Paying For Your U.S. Education

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Many famous Africans attended college in the U.S.  Nobel Peace Prize Winner Wangari Maathai studied at the University of Pittsburgh. Tunisian President Zine El Abidine Ben Ali studied in the United States. So did U. N. diplomats Boutros Boutros-Ghali and Kofi Annan.  Some of these famous people came from wealthy families that could afford an expensive school, but others were from humble villages. Yet, they all found ways to fund their education. You can, too.

There are many ways to pay for your U.S. college education, including scholarships and financial aid. You will often encounter the words “scholarship” and “financial aid” used interchangeably.  What’s the difference?  Technically, a scholarship is a competition with a prize of money for education, while financial aid is given to students with the greatest need.

A scholarship may have one or several winners, and the amount can vary from $500 to $50,000 or more. Usually, a scholarship is awarded based on achievement. This may be athletic skills, academic excellence, or a talent such as acting. Some scholarships are for students who have shown leadership skills or who have a history of community service. Other scholarships are for the best students in a particular field, such as teaching or science. In general, you win a scholarship in a competition with other students. Sometimes financial need is considered, but it is only a minor part of the competition.

Financial aid, on the other hand, is a grant based on need. Colleges look at how much money a student and his parents have. They examine records of family income and savings. The students with the least money normally receive these grants. This kind of award generally goes to everyone with the same financial need. Depending on a school’s financial status, they may award many financial aid grants, or just a few. Some of the most expensive private universities offer the most financial aid.

The first source of money for your education is funds from your home country. Many African students are entitled to money for education from the local or national government in their home country. Others receive funding from corporations or foundations in their native country. Not every country offers money for college, but it’s a great place to start.

You might be surprised to learn that the second source of money for higher education is U.S. colleges and universities themselves. Nearly half of the schools in the U.S. set aside funds for international students. Often, this money is entirely separate from aid provided for U.S. students. It’s only for the use of international students.

The best way to find college funds earmarked for international students is to visit or email a college advisor at the University of your choice. Be sure to tell him or her that you are an international student, and what country you come from. They will give you all the information on special funds that are available for non-U.S. students. Private universities are more likely to offer financial aid to African students than public universities. More financial aid is offered by private liberal arts colleges, which offer courses in arts and sciences. Less financial aid is available at universities that offer professional courses like engineering, business administration, and medicine.

Often, special aid for African students includes grants, scholarships and occasionally loans or part-time work at the school. A grant is a gift from the school to the student. Usually, the school just “forgives” a certain amount of tuition. Your U.S. college may charge $12,000 in tuition, and give you a grant of $11,000 per year. You will end up paying $1,000 per year. The school may supply a loan, a scholarship or a part-time job to provide that $1,000.

During your first year of study, you can legally work only part-time, and the job must be on campus. Often, a school will include a “work-study” job as part of your financial aid. Normally, you’ll work in the school library, at the university cafeteria, in the bookstore, or health club. Some jobs might include working with a professor or in the administrative office.

When you’re deciding which colleges to apply for, it’s smart to compare the number of students who receive financial aid. Two colleges may cost about the same amount to attend, but College A, a wealthy private school, gives financial aid to 35 % of the international students. College B, a public school, gives financial aid to just 5% of international students. Your chance of receiving financial aid is much better if you apply to College A instead of College B.

It’s worth the effort to check into international awards. These awards are made by companies and non-profit organizations, as well as by the U.S. government. Some of these funds are reserved for graduate students to earn advanced degrees.

In some cases, you may be offered a loan through the university to help pay for your education. Usually, you will need a U.S. citizen to guarantee payment of the loan. Fewer loans are available for first-year students.  Before accepting a loan, be sure you’ll be able to repay it when your education is completed. Most U.S. students finance their education with loans at special low rates that are guaranteed by the U.S. government. Unfortunately, that program is not available unless you’re a U.S. citizen.

One great way to earn money for school is to become a resident assistant (RA) in a dormitory, after your first year. RAs help students with problems or questions. They receive free living quarters and often free meals or a modest cash payment.

Beginning your second year on a student visa, you can apply for permission to work at any job, up to 20 hours per week. This request isn’t always granted, but it can be a big help for some students.  If you’re on a J-1 (exchange student) visa and bring your spouse along, he or she can work while you’re in the U.S.