Paying for a US University Education

Guides / USA

There’s no way to hide it: university in the US can be very expensive. Families I meet with are often very aware of this fact, and are keen to know what options there might be to reduce (or even completely wipe out) any potential costs. In this post, I want to give an overview of how students who don’t have the ability to pay the full fees might be able to fund their US education.

Key to understanding this is to understand that the financial picture is not straightforward: as with most things to do with US Higher Education, you need to understand some new terminology. In this case we need to explore Need-based Aid, Merit Scholarships and Athletic Scholarships.

Need-based Aid

Need-based aid does exactly what it says: universities will provide funding to a student based on the financial need the family has. Put simply, if a student can prove that they can’t afford the cost to attend, they will provide the rest.

However, for non-US applicants this gets more complicated. Very few US universities offer need-based aid for international applications, so the pool of potential universities you can look at in this way is going to be quite small.

In addition, there is an expectation in the USA that parents will have saved to pay for the cost to attend university, so the financial aid calculations (which explore the income and assets of a family) will likely insist on the family paying more than might have first been expected.

Then there’s the way in which the request for aid in an application can impact the chances of admission. There are a few (a very few) US universities who are ‘need blind’ for international applicants when considering applications: ie, they won’t be thinking about if a student needs funding (and how much) when deciding whether to admit them or not. The reason there aren’t many is simple: to be ‘need blind’ means that the university might have to offer every successful candidate need-based aid for 100% of the cost of attendance, and not many US universities have the money to do so.

More commonly, they are ‘need aware’ – when considering who to admit, the university will also pay attention to how much money the student needs. This has the effect of making it more competitive to get in for those who require need-based aid, as you are competing with others who also want aid rather than against everyone else in the pool.

Then you should understand that this is not something you can do much about. Most US universities offer ‘Net Price Calculators’ where you can plug in some numbers and see the range of funding that might (or might not) be available, and if the numbers aren’t in an acceptable range, you’ll need to consider applying elsewhere.

Finally, it’s worth pointing out that some of the top US universities ONLY offer need-based aid, the Ivy League among them. So if the only money available is need-based, and you come from a relatively well-off family, you are unlikely to find that the route to a free US education lies in the Ivies.

Merit Scholarship

Merit scholarships are also well-named: it is money awarded to a student based on their merit, not on their financial circumstances. Merit scholarships abound across the US, and indeed reflect the consumer nature of the society and how the cost of a university education impacts student choice.

To understand this, you need to think about WHY a university will offer merit scholarships. Let’s say that you are a highly-regarded US university that wants to attract very talented students, but you’re not quite in the top league of Harvard, Stanford and the like. How might you convince a student who could gain a place at Harvard to come to you? Might making your university $20,000, $40,000 or even $75,000 a year cheaper help in this? Unlike in the UK and Europe, US families are making decisions based on this all the time: “yes Sarah, Yale is a great college, but is it $35,000 a year better than Boston University?”

For those looking to fund a US education through merit scholarships, you then need to think strategically. If you want a university to think so highly of you that they will offer you a scholarship, then you need to aim your applications at universities for which you are likely to be one of the strongest applicants that year. In this context, strength doesn’t just mean grades and test scores (though those are very important) it can also mean other things you would bring to the university, such as leadership or particular interests. However, you need to remember that a student who might be lucky just to be admitted to a particular university is certainly not going to then be awarded a merit scholarship, but a student who would be in the top-tier of applicants to another could be wooed with the offer of a juicy scholarship.

Within the world of merit scholarships, there is much variety. Some universities automatically consider students for scholarships with an application, others have separate applications (and deadlines) for their scholarships, and other scholarships (for example the famous Morehead-Cain Scholarship) have completely independent processes which require school nomination and various rounds of interview.

And, just like for need-based aid, these are competitive programmes. Students from all over the world aspire to study in the USA, so you need to make sure that you are applying for merit scholarships at colleges where you would stand out, not only in the pool of regular applicants but also, potentially in the scholarship pool. In this it’s important to remember, that some of your competition might be willing to go to colleges or locations in the USA that students in the UK and Europe might be less keen to, because (unlike many other students) the UK and Europe has very good and relatively cheap universities already.

With all of this, for students willing to be creative and flexible, it’s certainly possible to find merit scholarships all over the USA, not just for A and A* students, but for B and C students as well. The key is to know where to target your application to ensure that the offer of admission is accompanied by a scholarship offer as well.

Athletic Scholarship

Beyond these two routes, many other students fund their US education by getting a sports scholarship. Unlike for need-based aid or merit scholarships, the sports scholarship route follows a completely different process, one in which the most important person is the coach of the sports team the student aspires to join, rather than the admissions office.

This could be an entire blog post in itself, but in short getting money to play sports at university in the US means getting a coach to want you enough to give you money. You might aspire to a top-ranked private university in California, but if none of the coaches at those universities want to offer you a scholarship then you’ll need to look elsewhere. The coaches that might want you could be at universities in parts of the US that you aren’t so keen on, or universities that may not be the best match academically. The skill in this process is to find the happy medium: universities who consider that student a highly-attractive prospect and which are also highly-attractive to that student and her family.


For the purposes of this post, I’ve had to generalise and simplify, but the reality is that it certainly may be possible to get the money a family want or need to pursue university in the USA, within certain parameters. However, those parameters may not quite match what the family are looking for, in which case more financially realistic options can be pursued.

In my work, quite often families may start off looking at the USA, and then realise that the desire for an international university experience can be fulfilled by looking at other countries, and if this is you please read some of my posts about options in Europe or Canada. Many happy students have begun this process looking at the USA only to find their true homes somewhere else. Equally, however, some have found the funding they need to pursue US Higher Education at the college of their dreams.