Financial aid & scholarships

US financial aid and scholarships for international students

Expert advice from a Cialfo Community webinar featuring two US Directors of International Admissions and a veteran counselor

Cialfo Community
June 16, 2021
-
12 min read

Financial aid in the United States

  • Financial aid models
  • Components of financial aid awards
  • Calculating financial need and financial aid
  • Financial aid application process
  • Important tips
  • Further resources

There are so many things to consider when it comes to deciding on your university, and finances are a big part of it. The cost of tuition, student accommodation and other living expenses can add up. US universities have a financial aid system that can seem complex, especially for international students.

Financial aid models

Schools in the US generally fall under three categories when it comes to financial aid in the admissions process:

1. Need-blind

The admissions office does not  know how much financial aid the student needs. Out of the thousands of colleges and universities in the US, there are only about 100 institutions that have a need-blind policy.

2. Need-aware

The college has access to a student's financial situation, and some or even all of the decisions made will factor in how much financial help a student will need. The admissions process will not be affected by their financial need up to a certain threshold.

3. Meeting full need

In this case, the college meets 100% of the student’s financial need, but the aid may constitute largely of student loans, which might not be ideal.

It's easy to confuse being need-blind with meeting full need, but these are not always related. There are only 7 institutions in the US who are need-blind and will meet 100% of that need!

Components of financial aid awards

Financial aid can be further split into 2 categories:

1. Self-help

This is aid that students need to repay, or earn themselves, with assistance from the college. It includes campus employment and student loans.

2. Gift aid 

This consists of grants and scholarships that are given to students with no requirements of repayment.

Calculating financial need and financial aid

Cost of attendance

Cost of attendance is the general sum of expenses the international student will incur while studying at the college. This estimate is used to calculate the amount of financial aid the student will receive. 

Cost of attendance includes:

  1. Tuition fees
  2. Fees for college services (i.e. lab fees)
  3. Room and board fees
  4. Estimated living expenses (i.e. transport costs, utilities)
  5. Estimated costs for books and supplies

In addition to these costs, there may be some school- and course- specific expenses such as seismic fees, meal plan administration fees, academic activities fees and fees for student services. 

Expected family contribution

Once the cost of attendance is calculated, schools will calculate the expected family contribution to determine the student’s financial need. This is done by factoring in the amount of money the family has, the number of members in the family, and how many members in the family are in university.

Calculating financial need

The formula for calculating financial need is as follows:

Cost of attendance - expected family contribution = financial need

Using financial need, schools then determine the amount of aid provided to the student. The amount of aid, as well as how much of it constitutes student loans, varies from school to school.

Financial aid application process

The next important thing students need to take note of would be the documentation and deadlines of the application process. There are three main forms used to apply for financial aid:

  1. College Scholarship Service (CSS) Profile for College Board
  2. International student financial aid application
  3. University-specific financial aid application

The CSS Profile costs $25 for one college, and an additional $16 for each additional college, while the other forms are free. The forms used vary from school to school, so it’s important to carry out research on which form to use. 

Following this, there are two additional documents students must submit:

  1. International Students certification of finances form
  2. Parents’ and student’s (if applicable) tax returns 

During the application process, bear in mind these important deadlines:

  • 1st October: Application
  • 1st January: Early award decision deadline
  • 1st March: Regular award decision deadline
  • July: Billing

Further resources

Applying for financial aid is by no means a simple process. Here are some resources students can use to get more in-depth information into the entire process:


A big thank you to Nicole Buenzli, Associate Dean of Admissions and Director of International Admissions at Union College, Amy E. Markham, Director of International Admission at Mount Holyoke College, and Shilpa Gupta, University Counselor at OIS India and a member of the Int'l ACAC Executive Board for their invaluable insights and expert advice that made this webinar and article possible.

Image credits: Dollar Gill and Dmitry Demidko

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