Steven Gist (USA)

Cost of Attendance and Financial Aid Opportunities at U.S. Universities

by Steven Gist | June 21, 2012 | Steven Gist (USA) 1 Comment

One of the most important questions we address in our work with non-U.S. families is, “How much will it cost to attend a university in the U.S.?”  To answer this question, let’s start with the basics.  Very broadly speaking, the cost of one year of university in the U.S. ranges from $20,000 to $54,000 for tuition, fees, room and food.  Among our partner universities, annual costs range from $22,000 to $40,000 per year.

Most international students do, however, receive some sort of financial assistance from U.S. universities and will not pay the entire published cost.  In most cases, private universities are able to offer more financial aid than public institutions.  All of our partner universities are private, and offer financial aid opportunities to international students.  These financial aid awards come in various forms, but academic scholarships are by far the most common.

Before we talk about the different types of financial aid available to international students, let’s address the scholarship question we are most frequently asked, “How do I get a full scholarship?”  A full scholarship, or a “full ride” is a scholarship that will cover tuition, fees, room and food.  EducationUSA does a great job of addressing this question, and so I’ve included their response here in its entirety:

The total number of full scholarships available each year to incoming international students in the United States is about 1,000, offered by only about 100 colleges. To get a full scholarship, you must be one of the top students in your country, usually with “A”s (excellent) in almost every subject, high SAT and TOEFL scores, and distinguished performance in other areas such as leadership and community service. There are 20 top students from all over the world competing for each scholarship, so you must distinguish yourself among a pool of outstanding students.

In short, full scholarships are rare and highly competitive.  They are not something the vast majority of international students will have access to.  For those who are able to compete at this elite level, applying for these scholarships should be part of an admissions strategy that includes other options for continuing one’s education.


Academic Scholarships:  For most international students, the best chance for a significant scholarship will come from awards based on SAT scores, and, to some extent, on GPA and/or class rank.  These scholarships can range from $3,000 per year to full tuition.

The table below provides an estimate of scholarship offerings that correspond with different SAT score ranges, and how these scholarships impact annual cost of attendance. The far right-hand column represents a cross section of private U.S. universities whose cost of attendance for tuition, fees, room, and food ranges from $22,000 to $40,000.

SAT score range out of
a possible 1600 (combined reading and math scores)
Range of Scholarship Awards Cost of Attendance for Tuition, Fees, Room and Food

low / mid / high

Below 900 No academic award $22,000 / $30,000 / $40,000
900 to 1080 $3,000 to $8,000 $19,000 / $22,000 / $32,000
1100 to 1250 $6,000 to $11,000 $16,000 / $19,000 / $28,000
1270 to 1350 $9,000 to $14,000 $13,000 / $16,000 / $25,000
1350 to 1600 $12,000 to $17,000 $10,000 / $14,000 / $22,000
Competitive institutional scholarship awards for top students Full Tuition (exclusive of room and food) $6,000 / $8,000 / $10,000 (cost of room and food)

Some universities use a formula for calculating academic awards that includes SAT scores, grade point average (GPA) and class rank, and the scholarship amounts are similar to those in this table.

It should be noted that there are some universities that offer academic scholarships to non-U.S. applicants who have not taken the SAT.  Examples of this among our partner universities are Valparaiso University and LeTourneau University.

In most cases, students do not need to apply for scholarships that are based on SAT scores. They are automatically awarded as part of formal offer of admission from the university. It is also important to know that if a student takes the SAT multiple times, the university will use the student’s highest score when awarding scholarship.

Though scholarships based on the SAT account for the majority of financial aid offered to international students, there are other scholarships that may be offered in addition to these awards.

Honors or Leadership Development Programs:  These are programs that students may apply for based on strong academics and participation in extracurricular activities.  Many universities offer scholarships to those selected to participate in these programs.  To be eligible to apply for these programs, most require students to be admitted to the university by the December or January prior to the August intake.  We recommend that students submit applications by December 1 so that they don’t miss out on the opportunity to take full advantage of these awards.  Universities we work with that offer these programs are: Union University, Hardin-Simmons University and Pacific Lutheran University.  These programs are only available for students enrolling in the fall semester. Students who enroll in the spring will have to apply for the next year.

Music Scholarships:  Music scholarships may be given in addition to academic scholarships for talented musicians majoring in music.  Students will need to audition in person or provide a high-quality recording of a performance in order to apply for music scholarships.  Most music scholarships are offered to first year students who enroll in the August intake.  These scholarships are NOT offered to musicians or vocalists who do not major in music, though they may be paid a stipend or grant for performing in a school-sponsored performance group.  These groups include marching bands, jazz bands, ensembles, orchestras and choirs.

