The US College degree is well-known for having an expensive price tag. The average cost for a college student can be as high as $80,000 a year, and for the top-tier private schools rarely comes below $50,000. However, these headline costs can be significantly reduced if you’re able to tap into the various sources of funding available. Around 85% of students benefit from some form of financial assistance at public colleges, with that number going up to 89% at private non-profit ones, so if you think you can’t afford an American college education, think again. Let’s go through the key points of financial aid in the US so that you’re in a better position to apply for funding, and can make that college dreams come true.
What is Financial Aid?
Financial aid provides a means for hopeful students to afford college when they might not otherwise be able to, and comes in the form of grants and scholarships, loans, and work-study awards. The money and financial schemes that one is able to take is provided by schools, federal and state government, and private institutions (charities, trusts, private companies, countries etc). The most widely available source of funding available is that provided by the federal government - this is almost exclusively available to US students, yet there is still a great deal of financial aid accessible to international students.
What Types of Financial Aid Are Available?
As mentioned above, there are several types of financial aid available. There are grants and scholarships (terms that can be used interchangeably) that are not repaid by students, loans that have to be repaid, and federal Work-Study awards which allow students to earn a paycheck while attending college, in return for working on campus.
Loans can be federal or private, although federal ones will tend to have lower interest rates and not take into account you or your family’s credit score. With the interest charged over time, your costs and subsequent debt can balloon after you leave college.
Work-Study is a government program where students are secured jobs at college (such as in the library or other college facilities) and typically work around ten hours a week to help cover costs. This is available to both US and international students alike. However, it’s important for you take into account the demands of your degree so that you do not compromise your academic requirements. Whilst this won’t fully fund your college costs, it will certainly help offset it.
Grants and Scholarships are financial awards that do not require any repayment, and help students cover a large part of their expenses, if not all of it. Generally speaking, grants are made to those who need it, whilst scholarships are given to those whose skills merit it. However, the terms can be used interchangeably by various schools, and indeed can be given based off a blend of “need” and “talent”. The key point is, no repayment is required. Funds that are distributed by colleges come from a variety of sources: college endowment funds, alumni gifts, federal and state grants, as well as college revenues. There are some scholarships focused on your race/religion/ethnicity/gender/intended profession etc which are usually provided by institutions outside of the college system. An extensive list is available on www.scholarships.com.
How Do I Apply for Financial Aid?
The process varies between colleges, but essentially involves filling in forms, and providing financial statements and tax documentation (both you and your parents’). The forms you return can differ depending on whether you’re a US student or from abroad.
As a US student you will almost certainly be expected to fill in and return the Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA) form. FAFSA determines how much Federal aid you are eligible to receive. If you are an international student, you will not be eligible for this source of funding, and so in most cases do not need to complete this, but you will have to most likely return a CSS profile - this is used by colleges to determine how much institutional aid you qualify for and tends to require a lot more information than the FAFSA. Do note that US students will have to fill out both the FAFSA and CSS profile.
In addition to these documents, you will also have to provide both your and your family’s financial statements, as well as possibly a further form unique to each college. For example, Princeton requires the return of the Princeton Financial Aid Application.
How is the Amount of Financial Aid I Receive Calculated?
Each college will have its own financial aid formula; however, generally speaking the process is as follows:
You complete your FAFSA/CSS form based on the finances available to you, whether that’s individual savings or from other means such as family. Factoring in elements such as your income and assets, a formula works out how much you can reasonably be expected to contribute to your yearly college costs. This is known as your Expected Family Contribution (EFC). There are EFC calculators available online to help you with an estimated cost, here is one to get you started: https://www.finaid.org/calculators/finaidestimate.phtml.
Colleges will take this figure, and compare it to the Cost of Attendance (COA) at that institution. This can vary wildly between places of study, as it includes fees, tuitions, books, and accommodation. If you need an idea of how much that will be (and hence whether your college’s COA will be higher or lower relative to other places), it will be available on their website. We have also given you a run-down of yearly tuition cost of the top 25 colleges in the US below.
Take the difference between your EFC and COA, and this will result in your “Need”, and therefore how much financial aid you require to attend that school. Clearly this need will depend a lot on your own circumstances, but even more on the cost of the school you want to attend.
Having worked out your “Need”, colleges will come up with a financial package that attempts to meet your individual situation. Some colleges guarantee fully-funded aid for all of their students, meaning that whatever your personal circumstance, every student who is admitted will have their funding needs fully provided. At the same time, not all colleges can promise this, and so can only provide partial funding - for these schools, they will try their best to come as close as they can to fund your studies. If you feel like you will be in need of significant financial aid, it is best to look for colleges that guarantee funding for accepted applicants.
