Financial aid: what international students need to know

Financial aid: what international students need to know

If you’re an international student interested in applying to American universities, you probably already know that studying in the U.S. isn’t cheap – and sticker prices just keep rising. With tuition and fees at some schools now topping $70,000 a year, the cost of higher education in the U.S., even at public institutions, can easily cost tens of thousands more than it does in most other countries.

The good news is that schools do offer some kind of financial assistance for international students – in some cases, very significant amounts of aid. The bad news, however, is that navigating the American system requires a fair amount of savvy.

For example, consider the following list of universities offering international students the most financial aid, a longer version of which appeared in US News and World Report.


University of Chicago

Columbia University

Skidmore College

Williams College

Trinity College

Harvard University

Number of international students who received aid 2016-2017







Average aid awarded to undergraduates during







While technically accurate, this list nevertheless provides a somewhat skewed picture of the financial aid landscape for international students.

It does not, for example, include the sticker price at each of the universities, so it is not clear what proportion of the total tuition and fees the amount of aid actually represents. A school that ranks lower in terms of average amount of aid may actually provide a higher proportion of aid toward the total price than a school that offers more aid in absolute dollars.

Neither does it distinguish between institutions that are “need-blind” for international students (ones that do not take financial need into consideration when making admissions decisions) and those that are “need-aware”; or between institutions that commit to meeting all admitted students’ full need and those that may only be able to meet partial need or even none at all.

It also provides the total number of international undergraduates receiving financial aid rather than the number of freshmen, perhaps suggesting that more large scholarships are available per entering class than is actually the case. A school that awards an average of $60,000 to a total of 200 international students, for example, is giving aid to about 50 students in each class. If that school has, say, 2000 students in each class, that means only 2.5% of the study population consists of international students receiving aid (as compared to, say, 60% of U.S. students).

Call it a real-life data analysis question, one that requires a hefty dose of background knowledge to make sense out of.

Furthermore, it is important for international applicants to understand how policies governing financial aid for non-U.S. citizens differ from those governing aid for U.S. citizens. International applicants, for example, are not eligible for federal loans and must rely on grants provided by universities themselves. In addition, most schools have financial aid budgets that are far more restricted for international students than for American ones. Factor in international airfare, living costs, and possibly summer housing, and the costs can really add up.

While policies vary significantly from institution to institution, schools can be grouped into four major categories.

1) Schools that are NOT need-blind for both American and international applicants

In comparison to schools that admit without regard to financial need, non-need-blind colleges tend to have lower endowments and/or smaller applicant pools. That said, there is still a range of considerations: some schools may admit (or claim to admit) the vast majority of American students without regard for aid and only take financial need into consideration for a small percentage of applicants.

Since the vast majority of universities already take need into account when considering international applicants, this type of policy doesn’t make an enormous amount of difference for them. On the whole, however, it’s probably reasonable to assume that these schools have less aid to offer for international students as well. They may still offer full or near-full scholarships to a select number of internationals, but the number is likely to be extremely restricted.

2) Schools that are need blind-for American applicants but not international applicants

These schools do factor financial need into their admissions decisions for international students; however, they typically meet full financial need for the students they accept. Note that many top colleges and universities fall into this category, including Ivy League members Brown, Columbia, and the University of Pennsylvania and, on the liberal arts side, Swarthmore, Williams, and Wellesley.

Because these schools only admit international students whom they can afford to fund, admissions rates for international students requiring aid are significantly lower than they are for domestic ones: a school whose overall acceptance rate is around 15-20% may, for example, accept only 5% of international applicants applying for aid.

3) Schools that are need-blind for both American and international applicants but that do not necessarily meet full need for international students 

Although these schools do not factor financial considerations into their admissions decisions, they also do not commit to meeting full need. As a result, students may be admitted but offered far less money than they need, putting the school out of reach. Tread carefully with these schools, some of which may effectively use international students as “cash cows.” There’s no point in getting admitted if you can’t afford to attend – especially if you can get a good education inexpensively in your home country.

4) Schools that are need-blind for both American and international applicants and meet full need

This is by far the smallest group. In fact, out of thousands of schools in the United States, only four universities and one liberal arts college fall into this category:

  1. Yale
  2. Princeton
  3. Harvard
  4. MIT
  5. Amherst

Not surprisingly, these are five of the most selective schools in the United States, with acceptance rates ranging from a low of just over 5% (Harvard and Stanford) to 14% (Amherst).

So does this mean that college in the United States is financially out of reach? Not necessarily – it just means you need to go into the process with your eyes open, and spend some time getting acquainted with how the system works. Many schools do offer significant merit-based scholarships for international students. You might have to look beyond the handful of name-brand universities that regularly get featured in popular media, but if you’re a competitive applicant who is willing to do some research, you might discover options you never knew were available.


Why the financial aid conversation should happen early

Why the financial aid conversation should happen early

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