How Much Will a U.S. College Cost?

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How much money will you need to make your dream of attending a U.S. college come true? The answer depends on several factors. Where will you go to school? Do you prefer to begin your education at a community college or a four-year school? Are you interested in attending an elite private university? Will you qualify for scholarships or other financial assistance?

Many students in Africa dream of attending a U.S. college.  Too often, when they find out how expensive it can be, they abandon their dream. Don’t be discouraged! It’s true that students from wealthy families may spend a lot of money earning a degree in the U.S. But, it’s also possible to get a quality education for a lot less. Be sure to check out “Paying for Your U.S. Education” for ideas on how to finance for your U.S. college education.

Remember that the costs we’re going to discuss are averages. The U.S. college that you attend may charge more or less – sometimes much less. For example, the average cost of tuition at a U.S. community college is $2,191. This means that for every school that charges $500 more per year ($2,691), there is one where the tuition is $500 less per year, or $1,591 per year.

Also, keep in mind that there are a number of ways to reduce the cost of your U.S. education. At many four-year schools, for example, you may qualify as an RA or Resident Assistant after the first year. RAs provide supervision for other students in the dorm. In return for a few hours of work during the week, RAs receive their living expenses, including room and meals, free. Depending upon the school, they may also receive a small monthly stipend for spending money.

Many African students will qualify for full or partial scholarships to pay for tuition and books. Scholarships are available for students who excel in a number of areas, from athletics to academics. Special scholarships are often given to students from a particular country, or in a particular field of study, such as teaching or physics. Whatever your talent, from horseback riding to modern dance, from painting to storytelling, there is a scholarship for it.

Many international students are confused about the difference between a college and a university. In the U.S., college and university mean the same thing. They both provide a similar high-quality education. This is not true in Canada and the UK, where a college usually provides a shorter course of professional education, perhaps for bookkeepers or secretaries. In the U.S., this would be called a trade or vocational school.  In Canada and the UK, the brightest students earn academic degrees at university or “uni.” In the U.S., both colleges and universities offer similar courses for bright students.  Technically, a  U.S. college is a smaller school or a division of a large university. In practice, a U.S. student is much more likely to refer to his or her “college” or “school” rather than “university.”

Studying in the U.S. can be expensive, but it’s an investment that pays off. First, let’s look at some average figures compiled from the U.S. State Department for full-time students. The total cost of your college education will depend on the type of school you choose. The average tuition at a public community college in 2006 was $2,191 per year for a full-time student. For a public four-year college, the average cost was $5,491. And for a four-year private college or university, the average cost is $21,235. And that’s just for tuition alone.

I know you’re thinking, “Wow, that’s a huge difference!” According to these figures, the average four-year private school costs almost ten times as much as the average community college. The quality of education that you receive isn’t necessarily better at a more expensive school. Why? And, more important, which one is right for you?

Here are the average costs when living expenses and meals are included. These numbers also include transportation to and from your classes, and a modest amount of spending money.

The total cost of a year at a U.S. college also depends on where you live, while you’re attending school. The cheapest option is still the public community college. Most community colleges don’t have dorms, so students live nearby in an apartment or private home.

Many U.S. students attend community college while living at home with their parents. Other students rent a room from a local family, or share a house or apartment with other students. The total cost of studies and living expenses at community colleges for students who commute between home and school each day is $11,692 per year.

Most students and parents are surprised to learn that at a four-year school, living in a dorm room on campus can be the cheapest option. Dorm life is also less complicated for international students. Meals are usually provided, and there are nearby facilities for laundry. Students don’t have to worry about negotiating a lease or grocery shopping. In most cases, living on campus means the student doesn’t need a car. For four-year public colleges, the average cost of tuition plus living expenses is $23,239 per year. For four-year private colleges, the average cost is $31,916.

If you choose to live off-campus, your living expenses will be slightly higher in many areas. You may need a car to go back and forth to classes. Even in an area where public transportation is available, it’s an additional expense. The average budget for a commuter student at a four-year private college is $32,070.

