International students bear a considerable burden while paying for college; sometimes theymay pay three times more than an American resident student. Furthermore, international attendance numbers at US colleges are decreasing. After peaking in 2015-16 at more than 300,000, the numbers dropped to 272,000 international attendees in 2017-18.

Each year, the cost of higher education continues to rise. In fact, college prices have soarednearly eight times faster than wages. To put it in perspective, a 4-year public college program from 2012 to 2016 would cost about $73,396 on average, while a 4-year private program would cost $149,189 (currency adjusted for 2018). In short, the overall cost of college is highly prohibitive to anyone low on cash.

Many American students struggle to meet these costs, often relying on federal and private student loans to pick up the slack. While some Americans can readily acquire financial aid, another demographic does not share the same access. In particular, international students looking to study in the United States (US) often feel the pain of rising college costs – with fewer solutions at hand.

With great costs and fewer ways to pay, how can students from abroad fund their education in the US? Thankfully, they still have some options.


What Types of Financial Aid Are Available to Internationals?

For starters, there are scholarships and grants available to international students. Private, US-based and international organizations often offer opportunities to promising young scholars from many different walks of life, including internationals. These could be especially helpful when paying for college because they are free funding that does not require repayment. However, they are highly competitive due to their benefits. Skip to the qualifying section for more information on these.

Aside from scholarships, there are two predominant sources of financial aid for those coming from abroad: federal financial aid as well as private student loans from banks and lenders.

At the federal level, international students may be eligible for Pell Grants, FSEOG Grants, direct subsidized/unsubsidized student loans, or Direct PLUS loans depending on residency status. Federal financial aid comes with better benefits than private aid. For instance, Pell Grants don’t require repayment. Furthermore, loan rates and terms tend to be more favorable, and the come with greater protections like student loan forgiveness and income-driven repayment (IDR) options. There’s more information on qualifying in the next sections.

Finally, private student loans are offered by banks and lenders who may lend to internationals. Applicants need to pass a credit check to qualify for a loan which may be a real sticking point for international students with limited credit history in the US. It should be noted that private loans come with fewer protections compared to federal aid such as IDR or forgiveness options. Read on to learn how to qualify for a private loan.

Qualifying for Financial Aid

Qualifying for financial aid as an international student can pose a challenge in some cases. However, it’s not impossible. Here’s more information on eligibility criteria and how to qualify for scholarships, federal aid, and private student loans, respectively.


As mentioned, scholarships are highly advantageous, especially from an eligibility perspective. There are various private organizations, programs, and even universities that offer scholarships specifically to international students. It sounds perfect! However, there are still other requirements to consider.

Aside from meeting the non-US citizen requirement, eligibility criteria may vary between applications. For example, one organization may specialize in scholarships to students from Russia, or applicants may need to be majoring in a certain career field like engineering. These requirements vary considerably, but there are tons of opportunities out there for students from many different backgrounds.

To qualify, simply find a scholarship that fits your profile and background and fill out an application with the required credentials and proof of information.

Federal Financial Aid

Federal financial aid is available to international students, but there are important federal eligibility criteria regarding residency status. First, residents of American Samoa and Swains Island are eligible because they are US nationals, though not technically US citizens. Additionally, permanent residents in the US (who have a Form I-551, I-151, or I-551C) are also eligible. The government notes that permanent residents are the most commonly covered eligible noncitizens.

Other eligible noncitizens include:

  • Students with an Arrival-Departure Record showing “Refugee,” “Asylum Granted,” “Cuban-Haitian Entrant,” “Conditional Entrant” (pre-04/01/1980), or “Parolee.”
  • Those who either hold or have parents who hold T nonimmigrant status, also known as a T-visa.
  • Students who are considered battered immigrant-qualified aliens – victims of abuse by a citizen or permanent resident spouse.
  • A citizen of the Federated States of Micronesia, Republic of the Marshal Islands, or Republic of Palau (limited to Pell Grants for Marshal Islands & Micronesia citizens and Pell Grants/FSEOG Grants, and Federal Work-Study for Palau citizens.)
  • If you meet the aforementioned criteria, the next step is to fill out the Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA). This is the federal form that will take your personal and financial information into account and offer a tailored federal aid package.

Private Student Loans

Qualifying for private student loans can be quite challenging, and the options are limited. In general, lenders require applicants to have an established credit history and good-to-excellent credit. Many young international students lack any established credit history at all, and those who have credit in their country may find in non-transferrable to the US credit system. The combination of low- or no-credit and non-US citizen status bars many from applying.

However, there are still certain private lenders, such as Citizens Bank and Discover Student Loans, who offer student loans to international students. Each private lender requires a cosigner who is a permanent resident or US citizen; furthermore, the cosigner must have at least a good credit score.

Despite today’s challenges, the private lending environment may change in the future and offer more opportunities to international students. Companies such as Nova Credit are developing algorithms to convert non-US credit information into a valid US credit score and credit report. Certain lenders who partner with Nova Credit may begin accepting these converted reports, helping international students secure the funding they need.


College comes with a high price tag, especially for students entering the US. Adding to those challenges, international students don’t have the same opportunities as Americans when it comes to financial aid. While scholarships are an option, not everyone can secure a full ride through free money. Aside from paying out of pocket, the leftover options, federal financial aid and private student loans, are limited for non-US citizens who may lack the proper credentials.

While it may be limited, not all international students are immediately barred from all financial aid. Many can still qualify, and it starts with looking into the criteria before applying for a loan or filling out the FAFSA.