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Key considerations for choosing undergraduate school

interstride logo by Interstride
June 30, 2023

Higher education in the US is a big investment. It can cost anywhere from $50,000-$300,000 for international students to earn a US degree. Furthermore, universities vary widely based on location, size, costs, academic program offerings, student culture, and more. As an international student, it is crucial to conduct thorough research on each key consideration to help you choose the right undergraduate school to earn your bachelor’s degree in the US.

1. Location

In the US, each state and region is very distinct with different cultures and climates. Where you choose to study could have a significant effect on your experience in college. There are many pros and cons to studying in a city versus a rural area.

Cities generally have more opportunities for international students to pursue their careers. They are also often more diverse than rural areas. However, industries in cities can be quite competitive, and major cities have a high cost of living. Whereas rural areas have a lower cost of living, and colleges and universities often have more on-campus housing. As an international student, you can get to know the community better in less populated towns, but there may be less access to job opportunities.

Lastly, keep in mind that most areas in the US lack efficient public transportation. Consider what is walkable from campus and whether or not you are willing to purchase a car while in the US. In a rural area, students may spend more time on campus. If you want access to extensive public transportation, look at universities in major cities such as New York, Boston, Chicago, and San Francisco.

2. Cost

In the US, there are public and private colleges and universities. Public schools are usually cheaper for students than private schools because they receive government funding. While more expensive, private schools often offer more merit and need-based financial aid to accepted students, including scholarship opportunities for international students.

The average yearly cost for tuition and fees at private universities in the US in 2022-2023 was $39,723. The average annual cost for out-of-state students (including international students) at public colleges was $22,953. To find undergraduate degree options within your budget, check out this list of affordable colleges and universities from US News.

In addition to tuition and fees, consider the following costs while studying in the US as an international student:

  • Books and other school supplies
  • Housing and utilities
  • Transportation
  • Food
  • Visa fees
  • Health insurance
  • Travel home during school vacations

3. Academic programs

The types of academic programs that a school offers depend on the type of school, its size, and its specialties. Some schools have narrow focuses such as art schools, medical schools, and STEM schools. On the other hand, large universities with multiple different colleges allow you to explore different fields before choosing a major. This is an excellent option if you are still undecided on a career path.

Any school that international students apply to in the US, no matter the type, should be accredited. Here are some tips on how to evaluate academic programs and find the right one for you:

  • Look at the course requirements of the programs you are interested in to see specific classes offered and elective opportunities.
  • Talk to current students about the program to get an idea of what the classes and professors are like.
  • Research the institution’s reputation and rankings to see what academic programs the school is well-known for. For example, MIT and CalTech are known for their excellent  engineering programs.

4. Student life

When you are a first-year international student, you will most likely be required to live on-campus, and you will likely spend a lot of time there. The types of activities, social events, and recreational opportunities that a school provides vary greatly. Check each university’s website for information about on-campus housing and dining options, athletics, and social organizations such as fraternities/sororities and student organizations.

Smaller colleges and those with a lot of students living on campus often have a strong sense of community which allows each student to feel like they belong. Find schools that have clubs and amenities you are interested in so that you can get involved on campus. This will make your experience as an international student much better and help with the transition to living in a new country. Some schools even offer fun recreation like on-campus movie theaters, bowling alleys, and more.

5. Support services & campus resources

As an international student, it is essential that the institution you attend will adequately support you throughout your undergraduate education. Colleges and universities in the US often provide free academic support to students such as one-on-one tutoring. Schools with a lot of international students also have specific international student support staff to help you navigate living and studying in a new country.

Other resources that you may find at a US college or university include:

  • Career service center
  • Health and wellness clinic
  • Writing and communications center
  • Campus bookstore
  • Fitness and recreation center
  • Counseling center
  • Local and national banks

6. Employment & post-graduate outcomes

Before choosing to study in the US, think about the return on investment (ROI) of your international education. Consider the “total costs” of studying in the US, but remember, it’s much more than tuition and fees! Research school-specific data on post-graduate employment outcomes for international students if available. Think about the following:

  • Is there a higher ratio of students from certain schools obtaining jobs more often than those from other schools?
  • What is the typical starting salary for recent graduates in your field of interest?
  • Does the institution have a strong alumni network?
  • Is the institution proactive with hosting career and networking events?
  • What is the institution’s ranking?
Visit Interstride’s University Rankings to find lists of the schools with the most international students and the most employed international students, and check the university’s career service center statistics regarding post-graduate employment.

Choosing the right undergraduate school as an international student

There are almost 4,000 colleges and universities in the US to choose from. International students have a big decision to make when choosing the best school for their undergraduate education. It takes approximately four years to earn a bachelor’s degree and can cost over $100,000, so it’s an important decision to get right. Carefully research each school you are interested in and consider the location, cost, academic program offerings, campus life and resources, and employment outcomes. Compare your top options in each of those areas before making your final choice.