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International Student Scholarship & Financial Aid Guide

This guide provides resources and a list of scholarships that international students can use to fund their college education in the US.

International students make up a significant chunk of the students who attend college in the United States but they face many hurdles to do so. As an international student, in addition to getting the right visa, culture shock, and being separated from your family by a significant distance, you must also navigate paying for college.

As you know, figuring out how to fund a college education can be stressful, so this guide is designed to help you, a foreign student, easily navigate the financial aid process. We will explore different avenues for finding financial aid and offer a comprehensive list of scholarships that are specially for international students.


College Costs for International Students

In addition to the usual costs of college (tuition, fees, room and board, books, etc.) that students have to worry about, international students also have a myriad of other expenses to add into their calculations:

  • Travel to and from the US
  • Healthcare and insurance costs
  • Visa and other customs and immigration-associated costs
  • Extra exam fees (e.g. TOEFL exam is often required for non-native English speakers)

The next few sections will help you more fully understand the costs associated with going to college in the US.

International Tuition

The biggest ticket item for attending college in the US is the cost of tuition, which can average between $17,797 and $46,014 per year, depending on the school you attend. However, these statistics usually focus on in-state tuition rather than the out-of-state tuition that international students usually pay. While every school sets its own in-state and out-of-state tuition, the average difference between those two numbers is almost $9,000. That means you are likely to pay more in tuition compared to a student who has residency in the state where the college is located.

Additionally, while some colleges charge tuition per term based on whether students are full-time or part-time, others will charge by the course. Make sure you research how the schools you are interested in calculate tuition when you are considering which to apply for!

Average Cost of Living in University Towns

Many colleges require first-year college students to live on campus, but some colleges may have housing shortages or students may want to experience living on their own. Either way, housing is another significant cost.

It can be difficult and stressful to research living costs in specific cities, especially when you may not be familiar with the makeup of the US, so we put together a list of popular college towns and the average cost of a one-bedroom apartment in each:

  • Douglas, Georgia (South Georgia State College): $338/month
  • Tifton, Georgia (Abraham Baldwin Agricultural College): $432/month
  • Ada, Oklahoma (East Central University): $465/month
  • Morehead, Kentucky (Morehead State University): $429/month
  • Cocoa, Florida (Eastern Florida State University): $487/month
  • Hays, Kansas (Fort Hays State University): $444/month
  • Durant, Oklahoma (Southeastern Oklahoma State University): $505/month
  • Maryville, Missouri (Northwest Missouri State University): $444/month
  • Fort Smith, Arkansas (University of Arkansas—Fort Smith): $470/month
  • Murray, Kentucky (Murray State University): $531/month
  • Garden City, New York (Adelphi University): $3,106/month
  • Malibu, California (Pepperdine University): $2,106/month
  • Santa Clara, California (Santa Clara University): $2,006/month
  • Los Altos Hills, California (Foothill College): $2,114/month
  • Hoboken, New Jersey (Stevens Institute of Technology): $1,928/month
  • University Park, Illinois (Governors State University): $690/month
  • Orange, California (Chapman University): $1,407/month
  • Washington, DC (American University, Georgetown University): $1,435/month

Remember, sometimes you can even rent out a single bedroom in an apartment where you share kitchen and living room space with other college students. Those will often be the least expensive options but living with roommates poses its own challenges. Additionally, off-campus housing usually comes with the added expenses of utilities and groceries, so be sure to factor that into your costs as well.

Help from Family

Just like US students, international students often turn to their families to help fund their education. While help from family can be a great way to fund your education and help reduce your overall debt upon graduation, your family might not have the resources to help you out, and that is 100% okay.

However, it is a hard reality that between 60-80% of international students do rely on their families as their primary source of funding to attend college in the US. That can come with strings attached (i.e. your family dictating your major), but you shouldn’t be afraid to have difficult conversations with their family about your education choices, even if your family is your primary funding source. It is always okay to advocate for yourself and your interests when your education is on the line.


Loans for International Students

While federal loans are often not available to international students (with a few exceptions we will discuss in our section on the FAFSA), private loans for international students are available. Private loans differ from federal loans and scholarships in a couple of key ways:

  • Any kind of private loan will need to be paid back (unlike a grant or a scholarship).
  • Private loans accrue interest, which also needs to be paid back.
  • Private loans usually require that you make interest payments while you are in school (unlike federal loans).

