Can I Get Financial Aid to Attend a US College?

Posted on 6th April 2021

Financing an American college education is expensive. The cost of attendance at US colleges can rise to $80,000 per year for the most expensive private colleges and flagship public colleges (for out of state students), including tuition, room, board, books and other expenses. But so-called “sticker prices” don’t tell the full story. They exist, in part, for highly selective colleges to communicate their value. In reality, many American students pay much less than the sticker price, once you factor in financial aid.

There are two main kinds of financial aid: need-based (calculated on household income and assets) and merit-based (which is not means tested). Other forms of finance available to US students include federal Pell Grants, available to students from low-income households, work-study grants, whereby a student works on campus in return for a fee reduction, and subsidised and unsubsidised loans. These amounts can all plug the gap between the Cost of Attendance (COA) and the Expected Family Contribution (EFC), the amount a family is expected to pay towards tuition and fees. That gap is known as the family’s demonstrated financial need (DFN). So the equation is as follows: DFN = COA - EFC

For international students, the situation is more complex. Some forms of financial aid, such as Pell Grants, are not available to international students. And while there are 107 colleges that offer “need-blind” admission to American students (meaning a family’s finances are not factored in when making a decision), just five US colleges offer both need-blind admission and meet the family’s full demonstrated financial need for international students: Harvard, Princeton, Yale, MIT, and Amherst. Yup, you guessed it! These colleges are among the richest in the US, and the toughest to get into.

Plenty of US colleges offer financial aid to international students. It’s just that these five are the only ones that can afford to disregard a family’s finances when making a decision about attendance, regardless of the student’s country of origin. At other colleges, your ability to pay may be a factor when deciding whether or not to admit you. But that doesn’t mean that you need to get in to one of these colleges to finance your education – far from it! Lots of colleges are keen to attract high calibre international students, and there is a lot of financial aid out there. You just need to know where to look for it.

A great starting point is Jennie Levy and Jeff Kent’s resources on the Big J website: Financial Aid for Nonresident Alien Undergraduates (link here). Jennie and Jeff have painstakingly logged key information for international students: cost of attendance, financial aid policy for international students (need-based, merit-based, or both), percentage of international students receiving aid, and average size of award. If you’re an international student looking for student finance in the US, it’s worth making your own copy of this sheet and then sorting by the various columns.

When using the resource, pay close attention both to average award and percentage of students receiving aid – they both matter. Georgetown, for instance, offers a very high average award ($69,000), but offers need-based aid only, and only offers it to 3% of international students. So reading between the lines, it has a relatively small budget for financial aid for international students but is likely targeting a handful of stellar applicants who do not have the ability to pay.

Washington and Lee, by contrast, has a high average award ($66,000), offers both merit-based and need-based aid, and offers this to a whopping 96% of international students. So if you’re an international student needing a full ride (or close to it) to go to a US college, Washington and Lee will be a happier hunting ground than Georgetown. Many liberal arts colleges with a smaller enrolment have significant endowments and aid to spend on international students, so that is often a good place to start.

As mentioned above, both need-based and merit-based awards are open to international students at many colleges, but are assessed differently. Need-based aid is calculated on family income and assets: how much your parents earn, what kind of family valuables or property you have, and so on. International students wanting need-based aid to attend will usually need to complete the CSS Profile on the College Board website (some colleges, like Princeton, have their own separate system).

The CSS Profile asks for a lot of family information, so you and your family should set aside at least half a day to work through the profile. Certain colleges may also ask for additional financial documentation, such as tax returns, through IDOC, the Institutional Documentation Service. It’s best to complete the CSS Profile and submit documents through IDOC early in the process, as the sooner you do so the quicker you can receive a financial aid award if admitted (and the more time you have to negotiate, if required). A surprising number of students at US colleges receive some form of aid (70% at Harvard, for instance), so it’s worth completing the CSS Profile unless you are sure that your household income falls above the threshold for each college.

Merit-based aid is more straightforward. It is calculated independently of your family’s ability to pay and requires no financial documentation, as it is not means-tested, and in many cases, students are automatically assessed for it when they apply (others may require supplementary materials, such as an essay or portfolio). For families with a high household income but who are looking for a way to reduce cost, merit-based aid can be a great way of getting that sticker price down.

However, it’s worth noting that the hyper-selective colleges (including the Ivy League, MIT, and Stanford) only offer need-based aid, not merit-based aid. And while most public universities offer very little financial aid to international students, several have flagship merit scholarships that offer a (non means-tested) full ride to students for four years: the Jefferson Scholarship at the University of Virginia, the Morehead-Cain at UNC Chapel Hill, and the Robertson (split between UNC Chapel Hill and Duke). Again, these are incredibly competitive: the Jefferson Scholarship will offer just 30 scholarships from around 2,000 applicants each year.

If you are an international student looking to attend college in the US, you should definitely have an honest conversation with your parents at the beginning of the process. This is a good point to find out what the family budget is and think about whether the financial aid is “nice to have” – in other words, your family doesn’t need the reduction but it would be a bonus – or “need to have” – in other words, you need the aid to make a US higher education viable.

If you fall into the latter category, your college list is going to look very different from the former, and you should bear in mind that the more aid you need, the humbler you need to be in the process. Most colleges might be non-profit, but they are also businesses, and if they are offering you a significant reduction or a full ride you will need to offer something in return, likely through your academic and extracurricular achievements. If you go into this process with an open mind, you might be pleasantly surprised at how many colleges are willing to tempt you to attend their institution with a generous offer of financial aid.

If you would like to discuss your financial aid options with a UES advisor, then please contact for more details.

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