Paying For Your U.S. Education

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.


Student Visas 101 – USA Admissions


Once you’ve been accepted by a U.S. college, you still need to secure a student visa in order to legally enter the country. While this isn’t usually difficult, it can be a long, drawn-out process. The best way to speed up the process is to make sure that you have all the required documents. Continue reading

Participating Colleges and Universities

The following institutions have committed to offering two #YouAreWelcomeHere scholarships beginning Fall 2019. For details on a particular institution’s scholarship, please contact the school directly.


Adelphi University (Garden City, New York)
Albion College (Albion, Michigan)
Augsburg University (Minneapolis, Minnesota)
Ball State University (Muncie, Indiana)
Butte Community College (Oroville, California)
California State University San Marcos (San Marcos, California)
Cedar Crest College (Allentown, Pennsylvania)
Clarkson University (Potsdam, New York)
Concordia College* (Moorhead, Minnesota)
Eastern Michigan University* (Ypsilanti, Michigan)
Furman University (Greenville, South Carolina)
George Mason University (Fairfax, Virginia)
Hawaii Pacific University (Honolulu, Hawaii)
Hollins University (Roanoke, Virginia)
Illinois College (Jacksonville, Illinois)
Illinois Wesleyan University (Bloomington, Illinois)
James Madison University* (Harrisonburg, Virginia)
Johnson & Wales University (Providence, Rhode Island)
Kent State University (Kent, Ohio)
La Roche College (Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania)
Lebanon Valley College (Annville, Pennsylvania)
Loras College (Dubuque, Iowa)
Marian University (Fond du Lac, Wisconsin)
Miami University (Oxford, Ohio)
Michigan State University (East Lansing, Michigan)
Murray State University (Murray, Kentucky)
North Central College (Naperville, Illinois)
Northeastern University (Boston, Massachusetts)
Ohio University (Athens, Ohio)
Pacific Northwest College of Art (Portland, Oregon)
Purdue University Northwest* (Hammond and Westville, Indiana)

Rutgers University-Camden (Camden, New Jersey)
Saint Leo University (St. Leo, Florida)
Saint Michael’s College (Colchester, Vermont)
Salve Regina University (Newport, Rhode Island)
Seattle University* (Seattle, Washington)
Shoreline Community College* (Shoreline, Washington)
St. Thomas Aquinas College (Sparkill, New York)
State University of New York at New Paltz (New Paltz, New York)
Temple University* (Philadelphia, Pennsylvania)
The College of Saint Rose (Albany, New York)
The George Washington University (Washington, D.C.)
Towson University (Towson, Maryland)
Transylvania University (Lexington, Kentucky)
University of Cincinnati College of Law (Cincinnati, Ohio)
University of Dayton (Dayton, Ohio)
University of Maryland, Baltimore County (Baltimore, Maryland)
University of Minnesota -Twin Cities* (Minneapolis and Saint Paul, Minnesota)
University of Saint Joseph (West Hartford, Connecticut)
University of South Alabama (Mobile, Alabama)
University of Southern Indiana (Evansville, Indiana)
University of St. Thomas (Saint Paul, Minnesota)
University of Wisconsin-Stevens Point (Stevens Point, Wisconsin)
Valparaiso University (Valparaiso, Indiana)
Wayne State University (Detroit, Michigan)
Western New England University* (Springfield, Massachusetts)
Widener University (Chester, Pennsylvania)

*Denotes the nine universities that made the original #YouAreWelcomeHere commitment.


Apply for admission at the participating university or college(s) of your choice. Then complete the #YouAreWelcomeHere scholarship application and submit it directly to the participating university or college(s) of your choice. Follow the links above for detailed information about the scholarship process at each school.


The deadline for institutions to join the Fall 2019 scholarship has passed. The sign-up form for the Fall 2020 scholarship will be available in May 2019.

For more information, watch a recording of the YAWH scholarship webinar which was held on Thursday, June 21st at 4pm EDT.