What sets colleges (universities) in the United States of America apart from those in other countries is that many of them provide both need-based and merit-based financial aid for international students like you and me. While merit-based aid can be thought of as a “scholarship”, need-based aid tends to depend solely on your/your family’s ability to pay for a US education.
Basically, while universities in many other countries don’t need you to present financial documentation during the application process, most in USA do. As a result, the admissions committee will be aware of your financial condition during the admissions process. It is your responsibility to apply for a need-based financial aid if you believe that you do not possess the resources to afford the full Cost of Attendance (tuition fees, room and board etc.) of a particular US university. Once you’ve done that, the admissions committee and the Office of Financial Aid will decide on the amount of aid they feel is appropriate for you. This need-based aid/ award is usually a portion (or all) of the difference between the Cost of Attendance and your/ your family’s expected annual contribution. The amount of need-based financial aid you receive will also depend on several other factors, including whether the school is need-blind, need-aware or need-sensitive.
1. Need-blind: These universities allegedly do not care what your financial status is – they will admit you solely on the basis of your educational and intellectual qualifications. There are only a handful colleges that are need-blind for international students (the number is a sizeable amount if you are a US passport holder): Amherst College, Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), Dartmouth College, Harvard University, Princeton University and Yale University. In other words, MIT will take you in and waive the portion of the CoA you cannot pay as their Financial Aid Office seems just. Seems optimistic right? I was, too, until I checked the acceptance rates at these universities; say if a 100 applicants very good were applying; less than 10 would get selected. Not to worry though, if you have a stellar application, you might just make it!
2. Need-aware: These universities will put anyone applying for financial aid in an entirely different pool of applicants. Competition tends to be intense in that pool. Some of these need-aware universities have policies to meet “100% of an admitted student’s needs”. This means that if you stand out in that competitive, “needy” pool of applicants and get accepted, the university will pay the part of the CoA you cannot. Among the renowned need-aware universities are (do keep in mind that this list is non-exhaustive) – Duke University, Brown University, Carleton College, Washington and Lee University (WNL), Washington University in St. Louis (WashU), etc. Please note that some of these universities exhibit need-blind of policies for US citizens and need-aware for international applicants.
Also note that these need-aware universities do not supposedly look into how much your financial need is; that is the job of need-sensitive universities.
3.Need-sensitive: These are very much like the need-aware universities, except they also look into how much financial need you demonstrate. If they find that your need is much larger than what they have in their reserve for you, they might reject you. Modestly ranked US colleges tend to be need-sensitive and many of them cannot meet 100% of a student’s demonstrated need. Clark University, Occidental College, Reed College amongst others are a few need-sensitive ones.
We’ve been talking about need-based financial aid so far. Many universities also offer Merit-based scholarships. These will be awarded to you without any regard to your financial needs. Some places need to write a separate application (usually consisting of essays) for certain scholarships, while others will automatically consider you for scholarships once you’ve submitted your main application.
If you get admitted to a US university, the acceptance letter is usually accompanied by your financial aid awards. These awards usually consist of grants (you don’t have to pay them back), student employment on campus and scholarships. Again, you need to apply for need-based aid to get the grants. The total financial award can even cover the entire cost of attendance i.e. better than full tuition scholarship.
So, if you are hopeful and “poor” like I am (I cannot pay 60K a year…), apply for need-based aid (and any merit-based aid you find) and pray for the best. Always remember, colleges in USA have a holistic process – a term that is often ignored by many of us – of reviewing applications. It is not always about your scores. I’ve heard of people with 2300 on the SAT get rejected from the same place people with 1900 got into. One good recommendation letter can make as much of a difference as a brilliant grades. It is this fair and generous admissions process of US colleges that gives everyone a chance! Good luck and get applying!