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Merit scholarship vs. financial aid

interstride logo by Interstride
September 5, 2023

Earning a degree in the US as an international student is not cheap. You can expect to pay $22,953 on average per year for public schools and $39,723 on average per year for private schools. If your family cannot cover those costs, you may be wondering how you can get money to meaningfully offset part of your college tuition.

Understanding financial aid in the US

There are two common ways to help fund your education: merit scholarships and need-based financial aid. Understanding these two types of money for college tuition in the US can be confusing because they may go by different names depending on the institution. To simplify things, we refer to money granted based on merit as scholarships and money granted based on financial need as financial aid. Both do not need to be repaid after graduation (unlike loans). However, keep in mind that some universities may not provide financial aid for international students.

Financial AidScholarships
Granted by institutionsGranted by institutions and private businesses

Need-based financial aid

Financial aid is money for college tuition and fees that you do not have to pay back. While scholarships are usually merit-based, financial aid is usually need-based. This means the amount of the financial aid offered will be based partially on your financial need demonstrated by the total cost of your education minus your family’s expected contribution. However, the total aid amount offered may not cover all of your tuition and related expenses such as textbooks. The exact amount given varies by school. Students whose families will not be able to pay much or any at all may benefit from applying to need-blind schools that do not consider the ability to pay as an admissions factor.

International students are not eligible for federal financial aid including federal grants. Instead, you should apply for need-based financial aid directly through your college or university when available. This is typically part of your application to a university. You will be required to fill out some forms and may need to provide additional documents. If you are hoping for aid to cover your full college tuition, consider applying for colleges that meet the total financial need of admitted international students.

Merit-based scholarships

For international students, scholarships may be the best option to get funds for college that you do not have to pay back. While there are both merit-based and need-based scholarships, for the purpose of this section, we’ll focus on merit scholarships – scholarships based on your achievements, not your financial need. Merit-based scholarships are usually granted based on the student’s academic achievements, extracurricular activities, or other accomplishments.

Scholarships can often be used to pay for tuition, academic fees, books, and room and board. The amount of money provided varies greatly among scholarships across the country. Some scholarships are granted once while others can be used again each semester or year of your degree program. Scholarships can be provided by colleges and universities, private businesses, or non-profits. While some colleges provide merit-based scholarships for undergraduate international students, the majority of merit-based financial aid is reserved for graduate students.

Interstride Tip: Find funding for college in the US with Interstride Scholarships, a database of merit-based scholarships, fellowships, and financial aid catered specifically to international students. 

Merit scholarships for international students

Below are just a few of the many merit-based scholarships for international students who want to study in the US:

To find more options, search a database of scholarships and need-based aid curated just for international students at International Education Financial Aid.

Applying for financial aid as an international student

While domestic students will apply for financial aid using the FAFSA, you must apply for financial aid individually through each school or scholarship program. Some institutions use the College Scholarship Service (CSS) Profile to evaluate international students’ financial aid needs. Others use the International Student Financial Aid Application (ISFAA) or both ISFAA and CSS. Check each school’s website for information about how to apply for financial aid as an international student.

Your financial aid package as an international student may include loans. Loans must be paid back including interest. International students are not eligible for government student loans but can apply for loans through a bank or other private lenders. Explore international student loans as a last resort after trying to acquire scholarships and financial aid.

Tips to maximize your financial aid package

  1. Do your research. Every institution has different policies on financial aid for international students. Determine whether the school is need-blind or need-aware. Do they offer more merit scholarships vs needs-based financial aid to international students?
  2. Reflect on your accomplishments and strengths. There are so many unique scholarships out there based on specific interests and activities. Find the ones that align with your skills.
  3. Search for specific scholarships based on your nationality, field of study, or identity. For example, there are scholarships for first-generation college students.
  4. Be strategic when applying for scholarships. Many merit-based scholarships require an essay, so take your time to make it high-quality. Prioritize applying to scholarships that you think you have a good chance of winning.
  5. Combine the different types of financial aid in order to cover all the costs of your tuition and living expenses. Here’s an example of what a financial aid package for an international student could look like:
Expected family contribution$5000 per semester
Private scholarship$1500 per semester
Financial aid from college$4500 per semester
Student loan$2000 per semester
Total:$13,000 per semester

Final thoughts

Getting financial aid as an international student is difficult but not impossible. Merit-based scholarships may be the best choice to pay for that US college education. Don’t be afraid to apply for multiple scholarships to maximize your total financial aid amount. Lastly, double-check the requirements to apply for financial aid directly from the college as the application process for international students varies across institutions.