Funding Graduate Study

Education in the United States may seem expensive, but you have probably already realized that it offers excellent value for the money invested. This chapter looks in more detail at the costs involved in U.S. graduate study and ways in which you might cover your expenses, including financial aid from universities and other sources.

Identifying Sources of Financial Assistance

You can apply for financial assistance from a variety of sources; however, it is important to apply only for those funds for which you are eligible. Competition for grants is keen; an incomplete, tardy, poorly written, or messy application could make the difference between you and another applicant. So plan ahead, plan well, prepare carefully, and follow instructions. Give yourself plenty of time to put together a quality request for financial assistance and submit it well ahead of all deadlines.

Home-Country Sources: Ask at an information or advising center or consult local contacts about funding from government scholarship programs, regional assistance programs, local or third-country organizations or businesses, banks, or religious institutions that may offer aid to graduate students from your country.

U.S. Government Assistance: The Fulbright Program, founded to encourage mutual understanding between the people of the United States and other countries, offers awards for graduate study. There are many different types of awards, from travel grants to grants that pay maintenance and study costs; their availability varies from country to country. Applicants must apply to and be approved by appropriate agencies in the home country. If there is a Fulbright Commission in your country, inquire about the types of grants available; if not, any U.S. educational information or advising center can help you get further information, or you can inquire at the public affairs section of the U.S. embassy or consulate. In some developing countries, support for short-term graduate study or master’s level degree study may be available through programs sponsored by the U.S. Department of State.

Eligibility for these programs varies, but in general, local institutions nominate employees for training or education that promotes a specified development goal. Some scholarship programs operate on a regional basis.  Note that U.S. Department of Education and state-based financial aid are available only to U.S. citizens.

Private U.S. Sources and International Organizations: Private U.S. agencies, foundations, business corporations, and professional associations often award financial aid in the interest of furthering international exchange. International organizations such as the United Nations and the Organization of American States (OAS) are other possible sources of financial aid. Since these institutions are large and complex, writing to them directly with general requests for financial aid will have little effect. Use references available at information and advising centers to find specific awards or grants for which you are eligible, and address the office indicated. Many awards and grants are directed toward particular groups such as women, engineers, or journalists; read carefully to see whether you fit into any of the categories. Greater foundation support usually is available for students in the social and natural sciences and in the humanities. Apply only for awards for which you match the criteria. If an application requires that you write a research or project proposal, pay particular attention to this step. If possible, have the proposal checked by a professional in your field who has worked in the United States.

U.S. Universities: About one-third of international graduate students finance their studies through financial aid from U.S. universities. However, availability of financial assistance varies by field of study, level of study, and type of institution (research universities are likely to have the most funds available). Also, some universities will give aid to students only after they have successfully completed their first semester or first year of study. To identify universities that offer financial assistance, consult university reference books or computer search software at information and advising centers. You can also find information on financial assistance directly from university catalogs and Web sites. Some university reference books provide information on financial aid awarded to first-year graduate students, but these statistics include U.S. students as well as international students. Also, all students, including international students, are required to pay U.S. income tax on certain forms of graduate financial assistance. If you are awarded a grant by a university, be sure to check with the institution to see if you are subject to any type of taxation.

The main types of financial aid available from universities are:

Fellowships: Departments and institutions award fellowships on the basis of academic merit, normally after the first year of study. Graduate fellowships may be modest, covering only tuition and fees, or full grants, providing the cost of tuition, fees, and monthly stipends for maintenance. Fellowships rarely cover the total cost of living and studying.

Assistantships: Assistantships are the most common form of financial aid at the graduate level. Assistantships are cash awards that require the performance of services related to the field of study, usually about 20 hours per week. Sometimes an assistantship carries with it a waiver (a remission or reduction) of tuition and fees. Awards may range from as little as $500 to as much as $30,000 (or higher, if high tuition costs are waived) for an academic year, so it is important to check what proportion of your costs the assistantship will cover.

There are several types of assistantships:

  • Teaching assistantships may be available for the first year of graduate study in university departments with large numbers of undergraduates in introductory courses. Teaching assistants (TAs) supervise undergraduate laboratory classes, lead discussion groups, or teach small classes. Increasingly, universities require that applicants achieve a high score on the Test of Spoken English (TSE) before receiving a teaching assistantship. Often universities require teaching assistants to complete training programs that prepare them to teach in the U.S. educational milieu. If you are interested in applying for a teaching assistantship, be sure to mention in your application any previous teaching experience that you have had.
  • Research assistantships involve performance of research services related to the field of study. The advantage of a research assistantship is that it can be related to your thesis or long-term academic interests. Research assistants (RAs) are chosen for their demonstrated research and interpersonal skills. Computer ability, writing skills, and experience working as part of a team are three essential qualifications. Find institutions that have grants in your field, and apply to these universities for research assistantships. If you apply to institutions whose research funding matches your interests, professors who are the principal researchers for grants in your area will often single out your application for funding, especially if you have proven research experience.
  • Administrative assistantships usually require 10 to 20 hours per week working in administrative offices of the university, such as the International Student Office. You will need to contact each office individually at most institutions, although a few may have a central location for applications. Read the material from each institution to learn where to send applications.

Employment: Other types of aid for full-time students include part-time employment on campus of up to 20 hours per week. Present U.S. immigration regulations restrict employment outside the university for both international graduate students and their spouses; in many instances, spouses cannot engage in any kind of employment, on or off campus, throughout the entire period of study. On-campus employment is limited and competitive, and the relatively low salaries do not cover the cost of tuition and living expenses. In addition, graduate students are often so involved with their academic work that they do not have the time required for a part-time job. Lastly, employment in the United States cannot be used to demonstrate how you will pay the costs of study when applying for a student visa.

Loans: A few reputable agencies make loans available to international students. Consult your information or advising center for information on loans for students from your country. Before taking a loan, make certain you know how you are going to repay it and how a loan will affect your plans for later study and for returning home.