Paying for college is an expensive prospect, and many families start saving as soon as children are born. We would suggest speaking with your financial advisor to discuss the best ways for you to save – that’s not an area we have expertise in. Even with savings, with fees rising every year, it can be difficult to afford, so it’s helpful to know some basic things about financial aid at US universities.
First, let’s talk about the distinction of need-based aid versus merit aid. Need-based aid is primarily available to US citizens, and is based on the FAFSA form applicants and their families submit. This includes detailed information about family income, savings, family size, etc. This form is reviewed by the Financial Aid office of universities, and they determine how much a student’s family can afford to pay per year towards the cost of college. The difference between this amount and the full cost of tuition is then the amount that student (again, in the vast majority of cases, you must be a US citizen to fall into this category) is eligible for in terms of need-based financial aid. Some schools pledge to cover the full need, others do not, and financial aid can take many forms, including loans, grants, scholarships, etc.
Merit aid is normally (again, each school has their own policy, so there’s no universal here) available to both domestic as well as international students. Merit aid can take all sorts of forms. In some cases you have to tick a box on your application to indicate you want to be considered for aid, others require an additional essay and submitting the application by a priority deadline, for others there are specific merit scholarships designated for certain groups of students (for example, first-generation college students, arts scholars, etc.) Some schools offer merit scholarships, while others do not. Normally, in order to be a strong candidate for a merit scholarship, you need to be a very strong applicant for that school, as many merit scholarships are given in order to attract top students to attend a school.
Tuition – who pays what? In the US, unlike the UK and some other countries, international students do not pay higher fees than domestic students. The “sticker price,” as it’s often called, is the full price of tuition at a university. At many schools a large percentage of students don’t pay the full “sticker price” because they qualify for need-based or merit aid. This is why you will often hear people talking about differences is fees, and this is due to financial aid awards, not nationality.
If you are serious about wanting/ needing financial aid in order to cover the cost of college, you will need to start the process early, do research into specific schools and their merit and need-based aid policies, and devise a strategy for applying to schools where you will be eligible for financial aid.