Another important point to mention is that for many colleges you must inform them from the beginning of your application that financial aid is needed. As most colleges have limited funding, they might only accept you on the basis of what you tell them you can afford. Should you actually need funding but not declare it, you might find it difficult, if not impossible, to secure it later.
What is the Difference Between Need-Blind and Need-Aware Admission?
You might see the terms “Need-Blind” and “Need-Aware” when looking at the application policies of various colleges. This is especially pertinent when it comes to funding, since these terms have a direct consequence on your chances of admission.
Need-Blind means that the school does not take into account your financial needs when considering your application. Generally speaking, need-blind schools offer the most generous forms of financial aids to successful applicants, since they mostly come with guarantees that they will fully fund all of the students' needs. However, not all colleges offer this guarantee and can still be need-blind. This means that you can be offered a place, but you might have to come up with a means of funding your education outside of college grants.
The other thing to note is that a need-blind admission policy at a US college might apply to some students but not others, namely US students and not international ones. In fact, there are only five colleges (mentioned below) that offer fully-funded need-blind admissions to international students. There are other need-blind colleges out there who don’t take an international students' financial circumstances into account, but should you be accepted, funds are not guaranteed by the college. Simply put, if your personal circumstance means there is some distance between your financial situation and your college expenses, you will have to look elsewhere (such as a loan or an external scholarship) to fill the gap.
Need-Aware admissions refer to admission policies that do take into account a student’s financial needs. These admission policies exist because some colleges do not have access to the amount of financial resource that allows other colleges to admit every student on a needs-blind basis.
We have listed the top twenty-five colleges (as ranked for 2020 from U.S. News) below, and noted the admissions policy on which they admit their students. What you will see is that the majority of these top-tier colleges offer needs-blind admissions to almost all US students. In contrast, if you are an international student, you will mostly be subject to a need-aware application.
Which Schools Offer Fully-Funded Needs-Blind Financial Aid to International Students?
Among the some 4,000 degree-granting colleges and educational institutions in the US, there are only five four-year colleges who offer needs-blind admission for international students that guarantees fully-funded aid for admitted applicants. If you are an international student looking to apply to a school that looks at your college application without financial prejudice AND will secure 100% funding for your COA, then these are the colleges for you.
The Top 25 US Colleges and Financial Aid Available in 2020 (For US and International Students)
The following table details the top 25 colleges in the US for 2020 with financial aid available for both US and international students. It also notes the basis of their admissions policies. Do note that whilst all of these colleges make available to international students needs-based financial aid, some will be more limited than others, and some offer fully-funded grants, whilst others do not.
For Transfer Students
If you are thinking of transferring schools, the financial aid available to you will vary from school to school as a transfer student. Some colleges treat prospective and transfer students the same financial aid, with both following the same financial aid application process. Dartmouth and Yale for example do not distinguish eligibility requirements between first-years and transfers:
Yale: transfer students are eligible for the same need-based financial aid as students who enter as first-years. Yale's financial aid policies meet 100% of demonstrated financial need for all students, regardless of citizenship or immigration status
Dartmouth: [For Prospective & Transfer Students] We guarantee to meet 100% of demonstrated need. Help may come from a combination of Federal Aid, student loans, and Dartmouth scholarship
Other colleges like Boston University do not offer guaranteed funding for transfer students:
Boston: Do all transfer students who apply for need-based aid receive it? No. Boston University makes every effort to assist students with calculated financial need and high academic achievement, measured against the credentials of other admitted students, but we do not have sufficient funds to help every eligible transfer student.
When it comes to international transfer students, again the funding policies vary. Some colleges offer full financial aid for this category of applicant:
Harvard: All transfer applicants, including international students, are eligible to apply for need-based financial aid. Transfer applicants should follow the prospective student financial aid application instructions.
Others however, such as Northwestern do not make any financial aid available for international transfer applicants:
Northwestern: once all materials are received, our Financial Aid Committee will review your application to determine aid eligibility. You will be notified of your aid package shortly after your admission decision. For more information on how we determine aid eligibility, see the Aid Basics & Eligibility section. If you wish only to apply for federal aid, you just need to complete and submit the FAFSA. Financial aid is not available for international transfer applicants.
This being the case, if you are a transfer student it’s important to check your desired college’s financial aid policies, which are also subject to change.
US college is expensive but should by no means be out of reach to anyone with the determination and ambition to succeed. The US financial aid system is one of the most comprehensive and generous in the world, so should you have the passion and the talent, a place awaits you at one of these fine institutions, no matter what your individual financial circumstance might be.