In this issue:
- Free US college application guide
- Standardised tests – an update
- Financial considerations of studying at a US university
- Types of financial aid
‘Fair Opportunity Project’ – free US college application guide
In 2017, two students in their final year at Harvard College, Luke Heine and Cole Scanlon, launched a non-profit initiative called the ‘Fair Opportunity Project‘ (FOP). The stated goal of FOP is “…for students from all backgrounds to have a fair shot at applying for college.” This aim is identical to that of Harvard UK Outreach – to create a level playing field so that students who don’t have access to US college advisers at their school are still able to find the information and support they need to put together a high-quality application.
Central to the FOP is a free guide about how to navigate the US college admissions process. Called simply The Guide, it is based on Heine and Scanlon’s own experiences and took them two years to develop. The 58-page compendium covers all aspects of the application process and includes samples of college essays, a list of financial resources, and tips on how to organise applications. As it is a web-based publication, it is updated every year and the latest edition (updated in September 2020) is now available to download – simply click ‘The College Guide’ box on the FOP homepage.
Although it has been written primarily for the American market, most of the contents of The Guide are relevant to British students since the application process for international applicants and US citizens is exactly the same. However, some of the terms used will not be familiar in the UK, particularly the names given to the last four years in a US high school. So for the benefit of British students, here are the four names and their equivalent for a UK secondary school:
Freshman Year: Year 10 England & Wales; S3 Scotland; Year 11 N. Ireland
Sophomore Year: Year 11 England & Wales; S4 Scotland; Year 12 N. Ireland
Junior Year: Year 12 England & Wales; S5 Scotland; Year 13 N. Ireland
Senior Year: Year 13 England & Wales; S6 Scotland; Year 14 N. Ireland
The same four names (Freshman, Sophomore, Junior and Senior) are used to describe the 1st, 2nd, 3rd and 4th years of an undergraduate degree course at a US university.
Normally, for the February edition of the newsletter, we would focus on the standardised tests and financial aid. Due to the recent changes in the SAT tests and on-going amendments by colleges on their test requirements, we have decided not to include our usual discussion on standardized tests (apart from a brief update) and to feature a more in-depth section on financial considerations.
Standardised tests: An update
In January, the College Board announced that it would no longer administer the SAT Subject Tests in the US (effective immediately) or the optional SAT Essay after the June 2021 administration. SAT Subject Tests will still be available in May and June 2021 to international students living outside of the US. Click here for the announcement.
Given the changes and the on-going pandemic, Harvard and a growing number of colleges have extended their test-optional policies through the 2021-2022 admissions cycle. Here is a link to Harvard’s update.
Please see here for the full list of colleges that do not require the SATs or ACTs through the next admissions cycle.
Financial considerations for studying at a university in the US
The US is the most popular destination for international university students but is one of the most expensive options. An HSBC 2018 factsheet on the value of education estimates the average amount of spending per student over the course of a degree at almost US$100,000.
The cost of annual tuition alone ranges from US$5,000 to US$50,000. The most affordable options are two-year colleges (also called community or city colleges) which cost less than US$5,000 per year but do not grant full degrees. Four-year state colleges have differentiated pricing for state residents and out-of-state students. According to the College Board, average tuitions in 2018/19 were US$10,230 for state students and US$26,290 for out-of-state students. Private colleges charged US$35,830, on average, in the same year.
Accommodation costs vary widely by region and by college. While many four-year colleges offer on-campus housing, students may have reasons to choose to live in off-campus rental apartments. The East Coast and North East regions are more expensive than the Midwest for renting. For those who opt to live on-campus, room and board can exceed US$15,000 per year.
Additional costs include books, phone bills, entertainment, furnishings (e.g. bedding, desk lighting), health insurance, accommodation or travel arrangements for school holidays. An often forgotten item is the student visa. The F-1 student visa typically costs around US$200 and the Student and Exchange Visitor Program charge is between US$200 and US$400, depending on the administration,
These cost estimates are from “The cost of studying at a university in the United States” on the Times Higher Education website and “How much does it cost to study in the US” by Laura Bridgestock.
Daunting though it seems from the numbers, bear in mind that there are funding options that can reduce the costs. While forms of federal aid are only available to US citizens, the most common resource is institutional financial aid. The Ivy League universities offer some of the best financial aid and other private schools also have strong financial aid programmes. In fact, for many families of modest means, a school like Harvard or Stanford could be more affordable than a state college because of their generous financial aid policies.
The increasing availability of financial aid and awareness for college affordability are making a positive impact on student diversity on campuses. At Harvard, one in five students pay nothing for their education and some 55% of students receive scholarship aid. Over 50% of Yale students receive need-based aid. At MIT and Caltech, almost 60% of undergraduates are on financial aid.
Here is a list of US colleges that gave the most aid to international students in the 2019/20 academic year, with Harvard, Columbia, Dartmouth and Stanford topping the list.
Types of Financial Aid
Last month we gave you some tips about how to research the US college system to identify a short list of colleges that you might want to apply to later this year. An essential element of the research process is to find out which colleges provide financial aid to international students, and if so, how much you are likely to be awarded.
