Studying in the US: Financing your Education

by Joe Cronin, Director,
Studying in the US: Financing your Education

Careful planning is both necessary and wise. You will be required to prove to the university, to the consular officer (the person at the U.S. Consulate who issues visa stamps), and perhaps to the U.S. Immigration and Naturalization Service that you have sufficient funds to cover your living expenses (housing, food, clothing, etc) and health insurance, as well as university's tuition and fees.

So how much money will you need? You can get a general idea about expenses by looking at catalogs or application information provided by the university. Remember, however, that tuition rates vary tremendously. State (public) universities are generally, but not always, less expensive than private institutions. Some private institutions may be able to offer scholarships that state schools can not. Two-year or community colleges are usually less expensive than colleges and universities offering bachelor's and graduate degrees.

The cost of living in different parts of the United States also varies. In general, living in urban areas (in or near a big city) is more expensive than living in smaller towns or rural areas. Renting an apartment in a big city can cost twice as much as it does in a smaller town because there is such high demand for housing in large U.S. cities. Likewise, food, clothing, entertainment, and other living expenses may be more expensive in a city.

Budgeting is a continuous process. At this stage, work on a "big picture" budge that will include tuition, room and board, transportation, and living expenses, Later you can be more specific, taking into consideration all the additional expenses of moving and settling in. One very important factor in the "big picture" budget is health insurance, which can be as little as $1,000 annually for an individual or as much as $5,000 for a family.

Funding Packages
Undergraduate Assistance from U.S. Source
Graduate Assistance from U.S. Source
Financial Documentation for Admission and Visa Purposes
Employment Restrictions


Funding Packages

Many international students put together a funding "package" from a variety of sources. You should explore the options your government or home university has available for students studying overseas. Many governments offer scholarships and low-interest or no-interest loans for academically promising students. Some international organizations offer scholarships and grants to students pursuing degree program in specific fields. Some private companies in your country may offer scholarships to bright students who wish to study abroad. The best source of information an such scholarships is the educational advising center.

Even if you are lucky enough to receive funding from sources such as the ones mentioned above, nearly all international students have to rely on personal and family funds as well. It is not uncommon for a family to use a substantial portion of their savings to pay for an education abroad. Your savings (or you family's) may be the only reliable source of funding you have as you begin your program of studies in the United States. In any case, the burden will be on you to explore funding options and secure the resources necessary for your studies. It can be challenging, and sometimes frustrating, particularly if your family funds are limited.


Undergraduate Assistance from U.S. Sources

Many U.S. colleges and universities offer limited financial aid for international students through their financial aid offices. In general, however, there is much less money available for undergraduate study in the United States than there is for graduate study. Private institutions can sometimes discount or reduce the costs of tuition; public institutions seldom have this option. You should request information about financial aid when you request an application form from the institution's admissions office. In some instances, it may be possible for you to participate in a formal exchange between your home institution and the institution you wish to attend in the United States. You can get more information on such exchanges by contacting the international student offices at the U.S. institution or by contacting the corresponding office at your institution. This kind of person-for-person exchange can reduce expenses in some instances.


Graduate Assistance from U.S. Sources

Many graduate departments at U.S. universities offer teaching assistantships or research assistantships to their graduate students (students pursuing a master's or doctoral degree). Assistantships usually involve a tuition award and some sort of salary in return for teaching or research duties. Such funds are generally controlled by individual departments at the university. It is often the case that a department will want to see how good a student you are and what kind of adjustment you make to university life before t will be willing to invest money in your education. In some cases, a department will accept only as many students as it can support with teaching or research assistantships. Although you will find some information about assistantships in a catalog or on university Websites, you may have to write directly to the department to inquire about this kind of funding. This exchange of information may occur after you have been accepted into the program. It is also important to inquire and apply early if you hope to receive financial assistance from the U.S. institution. Often deadlines for scholarships and assistantships are months before the normal application deadline.

Even if you are lucky enough to receive aid, you will still have to have sufficient funds to travel to the United States, and at least enough money to cover your first month's expenses.


Financial Documentation for Admission and Visa Purposes

Once you have selected the university you wish to attend, you will need to provide documentation to prove that you have at least the minimum amount of money the university estimates you will need. Providing that documentation is part of the admission process. Schools require a newly admitted student to submit proof of one year of funding (less if your program is under one year in duration). Acceptable forms of proof of funding are scholarship and award letters from your university, government, or sponsoring agency; sponsorship letters from private companies; personal bank statements; and affidavits of support for rela6tives or friends. Affidavits of support are formal, often notarized (formally witnessed), statements of financial support and should be accompanied by the bank statement of the individual who promises the funds. All financial documents should be in English or translated into English by a certified translator. They should specify precise amounts in U.S. dollars. Ask your bank to calculate and specify the U.S. dollar equivalency on your bank statement. Your name should be clearly indicated on each document of support. Generic or vague letters of support are not acceptable under any circumstances.

Your school, college, or university must evaluate your financial documentation before a certificate of eligibility for a student visa can be issued. The Form I-20 is the certificate of eligibility for the F-1 student visa. This document, which generally comes to you along with the letter of acceptance to the university, is used to secure a visa and to enter the United States. Students who plan to pursue a full-time program of study and are supported by personal or family funds, private sponsors, or funds from the school usually apply for an F-1 visa. The I-20 is an indication to the consular officer that the university has found you to be academically admissible, financial capable, and liguistically prepared for your studies in the United States.

Students whose studies are primarily funded by their government, international agencies, private company sponsors, or the school may request in IAP-66, which is the certificate of eligibility for the J-1 exchange visitor visa. If you are awarded a scholarship or grant from a government or sponsoring agency, you may be required by the sponsor to apply for a J-1 rather than an F-1 visa. J-1 students cannot be supported solely with personal or family funds.

Once you receive your I-20 or IAP-66 from your school, take the form, along with original documents of financial support, to the U.S. embassy or consulate in your country to apply for your student visa.


Employment Restrictions

As you begin to think about funding sources for your educational and living expenses in the United States, remember that you cannot count on working in the United States unless you have been granted a teaching or research assistantship. When you submit evidence of your financial resources, you cannot reply on potential income. The income on which you base your application must be assured and must be equal to or exceed the costs of the first year of your studies.

Immigration regulations are very strict with respect to working while carrying a student visa. F-1 status, which is the most common status for full-time international students, allows for part time, on-campus employment (fewer than 20 hours per week.) J-1 student status allows for similar employment, with similar restrictions, as long as permission is given by the exchange visitor program sponsor. M-1 visa holders for technical and vocational programs are not permitted to work during the course of their studies.

Jobs available on campus typically do not pay much, certainly not enough to finance a university education. Do not count on this kind of a job for anything more than a supplement to other funds.

Careful long- and short-term planning are necessary to ensure that you will have a rewarding educational experience in the United States. If you are realistic about your financial needs, you will be better able to enjoy the exciting academic and cultural experience of living and learning in the United States.

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