Understanding the U.S. higher education system

Studying at a U.S. university or college is an exciting way to expand your education and understanding of other cultures. American schools are full of ambitious and motivated students who delve into fascinating topics in cutting-edge ways. The best and brightest in the world gather here to learn from each other, as well as leading, global scholars who are experts in their fields.

As you plan your time abroad in the U.S., it’s important that you get to grips with how much attending a U.S. college is going to set you back. University and college prices are on the rise across the country, meaning that studying in the U.S. can be a pretty expensive venture. Understanding tuition and fees at an American university can be complicated, as there are numerous factors that go into calculating how much each student will have to pay per semester or per year, like where the student is from, his/her chosen degree, and the pace of academic life.

Understanding the Terms

The first thing you need to do is research and understand how much each college or university will charge for tuition, room and board.

Tuition

Tuition is the basic amount that an institution will charge students for taking a particular class. Usually, this amount is charged per unit, so if a university is charging US$400 per unit per class, and a History class is 3 credits, it will cost a total of US$1,200 for that class per semester.

Students will generally take anywhere from 12 to 18 credits a semester. Some colleges will base tuition rates on a flat number of credits, so whether you take the minimum or maximum number of classes, you’ll pay the same amount. The tuition total usually ranges from US$15,000 to US$40,000 per year.

Room

Most universities and colleges require students to live on-campus for at least the first year of their studies, sometimes even the first two years. While it’s often more expensive than renting an off-campus apartment, college dorms do present a number of advantages: you’re connected to a vibrant social life, close to college classes and amenities, rooms come fully-furnished, and you don’t need to worry about things like surprise fees and utilities. Costs for housing at colleges and universities will vary greatly across the country, so it’s important to find out from each specific institution how much they charge for on-campus accommodation.

Board

Many colleges and universities require students to have a meal plan and pay for a certain number of on-campus meals. This could be one meal a week to an unlimited number, depending on which college or university you’re attending. The charge for meals, or board, is generally done on a semester basis and is a cost that should be found on the college/university website. If you are unable to find it, get in touch with your host institution for more information.

In-State and Out-of-State Tuition

State-run universities offer students two different cost structures; the first, in-state, is for students who legally reside in the same state as the institution and is generally deeply discounted. The second, out-of-state, is for students coming from another state or country. Often, the out-of-state tuition is two to three times the cost of in-state tuition. As an international student, your tuition fees will be out-of-state, and therefore be at the higher end of the price spectrum. The University of Washington is a great example – approximately 10 percent the school’s undergraduate cohort derive from overseas, and each pays around US$49,501 for tuition, which is three times the cost for in-state students. Private colleges and universities have the same tuition costs for students regardless of where they come from.

Additional Fees

It’s important to note that every student enrolled at a university or college in the U.S. may be subjected to additional fees. These could incorporate technology, building, or student activity costs. Ask the college/university about these fees upfront to see if there are any international student discounts you can take advantage of.

Students also have to fork out an application fee (usually US$50-$100), as well as the cost for any necessary books, which could run from US$500-$1,000 per semester.

Another cost that can take international students by surprise is the requirement to purchase a health insurance plan. This can be an expensive additional cost that must be paid per semester. The University of Indiana-Bloomington, for example, estimates that students will have to pay upwards of US$440 per semester for health insurance costs. This does, however, afford students access to the student health center, which can be a really excellent resource for health and wellbeing.

Fees imposed specifically on international students are steadily on the rise. More and more institutions are charging additional fees for students arriving in the U.S. from overseas. These fees can range from US$50 per semester, up to $2,500. While it may seem unfair to incur these extra charges, colleges and universities are using generated funds to provide additional support for international students.

According to William Brustein, Ohio State’s Vice Provost for Global Strategies and International Affairs, “as our numbers have grown, there’s much greater demand on us to provide the types of services that will ensure that their time at Ohio State will be productive and will produce the kinds of outcomes that we hope for and they hope for.” He continues, “We’re looking at it in terms of pre-departure orientations all the way through to arrival at Ohio State and during the four years of their undergrad, and enhancing and improving services for them.” 

The University of Texas, Dallas, has a similar philosophy, according to Cristen Casey, the International Student Services Director. She writes that “one of the things that international students generally desire is to connect with Americans and make those cultural friendships, so we do several social events.” She adds, “we’re very intentional about those funds going directly to international students.” 

Offsetting Costs

Yes, attending university/college in the U.S. can be very expensive, but be mindful that there are ways to offset your costs. Many colleges and universities offer excellent financial aid packages or merit scholarships; Yale University, Amherst College, Williams College, Wesleyan University (CT), and the University of Chicago, for example, are ranked as having the most generous financial aid packages for international students.

It’s crucial that you carry out some thorough research to calculate an accurate cost for your time studying overseas in the U.S. There are plenty of resources out there to help you as you plan, like the World’s Simplest College Cost Calculator from SavingForCollege.Com, or even the College Cost Calculator from The College Board. American higher education providers offer a transparent pricing system, ensuring all international students are prepared for the costs before entering the country. Once you’ve made it to your university of choice, be sure to really take advantage of your international student office and every other facility provided by the college – it’s there to benefit you, after all, and of course – it is an integral part of what you’re paying for!

Image via Flickr.

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