Most private loans available to international students will require a cosigner. Cosigners guarantee your loans, and they are also responsible for paying back the loan if you are unable to for any reason. If you are an international student, your cosigner may be required to be a US citizen who is creditworthy. Your cosigner could be a spouse, a relative, or a close friend. Not everyone will be in a position at first to have a US citizen cosigner. If that sounds like your situation, you may be able to find no cosigner loans, but these are rare.

There is an option for interest-free loans for some international students. The Organization of American States offers loans to students from Latin American and Caribbean countries at no interest. These loans are through the Rowe Fund program.

If you are going to take out private loans to help fund your education in the US, it is important to take out loans from reputable institutions. Banks and credit unions are some of the most reputable.


Employment

Many college students work while they are in school, either to pay for college itself or to pay for living expenses. International students face more challenges than US citizens in terms of working while going to school, and for some students, this is simply not going to be possible.

However, depending on your country of origin, your visa type, and the program (level and field) in which you are enrolled, you may be able to work while going to school in the US. International students are not permitted to participate in federal work-study programs, however.

F1 Visa

The first hurdle is immigration regulations that relate to your visa. The most common type of international student status, F1, does allow for visa holders to work part-time, on-campus. Part-time is defined as fewer than 20 hours per week.

Under an F1 visa, you may not work off-campus during your first year of study. However, after the completion of the first year of study, you may work off-campus in three different capacities.

Curricular Practical Training (CPT): CPT includes internships or employment in your field of study. For example, if you are majoring in education, you would be allowed to work as a teacher aide in a local school district. CPT employment is usually part-time and is undertaken while you are enrolled in school.

Optional Practical Training (OPT): OPT is similar to CPT, except that OPT is generally full-time work in your field of study that you undertake after you have graduated from your program. Rarely do students engage in OPT while they are still in school, but usually only if they do not qualify for CPT.

STEM Optional Practical Training Extension: The STEM OPT extension allows students who studied in STEM fields to extend their OPT training for up to 24 months.

J1 Visa

Students who have J1 status may also work under similar conditions and rules as F1 visa holders. However, you need to gain permission from the sponsor of your exchange visitor program to pursue employment.

M1 Visa

Unlike F1 and J1 visa holders, those with an M1 visa may not work while going to school. The US government website has information on student visas that can help you fully understand the different work regulations for student visa holders.

Canadian Students

Canadian students do not need visas to study and work in the US, but they do need an I-20 form (provided by the school) and to register with SEVIS. Canadian students who want to work while in school in the US should look at the guidelines for studying in the US on the Consulates and Embassy website.

Teaching and Research Assistantships

While it is more common for international graduate students to hold teaching and research assistantships as part of their programs, some undergraduate international students (particularly upper-year students) may have the opportunity to take on these positions. Teaching and research assistantships generally help pay for tuition and often come with a bi-weekly stipend as well. However, these stipends and payments (or tuition waivers, depending on the school) are generally not sufficient to live on, so you should plan for additional financial aid.


FAFSA and Federal Aid for International Students

As a general rule, international students are not eligible for federal financial loans or federal work-study programs. However, it is still important to understand federal financial aid because many schools still require or strongly encourage international students to fill out the FAFSA.

The FAFSA tells schools whether or not you, as an international student, fit into any of the specific circumstances that would allow you to receive federal or state financial aid. Even if you do not think you qualify for federal aid, it is important to apply anyway. You never know what you might be eligible for.

International students should also make sure to research federal financial aid options in their home countries as well. Some countries offer scholarships, grants, or loans to students who want to study in the US. However, some of these options for financial aid may come with specific requirements (e.g. returning to and working in your home country upon graduation) so be sure to do adequate research.

Tips for Submitting your FAFSA without a Social Security Number

US students and citizens typically submit their FAFSA online. However, in order to do that, you must have a social security number (SSN), something that foreign students don’t have.

In this case, the best way to submit your FAFSA application is by mail. You can print your completed application, and it will tell you where to send it. Be sure to mail in your application extra early, as some funding is first-come, first-serve.

The International Student Financial Aid Application (ISFAA)

In addition to the FAFSA, some schools may require additional financial aid forms. One of the most common is the International Student Financial Aid Application (ISFAA) that allows international students to be considered for financial aid awards. The ISFAA is need-based, not merit-based.

However, this aid is dependent on the type of visa you hold and what year of study you are in. F1 visa students in their first year of study are not eligible (although they may fill out this form in subsequent years of study), nor are J1 students.

