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  • Writer's pictureCortney Dowdle

Trends and the Real Cost for International Students in American Universities

It’s been a while! As I transition from working with final year students to the year before final year students in the spring, it seemed like a good time for a blog about what’s going on in the international education world for international students interested in studying in the American universities in 2023 and beyond.

If you’re short on time:

  • What does recent research say about international students success after studying in the USA?

  • What is the real cost of university in the USA?

  • How do you tell if applying to university in the USA is for you?

Curious where international students who are currently studying in the US come from? Check out this SEVIS tool.

The US is facing some big competition for university applications as we look forward. Recent studies have shown that China and India are still accounting for about 30% of all international students going abroad for higher education. In the USA, counselors hear more and more that students are interested in applying to universities in the UK, Canada, Australia, Europe, and other countries. The drastic cost difference keeps students feeling they need to “consider other options”, even though the USA is their first choice.

While the US offers the most options and what is often recognized as a unique university experience, one that ecompasses degree seeking courses, extracurriculars, on campus living, and a sense of community that is more difficult to find in other countries, the price tag has continued to increase. Many universities in the US have annual price tags of $80,000 USD (or more) for tuition and housing and meal plans. Times that by four years just for an undergraduate degree and add to it that international students can’t apply for student loans in the US without a cosigner. That makes the process challenging even from the start.

So the question remains a hot topic as the cost of education continues to increase - why do international students choose to study higher education in the USA?

Here are my personal thoughts from experience (but you'll read similar on studies by Interstride and World Education Services, as well as general articles by the Times Higher Education and Economist):

  1. They are thinking about the long term return on investment for an education from the USA - lifetime career studies still place an American university degree at the one of the most valuable you can get for lifetime earning potential

  2. Students/parents understand the value of cultural competency, applied learning, and real world practical applications curriculum that the USA is famous for - students don’t just earn degrees through memorization and course-based learning, but they dive into international travel, internships, career fairs, and building cross cultural relationships at some of the most diverse institutions in the world.

  3. Experiential learning opportunities that are hard to beat - the USA offers the largest selection of higher education institutions in the world, as well as world class laboratories, professors, and both international student support systems as well as student life opportunities that add up to more than just clubs and extracurriculars. They combine to create well rounded and curious students ready to take on real work opportunities after university studies are completed.

As far as my personal experience goes, I’ve seen students make transformations in secondary or post secondary programs that I truly believe cannot happen under other circumstances. The experience of studying in the US for education continues to bring out strengths in international students that make them contenders for a wide variety of industries around the world. I believe they are versatile, flexible, responsible, mature, solutions-focused, and well-rounded young adults to bring a lot more to the table than a student who has been educated in only their home country.

Students studying on university campus

Education in the US is an investment, plain and simple. It’s an investment in a student’s future potential and gives them an edge for the rest of their life.

Despite that, so very many students cannot afford the price tag of a US education. So if you’re not:

  • An elite athlete likely to be recruited for NCAA Division I or II sports

  • The most amazing student (top 1% in your class in one of the top 10 schools in your home country) who is offered the coveted most often ONE full scholarship

  • Fully funded by your parents or your home country’s government

…what can you expect to pay?

As the cost of university in the US increases, so do scholarship opportunities. That being said, top students from around the US and internationally can very often expect to spend $30,000-$40,000 USD each year on a university degree - WITH scholarships. While merit scholarships, or scholarships given automatically when a student applies (most often given by private not public universities), they often max out at around 50% of the tuition for the school. There are full tuition scholarships or sometimes honor’s programs (often requiring an interview or extra steps from the student) that can help increase the merit scholarship awards.

A frequent conversation I have with students is that even the top students getting the top scholarships are paying hefty price tags to attend universities in the US. I’ve talked before about how students can fund their education in the US, and I think these are still the most relevant options for a student. Check out these two blogs:

International student graduate from American university

I have frequent conversations with students who want to consider only the top universities in the US for their post secondary education.

A few trends in recent years for these top schools (let’s say top 50 universities, which is a miniscule 1% of all the university options in the USA) are:

  • More applications, due to things like test optional policies, meaning these schools can be more selective than ever

  • Top universities get plenty of international applicants. They are not the ones hurting for students to keep the doors open, so they can determine all kinds of preferences they want, from percentages of which genders they will accept, to certain student athletes they may need to fill sports team spots, to not accepting as many students from a certain geographic location because students from there just don’t perform as well - in short - these top universities do not need your applications let alone to give you scholarships

  • The ones hurting from recent pandemic years are small private liberal arts universities. These universities not only have budgets to meet with student numbers, but they value diversity and need more of it! These are the schools that are more likely to give international students higher scholarships.

With all of these trends comes the need for counselors and consultants to be honest and transparent with international students as they go through the application processes.

My biggest tips to students who are thinking about applying to university in the US next year:

-Consider multiple funding sources for school. Try not to rely only on government funds or family funds or personal savings. You will likely need more than one source of funding for these high price tags.

-Do your research - find the university that want international students on their campuses.

-Look for other scholarships at that university that you may qualify for - consider talent based, honor’s programs, or anything specific to international students like the #youarewelcomehere scholarship.

-Consider community or state colleges. They have much lower price tags and some can still support international students well.

If you take anything away from this blog, it’s that international students should look into small, private (well ranked) liberal arts universities for their studies. Of course, this depends on your field and specifically what you are looking for, but know that they are the schools offering the most flexibility to students.

If you are wondering where to start, there are plenty of blogs on this site to help you learn about the processes to study in the USA. In addition, Shorelight, an international education company, has put together a great guide on the overall process to study in the USA.

Until next time!

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