University-Based Financial Aid for International Undergraduate Students in the United States

Duke University campus
Duke University. Source: Personal Documentation.

Editorial note: The costs of attending higher education in the United States can be astronomically expensive, but that’s not a reason to be afraid of studying abroad. In the article below, Della Sihite, our newest columnist for North and Latin America, shares her experience securing financial aid at Duke University.

The average tuition at a private US university is $40,000, but if studying in the US is your dream, don’t let that scare you!

My name is Della Sihite and I’m currently an undergraduate at Duke University studying computer science and economics. I’m here on full financial aid, which means I don’t have to pay anything throughout all four years and I get a ~$2000 stipend every semester to spend on living expenses.

In this article, I’ll be going over how you, as an international applicant, can get financial aid from US universities.

Step 0: Defining the terminology

In US universities, there are two types of financial aid: merit-based and need-based. Merit-based aid is based on academic or extracurricular merit, while need-based aid is awarded based on your financial need. Typically, public universities will only offer merit-based scholarships to international students, while private universities will offer both merit and need-based aid. In fact, some private universities will commit to meeting 100% financial need if you are admitted, i.e. if tuition is $40,000 and your parents can only afford $10,000, the university will pay for the remaining $30,000.

However, in the admissions process, there are two types of universities: need-blind and need-aware. Need-blind universities do not consider your financial need when considering you for admission, therefore applying for financial aid will not affect your chances of getting in. On the other hand, need-aware universities will take into account the fact that you applied for financial aid when considering you for admission, therefore it is easier to get in for people who are not applying for financial aid.

Step 1: Find the universities you want to apply to

There are currently only seven universities in the US that are need-blind and meet 100% financial needs of international students, and they are Harvard, Princeton, Yale, MIT, Amherst, Dartmouth, and Bowdoin. However, these are not the only universities you are limited to! Many US universities are need-aware but still offer financial aid to international students, and some even meet 100% of their financial needs. There is no exhaustive list of universities, so you will have to do your own research, but websites like this are a great place to start your search.

Step 2: Prepare the application materials

Now that you know which universities you want to apply to, you need to make a list of their application materials. This will typically consist of the CollegeBoard’s CSS Profile or the International Student Financial Aid Application (ISFAA). These forms are very detailed and may require your parents to help out with information about their income and assets. If you get stuck, the CollegeBoard website has guides on how to fill out these financial aid forms. In addition to that, universities may also ask for your parents’ income statements and/or tax returns. If these are not in English, you may need to get a certified translator to translate them into English.

Step 3: Apply!

The costs of applying to US universities can add up – each university charges about $50 for an application, the CSS profile costs about $15 per school, and sending the SAT score report is about $12 per school. Here is how you can minimize these fees:

  • Application fees: You can get your application fee waived by asking your school counselor to write an application fee waiver request on your behalf, attesting to how the application fee poses a strain on your family’s finances 
  • CSS Profile: If you ask, many colleges will provide you with a fee waiver (so that the CSS form will be free to submit), or they will tell you to fill out the ISFAA instead
  • SAT Score Report: Most schools don’t actually need the official SAT score report until you are admitted, so don’t send the SAT score report to every school you are applying to unless they specifically ask for it.

That’s all for now – I hope you learned something from this article! This information is specific to international undergraduates at US universities, and this is what I personally went through 4 years ago, so things may be different now. Let me know if you want me to go into further detail on any of these topics, and please feel free to reach out to me with any questions!


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