All of our partner universities offer opportunities for music scholarships.

Athletic Scholarships: Scholarships range from full scholarships for national-level competitors or world-class athletes to just a few thousand per year for athletes at less competitive universities.

Degree-Specific Scholarships:  These are awards offered by a school or department within a university.  These are usually small awards ($500 to $1,000) that are offered to second, third or fourth-year students with strong academic achievement.  These scholarships are awarded in rare cases to first-year students.

Church-Match Grants:  Church-affiliated universities may offer a program that matches the contribution made by a student’s home church.  For example, if a church contributes $500, the university will match it dollar for dollar so that the total grant is $1,000.

Non-U.S. students may find other scholarship opportunities unique to a university by reading information found in the “admissions” section of their websites under “financial aid” or “scholarships”.

Need-Based Scholarships:  A small number of universities offer grants or scholarships to students based on demonstrated need.  Those universities that do will have a special international financial aid form for parents of non-U.S. citizens to complete.

Scholarships for Transfer Students: An applicant is considered a transfer student is he or she has already completed  a significant amount of course work at another college or university. Many universities award scholarships for transfer students based on the cumulative grade point average (CGPA) at the previous university. These scholarships are automatically awarded with submission of an official transcript from the student’s previous university. Some universities will require students to have their transcripts evaluated by a third-party credential evaluation company before making a scholarship offer. These companies will translate grades earned at the foreign institution into a U.S. CGPA equivalent.

Cost-Saving Strategies

Block Tuition:  Universities charge tuition in one of two ways.  The most common is to charge a fixed amount per credit hour.  In one year, students will take 30 or 32 credit hours (i.e. 15 or 16 per semester) and they are charged tuition for each credit hour taken.  Other universities charge students one fee for 12 to 18 credit hours per semester.  The block fee is usually based on 15 hours, and so if  a student can take more than 15 hours per semester (that is, more than 5, three-credit-hour classes per semester), it is possible to save money and finish one’s degree faster. Several of our partner universities offer block tuition including, Abilene Christian University and Oklahoma Christian University.

Locked Tuition: Tuition at U.S. universities increases each year at an average rate of about 5% to 7%. Some universities will lock in tuition at the published tuition rate of a student’s first year of university for duration of the student’s university career. This helps families to more easily budget for a four-year degree, and save the family a significant amount over the course of four years. Hardin-Simmons University, one of our partner universities, locks in tuition for its students.

Advanced Placement, IB and A-levels:  Advanced Placement or AP courses are courses that give high school students the opportunity to earn university credit.  Credit is granted based on a final AP exam for each subject.  If a student scores high enough on an exam, university credit is granted.  Students can earn university credit by taking subjects in International Baccalaureate and A-levels programs, as well.  Earning credit for subjects taken in these programs can save students significant time and money at the university level.

CLEP:  CLEP tests are offered by universities to allow students to “challenge” courses that they’ve studied in high school.  If students can pass the CLEP test for a given subject, the university will apply that subject as credit toward the student’s degree at the university. An average CLEP Test costs about $100 to take. By passing even one CLEP test students can save between $1500 – $3000 in tuition fees, not to mention an entire semester’s worth of time that would have been spent on the coursework for that subject.


On-Campus Work:  Non-U.S. citizens are allowed to work up to 20 hours per week on campus–usually at minimum wage.  We estimate that students can earn between $1,000 and $3,500 per year by working on campus.  Students cannot legally work off campus. Students who are caught working off campus can risk having their visa status terminated which may result in deportation.

Optional Practical Training (OPT):  Upon successful completion of a degree program, F-1 visa holders (the majority of international students in the U.S. hold an F-1 visa) are allowed to work for up to 12 months in the U.S. to gain practical experience in their chosen field of study.  Students with degrees in science, technology, engineering and math can apply for a 17-month extension.

Further Reading

As a final note, I want to emphasize that students need to apply early in order to take full advantage of financial aid opportunities offered by U.S. universities.  In my article titled, “August 2013 Applicants, It’s Time to Prepare!”, I offer a guide to help students understand what they need to be doing in the university choice and admissions process, and when these tasks need to be completed.


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    [...] you prepare for university in the U.S., I highly recommend reading my blog post on the cost of higher education in the U.S., if you’ve not done so already. share [...]

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