Buenos Aires Times

opinion and analysis EDUCATION WITHOUT BORDERS

Money matters for international students

Rising university costs will make Argentines pause for thought when considering the worth of an international education. Even the most motivated and internationally minded families may have to think hard about the 'return' on their investment.

Tuesday 23 January, 2018
In the US, brand name state universities such as the University of Michigan or the University of California Los Angeles can carry price tags that are not much different from their their private counterparts.
In the US, brand name state universities such as the University of Michigan or the University of California Los Angeles can carry price tags that are not much different from their their private counterparts. Foto:Wikimedia-Andrew Horne

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In the past 30 years, the cost of higher education in the industrialised world, particularly in English-speaking countries – and especially in the United States – has been rising steadily.

Prior to the 1970s, college tuition costs in the United States only increased by about two to three percent a year. Since the mid-1970s, however, college prices have soared to five to six percent above inflation a year. In 2003, average college costs went up 14 percent in just one year.

To give you an idea of how much costs have spiralled, consider this. In 1980, the average annual cost of tuition, room and board and fees at a four-year post-secondary US institution was US$9,438, according to the US Department of Education; today, according to the College Board non-profit, the average cost of tuition and fees alone for the 2017–2018 school year averaged US$35,000 at private universities and US$26,000 for international students attending public institutions.

In the UK – where all universities are public - international tuition is somewhat lower. The total cost of attendance is contingent upon on the cost of living in the city where the university is located with London, of course being extremely costly for students. Canada and Australia maintain costs on a par with those in the UK. 

Guidelines and ROI

It is important to note early on that families should only consider published cost figures as a general guideline. They should expect costs to be higher than what one sees on a recruiting pamphlet – there are many hidden expenses that are often unmentioned, such as books, materials and mandatory institutional fees. Then there are personal expenses of simply having a life: phone and internet, social outings, transportation, holiday travel, clothing, etc. Health insurance is a significant expense too. There are always incidentals and emergencies may occur, all of which raise the total cost of attendance. 

There are ways to make costs cheaper. It is also appropriate to point out in this context that university residences (or ‘dorms’) – while comfortable and convenient – are not always the best option financially. Many international students opt to share apartments close to the campus, thereby cutting expenses significantly.  

These figures may give many Argentine families a reason to pause for thought. Even the most motivated, committed and internationally minded families should think hard about that concept referred to as ‘ROI’ – return on investment. In lay terms it’s basically a simple question: is it worth it? What does one get in return for investing US$30,000-plus on a bachelor’s degree? 

The answer, of course, is as subjective as can be. People factor in family resources, personal values, life goals, circumstances and whatnot... the decision is never solely about finances.

The United States

Let us look at the other side of the coin, particularly the United States. The US, as I mentioned in a previous article, is the country with the largest higher education offerings out there and it absorbs a large portion of the international education market. The level of demand from students across the globe has always been high, although it has subsided in the past year in the most part because political factors – not because of financial considerations. Higher education in America is costly, yes. There are, however, some silver linings to reflect upon and consider.

The university system in the United States is clearly divided by the lines of public and private funding. Public, state-supported universities are less costly but they are hardly ever able to offer financial aid to international students or those who are not residents of the state. I say “hardly ever” because there are cases where funds for international students may be available. Families need to research this option and one can usually find information through a university’s website and respective financial aid office. 

In the public sector, costs can vary a lot, ranging from affordable to very expensive – even as high as private institutions. For example, brand name state universities such as the University of Michigan or the University of California Los Angeles carry price tags that are not much different from their their private counterparts.

In the private sector price tags also vary a great deal. But with the average bill often much higher, there are more opportunities to obtain financial support even for international students. Financial aid in the United States is offered via two main categories: need-based and merit-based. 

Under the need-based category, students and their families who are evaluated are found not to have sufficient resources of their own, may be offered partial (and in rare cases total) coverage of the tuition fees (and on rare occasions room and board) by the institution´s own resources. Please note that ‘need’ will be defined by the institution – not by the student or the family. In other words, after thoroughly inspecting the family financial situation, the university will determine if and how much the student will receive.

Under the merit-based scheme, students compete for limited funds. Here, too, the university is the final judge. The student’s total record is evaluated and compared with other applicants – sometimes additional tasks such as interviews or writing essays will be required - and the money available is distributed to those the institution considers most deserving. In this case, need has no bearing at all on the decision.

Additional opportunities

Under the student visa regulation, international students can legally work on a campus for up to 20 hours a week. This is an important piece of information, especially because the available jobs are given away fast. In exchange for work, students are given discounts on their tuition at the rate of the legal minimum wage and sometimes at a level a little bit above it. By engaging in these opportunities, the student can raise significant funds to help offset the costs they face. 

With jobs always high in demand, students are advised to ask for details with their respective international student centre regarding available positions as soon as they arrive on campus. 

IB Diploma students may have additional opportunities in universities too, ones that can provide financial benefits for their programmes, especially if their academic results are excellent. 

As a general rule of thumb, students who have outstanding academic achievements in their secondary schools will find that many universities – including the top brands – will be inclined to provide financial incentives to lure them. Likewise, students with special talents – athletics or the arts, for example – can seek additional financial support from those institutions who are interested in their special ability. Here, too, a good amount of research is advised. 

Good academic planning can save money too. The US system is designed in such a way that students can choose if and when to take certain courses. Committing errors may set oneself back and require additional time to graduate, which means additional and unnecessary expense. Universities employ academic advisors for that purpose and students are well advised to utilise them as much as they can.

While one can research additional private sources of financial support – such as from governmental and non-governmental organisations, as well as foundations of all colours – it is important to know that most of the financial support available for international students comes from the universities themselves. 

Be smart, start early and engage in thorough research about your options.

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