“Show me the Money”: Scaling the Financial Obstacle to your Graduate Degree

For a lot of foreign nationals seeking admission to a graduate program in the United States, the major obstacle to their dream is not mental aptitude, focus, or drive; it is financial. In the US, quality education is not only expensive, but its price tag is on the rise. Some resources for overcoming this financial hurdle include:
  • Scholarships: These include financial resources available to students without any obligation on their part. It is mostly based on academic merit, but could sometimes use other criteria like country of origin, and future career goals. Scholarship awards usually range from some thousands of dollars all the way to the total cost of attendance, also known as a ‘Free Ride’.
  • Research Assistanships: Research-intensive graduate programs are likely to have research assistant awards available. These awards can be quite substantial, as they usually cover partial or full tuition and fees, and may even provide a stipend to enable students offset living expenses.
  • Teaching Assistanships: Graduate students sometimes have the opportunity to assist professors with undergraduate classes by undertaking tasks like grading, and proctoring exams. Some of these students are given teaching assistant awards which sometimes cover full or partial tuition, fees and provide a stipend for living expenses.
  • Non-Teaching Assistanships: I was unaware of non-teaching assistanships before starting my graduate program. They are provided by different non-academic divisions of universities such as Student Affairs, International Student Services, and IT. As non-teaching assistants, students perform responsibilities ranging from website design and database administration to other administrative tasks relevant to the specific business unit. In return, they get tuition and fee coverage, as well as a stipend for living expenses.
  • Tuition Waivers: In certain US universities, particularly public universities, foreign nationals and local US citizens are required to pay different amounts for tuition. Foreign students pay non-resident tuition, while locals pay resident tuition, which is usually much less. However, it is possible for foreign students to get a non-resident tuition waiver in some cases. This could come as part of his/her financial aid package, or as a result of fulfilling some requirement which differs from state to state within the US.
  • On-Campus Jobs: On campus jobs are many and diverse. University libraries, dining services, and student computing services all provide some form of job opportunities to students. While they do not provide tuition benefits, they can help out with offsetting the cost of living expenses. This may not sound like much, but it can become quite appreciated when those bills for feeding and accommodation begin to stack up. It is noteworthy that possessing programming, web or database design and development skills can be a significant advantage in terms of finding on-campus jobs.
  • Loans: Foreign nationals do not have too many options in this regard. To get a loan from a US bank, you need a US Citizen or Permanent Resident (with good credit history) who is willing to back you up as a co-signer, and finding one is really really challenging. However, some programs, particularly top MBA programs, sometimes provide opportunities for international students to access loans without a US co-signer. Examples include MIT Sloan and Yale Schools of Management.

Some tips for leveraging these resources:

  • Set Stretch Standardized Test Goals: A big part of scholarship awards is academic merit, so my advice is this: KILL THE GRE. Don’t aim for a 1200 simply because that’s what the school website states as the average score for students. Get your best possible score, and work hard on your resume and statement of purpose. Remember your competition is global.
  • Contact Professors: After receiving an admission offer, reach out to professors and ask what opportunities are available. I personally know some people who have successfully used this approach, particularly for research-intensive graduate programs.
  • Inquire from Admission Committees: Ask questions after receiving your admission offer. Use the information above to get very specific about the opportunities you inquire about.
  • Monitor On-campus Job Boards: New on-campus jobs pop up on university job boards all the time. At first, you are likely to receive no response to your applications, and feel that no one wants to hire you. Don’t give up! Keep at it until you get your desired result.
  • Ask Fellow Students: Some of my classmates who got really ‘juicy’ non-teaching assistant awards did not find them on job boards. They were recommended by fellow students. Aggressively put your story out there, and expand your network with students and professors alike.
  • Be Involved: Strive to be more than just a name or number in your department. Take advantage of opportunities to contribute through volunteering or active participation in relevant activities. You never know who is watching.
On a final note, ensure that you have a concrete financial plan for your graduate degree before starting. While you may not have all the pieces of this plan at first, make sure it is realistic, and possesses feasible alternative scenarios. What if you don’t get a scholarship in your second year as you thought you would? Or what if you don’t get an on-campus job in the first semester? Think through your plan, to enable you avoid the anxiety and frustration that could come from poor planning.
Image by Corbis

3 thoughts on ““Show me the Money”: Scaling the Financial Obstacle to your Graduate Degree

  1. Since I’m not a foreign student, I can’t say I have undergone these financial difficulties. I do have to mention that certain departments such as aerospace engineering are much more likely to fund you despite your international status compared to other majors.

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