In 2004, Harvard launched its Harvard Financial Aid Initiative (HFAI) intended to raise awareness for college affordability and to reaffirm the college’s own commitment to ensure that all admitted students can attend Harvard regardless of their economic circumstances. In 2014, Harvard received a transformational gift from alumnus Ken Griffin that created hundreds of scholarships and further ensures HFAI’s continued success for generations to come. Since the launch of HFAI, Harvard has provided generous financial aid to those families who need it, so that today, families earning less than US$65,000 a year pay nothing toward the cost of their son or daughter’s education. These students now also receive a US$2,000 start-up grant that helps support move-in costs and other expenses incurred in making the transition to college. Families earning up to US$150,000 a year with typical assets will expect to pay from 0 to 10% of their income towards university costs. International students have the same access to financial aid as domestic students.
Harvard adapted their financial aid policies in response to COVID-19 and its impact on the cost of attendance for current students. As an example, students studying remotely off-campus will not be charged normal room and board and their financial aid packages will include a COVID-19 Remote Room and Board allowance. Students receiving aid will also receive a grant in lieu of term-time work expectation. Please check the websites of the colleges to which you wish to apply to their financial aid policies, which will likely be updated regularly over the next several months.
Other colleges with generous need-blind financial aid schemes include Yale, Princeton, MIT and Amherst, but others may not provide aid to international students, or may have limited aid available, so you should always check out all financial aid options before arriving at your final shortlist of colleges. The main types of aid available are:
This is the most common type of aid so is usually the first port of call for families on modest or middle incomes. As the amounts awarded by different colleges vary from year to year, you should check the websites of all your short-listed colleges to find out if you are eligible for financial aid, and how much you might receive. By law, every college website must have a ‘Net Price Calculator’ that will estimate the annual cost of a college education based on your family’s current financial circumstances. Not all such calculators will work for international students / currencies. Click here to see an example of one that works for all families.
Institutional need-based aid is awarded in different forms and a financial aid package will likely comprise of more than one type of funding. Part of it could be a scholarship or a grant which does not need to be repaid. Some schools, like Harvard, only offer need-based scholarships and not merit-based scholarships (to be discussed later). Aid may come in the form of a loan. Harvard does not offer loans as part of financial aid packages so as to enable all students to graduate debt-free. Students are, however, allowed to apply for external loans (non-US persons are not eligible for federal loans). Student employment is another source of funding. At Harvard, all students are allowed to work regardless of financial aid status. Aid recipients are expected to work reasonable hours to contribute towards the cost of their education. Bear in mind that international students on F-1 visas are not eligible to seek employment off-campus but may seek campus employment in libraries, laboratories etc.
When to apply: you should apply for need-based financial aid at the same time as you submit your admissions application, since an offer of financial aid, or lack of it, will have a significant effect on whether you accept any offers of admission you are sent by the colleges. You therefore need to receive any offers of financial aid at the same time as the result of your main application.
Many colleges, in addition to need-based aid, may offer merit-based aid for strong academic performance, or a particular talent in sport, the performing arts or other extracurricular involvement. Funding is usually reserved for top students.
College sport is massive in the US and universities are keen to attract the best players, particularly for their varsity teams (premier league teams that play in organised inter-college competitions). Unlike academic scholarships where students simply submit an application to the college, the process for applying for sports scholarships is long and complicated. Click here for the Fulbright Commission’s web page on sports scholarships and the athletic recruitment process.
Some scholarships are also awarded based on specific personal qualities outlined by the university or an individual donor or sponsor. These qualities often correlate to the mission of the organisation or interests of the donor and could include country of origin, ethnicity, religious faith, interest in a particular field, gender, interests and talents. There should be information about such niche scholarships on the college’s website.
Is it worth it?
So are the high costs of studying in the US justified by the learning and social experience and career prospects? This is an age-old debate that cannot be argued with numbers alone. The 2018 Value of Education research study commissioned by HSBC concludes that 82% of the students surveyed agree that college education is worth the money. They concur that their US college education leads to better job prospects, faster promotions and higher earnings power.
During the pandemic, the closure of campuses and migration to virtual learning further complicate the debate. The campus experience is an integral part of college and many students and parents are questioning the costs that do not now seem commensurate with the experience. Without access to in-person teaching, laboratories, gyms, libraries and other facilities, the college experience is much diminished. From the colleges’ perspective, evacuating or “de-intensifying” their campuses do not necessarily reduce their operational and maintenance costs either. If anything, they incur additional costs by having to gear up their teaching staff for online instructions, providing assistance to enable students to travel home and making refunds for room and board. This article takes a nuanced look at both sides of the debate.
It is impossible to quantify the value of a US college education. Few would dispute that a college degree could enhance career prospects and a college education would eventually pay off. While the campus experience may not return to full swing for some more months, the important thing to bear in mind is that the college experience for many is not limited to the four years of being a student, it is an education that will stay for life and an alumni network that one can access for life.