5.10 Case Studies
Question: I am looking for information to help a friend who lives outside the US. They would like to come to the US and study further (has a Bachelor's degree), but thinks they need a US sponsor to do so. What exactly is that? Is it someone who will provide housing, care, financial support during their stay in States, or do they mean someone to provide funds for college? They are looking for information and I thought, maybe you could give some valuable information that I could pass on. I should also say this person has limited resources but I have told them of loans and scholarship possibilities depending on their major and selected college. By the way, I am a US citizen.
Answer: We are assuming that your friend is neither a US citizen nor a legal permanent resident (green card holder). In which case, he or she would be considered an international student - often referred to as a foreign student - in the US. The choices for financial assistance are severely limited and restricted for international students. Your personal experiences for obtaining financial aid, as a US citizen or legal resident, are not directly applicable. The ease with which the locals can secure financial assistance (yes, we recognize that some would argue that it is not all that easy, but it certainly is in relative terms) is the topic of envy for international students.
As an international student, one is expected to prove adequate financing to sustain oneself in the US for the entire stay, before an international student visa is issued by the US immigration officials at the US consulate or embassy in the home country. This typically translates, in practice, as having the funds for the first year, with a clear and understandable means for securing funds for the subsequent years. Aside from obviously producing cold hard US dollars through personal means, the candidate has other choices for securing funds in the US, albeit severely limited.
One of the ways to demonstrate a total or partial financial adequacy is through the use of a sponsor. A sponsor is typically a close relative who is a US citizen or legal resident. The sponsor would commit to offering any of the following: full financial support, limited financing, room & board, or any variation thereof. A sponsorship letter is simply a letter to the US consulate in the candidate's native country, stating background details of the sponsor including the current employment and financial abilities, and level of commitment.
A sponsor is NOT required for the international student visa. It is just another means, should one choose to do so, of demonstrating the ability to finance one's stay in the US. In fact, a vast majority of international students do not use this means.
International students do not have access to student loans in the US. The US government guaranteed loans are restricted to citizens and legal residents. Loans from private sources, such as banks, are also restricted to the same audience because the private institutions can not recover the loans, since, at least theoretically, international students are required to leave the country upon completion of studies.
International students are not eligible for the US federal and state government scholarships and fellowships. Most scholarships from private sources stipulate US citizenship or legal residency.
The student visa for international students curtails employment options severely. An international student can take up part-time employment only on the college campus for up to 20 hours a week, while maintaining the mandatory full-time course load. These are menial jobs - if one is lucky enough to get one - offering about minimum wage. Given the total cost of education in the US - including tuition, fees, room & board, supplies, medical insurance, transportation, and so on - is extremely high, ranging from $15,000 to $45,000 per year, this form of employment does not even make a dent in the financial needs.
So you might be wondering by now about where the good news is. It is somewhat limited, but it is the avenue that most international students use to pursue education in the US. International students are eligible for research assistantships and teaching assistantships. Often, these assistantships include a tuition waiver as well.
The competition for these assistantships is fierce and, thus, obtaining admission is much easier than securing financial assistance. The selection criteria for financial aid is the same as that for admission, but two dimensions are particularly important: academic performance (grades) and performance on the standardized entrance exam. Sometimes the colleges may offer full or partial tuition waiver, without the assistantship. The candidates must indicate their need for financial aid at the time of submitting their application.
As you may have surmised by now, the financial assistance for international students is strictly merit-based and not needs-based, unlike for the US citizens and legal residents. A direct consequence of this scenario is that only the wealthy or the very smart can study as international students in the US. Sounds unfair? Perhaps! But the situation for international students in the US is no different from that in other countries.
An international student may have the opportunity to secure adequate financing through loans or scholarship in the native country. While this may be true for candidates from the developed nations, it is seldom the case for those in the developing nations.
Some relevant notes. The US colleges require an undergraduate (Bachelor's) degree for admission into a Master's program. However, this undergrad must be of 4-year duration after Grade 12 of high school, just as it is in the US. Some countries have some undergraduate programs that are only 3 years in duration. In such cases, the US colleges require that the candidates must have completed at least the first year of a Master's degree, and sometimes even the entire Master's program.
Some international students believe that all they have to do is to get to the US and the money issue would resolve itself. They indulge in what can at best be characterized as "fooling" the immigration official on the financial requirements issue. They collect the funds temporarily in a bank to obtain a financial statement to satisfy the requirement. This practice is fool-hardy. They are not fooling anyone but themselves. The money issue would not resolve itself, at least not in most instances.
International students are eligible for a 12-month "training visa," through which the student can obtain regular employment without any restrictions. Since the visa stipulates maintaining a full-time course load, the training visa can be used for the summer employment or employment upon completion of studies. Most international students, however, choose to use the latter option, because they would have adequate time to obtain a temporary worker visa (H1 visa) which can then be converted to legal permanent resident (green card) status. This is relevant if the student wishes to stay in the US permanently. Regardless, the training visa provision does allow the student to recover the cost of education to some extent.