to a joint report by the Institute of International Education (IIE) and the Academic Cooperation Association (ACA), one of the biggest obstacles international students in the U.S. face is financing their education. When asked what difficulties they encountered in planning their period of study in the U.S., 38 percent of respondents answered “Getting the financial resources for studying abroad.” This was the second most common answer, the first being “Complicated visa procedures/strict requirements” (53 percent of respondents).

Why is it so hard for international students to pay for their studies in the U.S.? The answer lies in their limited financial aid opportunities. Although roughly 40 percent of U.S. students receive financial aid from the federal government, international students don’t receive any federal student aid. According to a 2016 report by the Institute of International Education (IIE), 81.2 percent of international undergraduate students rely primarily on personal and family funds to finance their education.

Aside from federal student aid, U.S. students can also receive grants and scholarships from their college or university, called institutional aid. International students, however, rarely receive the same level of campus funding. Moreover, when campus funding is given out —in the form of scholarships, fellowships, research or teaching assistantships, on-campus employment, and grants—it is typically reserved for graduate students. In 2015-2016, only 7.4 percent of international undergraduate students reported relying primarily on their U.S. college or university to pay for their studies. Meanwhile, 34.6 percent of international graduate students relied primarily on campus funding to finance their education.

Loans are another common type of financial aid for U.S. students, but here, again, international students are unlucky. “Most loan schemes [such as federal student loans] require U.S. citizenship or co-signatories in the United States,” reports the IIE, “so many international students are ineligible for this kind of aid.”

This does not mean, however, that studying in the U.S. has to be a financial burden. If you know where to look, you can have a fulfilling, meaningful study abroad experience without having to break the bank.


1. Check to see if your prospective school is need-blind and/or full need for international students.

When deciding which schools to apply to, there are two terms every student should know. The first is need-blind admission. If a school has a need-blind admission policy, it won’t take the applicant’s financial need into account when deciding whether to admit, wait list, or reject him or her. That is, the applicant’s ability to pay will not affect the school’s admission decision. The second term is full need (also called 100 percent need met). A full need school promises to meet 100 percent of your demonstrated financial need. If you are accepted to the school, it will make sure you can afford to attend by means of grants, scholarships, work-study, and sometimes loans.

A handful of schools have a need-blind admission policy and meet 100 percent of demonstrated need—the best case scenario for an international student. These schools include Harvard University, Yale University, Princeton University, Massachusetts Institute of Technology, and Amherst College. Other schools take financial need into account in their admission decision (that is, they are need-aware) but, once you are accepted, meet 100 percent of your demonstrated financial need. These include Brown University, Davidson College, Rice University, Vassar College, and many more. (World Education Services provides a helpful list of schools with generous financial aid for international students.) When researching a school’s admission and financial aid policies, keep in mind that many schools have separate policies for international students. Brown University, for example, is need-blind for U.S. citizens and permanent residents but is need-aware for international students.


2. Take advantage of existing scholarship programs.

In addition to need-blind, full need schools, many colleges and universities have scholarships, often specifically for international students. Awards can vary widely depending on the scholarship program, but some can be quite generous. Brandeis University, for example, meets the full demonstrated need of each international student who receives The Wien Scholarship, and American University has an Emerging Global Leader Scholarship, which covers full tuition and board for one international student for all four years of undergraduate study. If you’re in the process of deciding which schools to apply to, EduPASS provides a list of schools that offer aid to the largest numbers of international students which may be helpful to you.

When researching scholarship programs, be aware of the different types of scholarships out there. Aside from university scholarships, which may be need- or merit-based, there are also government- and privately funded scholarships. For instance, if you’re a graduate student looking to research and study in the U.S., you might be interested in the Fulbright Foreign Student Program, which funds approximately 4,000 foreign students each year. If you’re not sure where to begin your scholarship search, the IIE provides a helpful database that allows students to easily find grants, awards, scholarships, and fellowships that will help them pay for their studies in the U.S


3. Think outside the box.

When you picture studying abroad in the U.S., chances are, community college is not the first thing that pops into your mind. However, many students—both domestic and international—are opting for community college, which has a much lower sticker price than the average 4-year college or university. According to the IIE, nearly 10 percent of international students were enrolled in community colleges in 2015-2016. Although attending a community college isn’t a form of financial aid, it is a way to significantly reduce the cost of your college education. Moreover, if attending a 4-year institution is important to you, you can always transfer after two years. You’ll earn credits at a fraction of the price and still get to enjoy the “typical” college experience. Community colleges also admit a vast majority of their applicants, which can be good news for international students with less academic confidence.