If you aren’t sure whether you should fill out the ISFAA, check with your school.


Scholarships and Grants

Scholarships are an integral part of every college student’s funding plan. Finding scholarships can be difficult, and finding scholarships for international students can be even more difficult.

We have a guide to scholarships that you can peruse in addition to this guide. We also have a scholarship guide for LGBTQ students, a scholarship guide for students of color, and a scholarship guide for women. While some of the scholarships discussed in our other guides might be for US citizens only, there are some that are open to a broader category of students as well.

The best strategy for finding aid for college is looking everywhere you can.

Finding Scholarships Online

The internet is full of helpful databases and websites that allow students to find scholarships relatively quickly and easily. However, it is important to use critical thinking and media analysis skills when hunting for scholarships to avoid dishonest and predatory organizations. For resources on avoiding fraudulent scholarships, check out the scholarship scam page on the US Department of Education website.

Here are some legit websites that can help you find scholarships and general info about studying in the US:

International Organizations

In addition to broad research on the internet, you can research specific organizations that may offer scholarships to students who want to study in the US. Many of these organizations focus on students who share their values, interests, and/or field of study. However, if you want to apply for a scholarship or fellowship from one of these programs, make sure to research them thoroughly and early; sometimes they require you to be in your home country when you apply.

The best organizations to check for scholarship opportunities include:

  • The Fulbright Commission, which supports scholars in lifelong learning and international education and offers a variety of scholarships and exchange programs.
  • The United Nations, which offers a variety of scholarships to international students.
  • AMIDEAST that provides advising to Middle Eastern and North African students, scholarships, testing services, and English lessons to students who want to prepare to study in the US.
  • Open Society Foundations, which has scholarships and funding opportunities for students who share the values of the foundation and will advocate for social change.
  • The World Health Organization (WHO) that offers fellowship programs to help students interested in health fields get a broader education that will eventually lead to better health outcomes globally.

Institutional Aid

US colleges and universities frequently offer their students some form of financial aid. While that aid is often more limited for international students, it is always worth researching what your prospective school is willing to offer.

However, institutional aid is not equal for undergraduate and graduate students. Generally speaking, graduate students will have an easier time getting institutional funding because teaching and research assistantships are so often a standard part of a graduate admission package.

Fourth-year undergraduate students may rarely secure teaching or research assistantships in extraordinary circumstances, but typically, undergraduate international students have three options for financial aid from their institution:

  • Application-Based Aid Application-based aid usually includes things like the FAFSA, ISFAA, and other need-based scholarships your school may offer to students who are applying to study at the undergraduate level. Not every school offers need-based aid to international students at the application stage, so being in communication with your school’s financial aid office is always a good idea.

  • Admission-Based Aid Admission-based aid is based on your admission package. Schools will occasionally offer students scholarships or grants based on predetermined criteria, and if a student meets those criteria, their offer of admission will come with a scholarship offer as well. Unfortunately, students usually have very little control over this kind of aid (although it is possible to research your institution to see what scholarships are available).

  • Merit-Based Aid Merit-based scholarships differ from institution to institution, but they are awarded to students based on exceptional skills, talents, or abilities. These scholarships may be based on TOEFL scores, academic record, or artistic/musical/athletic ability. Not all merit-based scholarships will be open to international students, so make sure to research the eligibility criteria of any merit-based institutional scholarship you are thinking about applying for.


Scholarships for International Students

Now that we’ve covered the numerous ways you can fund your education, let’s jump into some specific scholarships that are available to international students. Each scholarship is listed with eligibility requirements, deadlines, the amount of the awards, and a link to the award page.

The Activism Campaign for the Promotion of Gender Equality
The Margaret McNamara Education Grants
The PEO International Peace Scholarship
The Society of Exploration Geophysicists Foundation Scholarship Program
The American Association of University Women (AAUW) International Fellowship Program
The Crown Prince’s International Scholarship Program
The Zonta International Jane M. Klausman Women in Business Scholarship
University of Kansas International Affairs Scholarships
Northeastern University Scholarships
The Thomas Buergenthal Scholarship
The Global Wildcat Award
Premier Scholarships
The Woodbridge N. Ferris Scholarships
Finduddannelse.dk Sustainability Scholarship
MPOWER Women in STEM Scholarship
The Millennium Fellowship
The Thomas Jefferson Scholarship Program's Tunisia Undergraduate Scholarship Program (Tunisia UGRAD)