Graduate schools in the USA can be very expensive with zero financial aid since that will mean paying out of pocket for tuition, general fees, and related expenses. Most graduate students typically secure funding for their graduate degrees from the schools they are enrolled in. Each university might have different forms of funding ranging from graduate assistantships, scholarships, fellowships, and grants. While a lot of schools emphasize on merit-based scholarships, others offer need-based scholarships to assist students with genuine financial needs. The applicant must explore the entire university website for all forms of possible funding available. Typical places to look for funding are the graduate school, international students’ office and departmental websites of the university one wishes to attend. Even though there may be other external funding, these are very limited and can be sometimes very competitive.
The typical forms of funding available to international students for their graduate degree in the USA may come in these forms.
1. Graduate Assistantships (GA)
This may be the commonest way graduate students fund their degree programs. Most graduate assistantships are decided on by the department of your school and may come in the form of research, teaching or administrative service in exchange for monthly stipends and/or full or partial tuition waiver. In addition to monthly stipends and tuition waivers, some departments also pay for the student’s health insurance.
Students typically work for 7.5 to 10 hours for part-time graduate assistantships and 15 to 20 hours for full-time graduate assistantships depending on the school and the department one is enrolled in.
How do I secure a Graduate Assistantship?
Some schools consider students for graduate assistantships once they submit their application for graduate studies. Applicants who submit their applications at the initially specified deadlines for admission may be considered for graduate assistantships if no separate application is required.
On the other hand, an applicant may also be required to send separate application for the graduate assistantship. If your school’s application process does not mention that an applicant will be automatically considered for a graduate assistantship, you may have to apply for this separately. Do so by searching your school’s employment, graduate degree and department websites for graduate assistantship opportunities.
While there is no special tip for landing this form of funding, you may generally do the following;
- Have a good GPA and GRE/GMAT score
This will depend on the school’s GPA and GRE requirements. Your selection of schools should be based on your academic strength; choose schools you feel you can fulfill their academic requirements.
- A great statement of purpose
- Do well to answer all the questions on the online application accurately
- Submit your application ahead of time
- Also, contact your program’s advisor making him aware of how much you really want to be in the program, how the program will help with your career path and your inability to fulfill all the financial obligation if not awarded a graduate assistantship or any other form of funding. Also, point it out to your program’s advisor if there are any deficiencies you feel may jeopardize your admission and/or funding and give a tangible reason as to why that is so.
The last point I mentioned is equally as important as the application process. Constant interaction with your program’s director is a good way to register yourself in their mind for funding consideration. Even if you do not get the initial distribution of GA, you may be considered for any excess funds that may be available.
2. Fellowships and Scholarships
Fellowships may not require the student to offer any service in exchange for stipends and/or partial or full tuition waivers. It can be money granted by a university, an agency or a foundation for graduate study or research. Money received from an external agency or foundation can usually be used towards graduate programs at any university while fellowships granted by a specific university may be applied towards graduate education in that particular university.
Realistically, external fellowships/scholarships are more competitive and require the applicant to do much more than just applying for that particular fellowship or scholarship. The applicant will have to demonstrate that they are exceptional compared to their counterparts. This is not to discourage any average student from applying to these fellowships/scholarships. You just have to work hard to get what you want.
Some Fellowship/ Scholarship sources
Here are a few funding sources I put together. I will update this list from time to time. It will be useful to check back every now and then to see if there is any new update on this blog post. Some of these scholarships come from specific schools while others come from external sources. Take time to explore these based on your needs.
Note that not all internal and external sources of funds may be available to international students. Some may require U.S. Permanent residency or U.S. Citizens only to apply.
Graduate Scholarships, Fellowships, and Loans at the Michigan State University
Fellowships Database for Graduate school at the Cornell University Graduate School website
Lela Winegarner Scholarship at the Illinois State University
Illinois State Foundation at Illinois State University
College-Based Fellowships at the University of Cincinnati
Nationally Competitive Awards at the University of Cincinnati website
Graduate Student Funding Opportunities at McNair
3. Tuition Waivers
Tuition waivers may be available in certain schools. This cannot be accessed before your enrollment into the graduate degree program. Most successful candidates are those who might have at least spent one semester in their schools with good academic standing. Be sure to check your school’s website and also speak to your school’s financial aid office to find out if this form of funding is available. Tuition waivers take off the burden of paying for tuition. This leaves you with the payments of the general fees and related school expenses which may be supplemented through on-campus jobs and other personal funding sources.
4. On-Campus Employment
International students are offered have the option to take part in on-campus jobs at the universities they are enrolled in. Most of these jobs are listed on the employment section of your school’s website. The maximum number of hours permitted by the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) for international students to work is twenty hours per week. While some students do these jobs in addition to coursework, others do not. Typically, 20 hours of work in a week should give you enough time to focus on your graduate study as well. Be sure to balance your school work and campus job so that you do not fall behind on your studies.
5. Student Loans
After exploring all forms of funding, the alternative option will be to apply for a student loan. It is possible for international students to apply for private loans here in the U.S. Before you apply to these private loans, make sure you have explored all forms of free money available for your graduate degree. Who doesn’t want free money? Of course, everyone does! Free money saves you future payments of student loans plus interests. But then again, student loans will be a good option if you certainly need to get that graduate degree for career advancement but do not have any forms of scholarships or personal funds for your graduate degree. The process of obtaining private student loans here in the U.S. is not as complicated as may be in your home country. You will mostly not be required to submit any form of collateral but you may be required to have a co-signer here in the U.S. to sign your student loan application with you.