Studying in the U.S. as an international student can be an exciting and enriching experience, which is why more and more students choose to come to the U.S. each year. Enrollment of international students in American high schools and colleges has risen significantly in recent years. The number of international high school students tripled between 2004 and 2016, now totaling nearly 82,000. Meanwhile, colleges host more than a million international learners each year. If you’re thinking about studying in America, this guide breaks down the process of applying to a school, while also answering common questions about costs, visas and post-graduation options.
When it comes to studying in the U.S., international students have a few different options:
Some parents encourage their teenagers to attend high school in the U.S. to broaden their horizons and prepare them for the rigors of higher education. In addition to building English language skills, students also learn how to navigate a different culture. U.S. public high schools only allow international students to study for one year, but private schools do not limit the length of enrollment.
Because community colleges are largely an American phenomenon, many international students haven’t heard of them. But these two-year colleges can be a great stepping stone for figuring out whether a four-year degree at a U.S. school is the right fit. Aside from introducing learners to the American education system, community colleges make it easy to transfer credits, save money on tuition, and develop academic, professional and personal networks before diving into a bachelor’s degree.
Studying in one of the best higher education systems in the world is reason enough for many international students to come to America for their undergrad years, but there’s more. While undergrad programs in places like Europe tend to emphasize specialization, American colleges offer a rigorous general education program that covers a variety of foundational topics. U.S. colleges also typically offer a wider selection of degree programs and provide more flexibility to explore and make changes.
Graduate programs encompass both master’s and doctoral degrees, and can last anywhere from nine months to seven years, depending on the field of study and the student’s career goals. Graduate programs appeal to both students coming to America for the first time and those who have already completed an undergraduate degree and want to stay in the country.
Short-term study abroad experiences range from programs that last only a few weeks to a full academic year and allow students to supplement their learning at home with an international experience. Short-term study abroad experiences are available at all educational levels and there are many organizations that help students find a location, focus area and budget that meets their needs.
Studying and living in the U.S. is an expensive process that isn’t always realistic for everyone. However, as online programs expand, lots of international learners are completing American degrees without ever setting foot in the country. Programs are available at all college levels and in many subject areas.
This insightful article from U.S. News & World Report helps international students figure out how to cut costs without sacrificing education quality.
Billed as the “SmartStudent Guide to Studying in the USA,” eduPASS provides a ton of resources for students looking for help with financial aid, including a financial planning worksheet and loan explainers.
NAFSA: Association of International Educators offers multiple resources to help international students figure out how much money they need and understand the various funding sources available to them.
This website is devoted to helping international students find and apply for scholarships and grants that help them offset the costs of an American education.
Voice of America provides this fascinating article and accompanying interview with an international student who figured out how to attend school in America without breaking the bank.
Lots of institutions – Bard College being just one example – provide resources specifically tailored to international students. After deciding which college they want to attend, students should look for a similar page or contact the Office of Financial Aid to find out about specific funding.
Once students are accepted to their school of choice and have a visa in hand, there are a few remaining things they’ll need to take care of before leaving their country and heading to the U.S. The following checklist helps students ensure they haven’t forgotten to take care of anything before jetting off.
Because banks and credit card companies frequently charge for international usage and currency exchange, it’s in students’ best interests to set up a new bank account upon arrival and transfer their education and maintenance funds to America. If you aren’t sure which bank to use, contact your school’s international student office for guidance.
“Health insurance is a legal requirement in most states, so students should be sure to sort this out before arriving to the United States,” recommends Froberg. Because the process may be unfamiliar to international students, she offers more guidance: “I strongly recommend avoiding international student health insurance from independent advisors because, quite frankly, it can be a rip-off,” she says. “If your school doesn’t offer health insurance, get recommendations from your international student advisor.” Students who want to get insurance from their college can check out Purdue University’s website to see an example of what’s required.
While some private high schools and most colleges offer on-campus housing, some students may need to find a host family or off-campus lodging. If looking for on-campus accommodation, students should work with the residential services office; otherwise, they’ll probably want to contact their international advisor. Most high school consultants connect students with families that have been pre-screened to avoid any issues. In the case of college housing, students should fully research different parts of town, consider proximity to campus and available transportation, and find an option that fits within their budget.
Students who go to school in bustling metropolitan areas like New York City, Boston or Philadelphia often have access to reliable transportation such as buses, subways, light rails or cabs. Additionally, some colleges offer transit vans or shuttles that take international students on weekly runs to places like grocery stores, pharmacies and movie theatres.
If studying in a rural location, students might consider getting their own transportation. Because every state has different rules about driver’s licenses, students should check with their school or the local Department of Motor Vehicles (DMV). Some states allow students to use the license from their home country for a set amount of time (typically a year) before switching to a U.S. driver’s license, while others don’t recognize international licenses as valid.
Staying in touch with friends and family back home is key to a happy transition. Setting up a cell phone can take some time, so Froberg suggests working with an international advisor to do it before leaving. “While cell phone providers can be set up once you get here, it can feel overwhelming when also dealing with jetlag and culture shock,” she says. Once students have a mobile account set up, there are plenty of apps that make video, phone or text chats cheaper. Google Hangouts, Skype, Viber and WhatsApp are all apps worth knowing about when you’re away from home.
Getting to school may require some planning, so it’s best to start early in terms of figuring out where you’ll fly in and out of and if you’ll need additional transportation to get to and from school. (Pro tip: Most schools in America start the academic year in August or September, and these are notoriously expensive times to fly.) For the most budget-friendly tickets, it’s best to book them far in advance. Students can also use flight aggregators like Skyscanner, Kayak, Google Flights and Momondo to compare prices at different airlines.
You not only navigated the complex American education system, you conquered it. Now that you’ve finished your program or degree, what’s next? Here are some potential options:
After gaining the education you came for, you can use your newly gained knowledge to help your home country. Not every student gets the opportunity to gain a diploma or degree in a different country, so newly minted graduates returning home are often in high demand due to their unique knowledge, skillsets and professional networks.
Depending on the degree you earned and your remaining budget after completing those studies, you may decide to stay in America to earn another degree. As long as you’re enrolled in an accredited academic program and can show proof of funds, you can continue studying in the U.S. and building your skills.
After learning the ways of the American education system, making professional contacts and making new friends, some international students want to stay in the country and begin their careers. Though this process isn’t easy, students who are focused and determined may find success in relocating to the United States on a more permanent basis.
After students graduate from college, they can apply for what’s known as Optional Practical Training (OPT), a one-year work permit of sorts that allows new graduates to work in a field related to their studies and actually get paid for it. Students have 90 days between graduation and the OPT starting to find a job, so it’s critical that they build professional contacts and take part in unpaid internships while still in school to strengthen their chances of finding employment quickly.
Froberg has some helpful advice for students considering this path who don’t want to experience heartache along the way. “My biggest advice for students is to never work illegally in the U.S.,” she says. Students may think that the government can’t track down things like babysitting or working at a restaurant, but they dig deeply into employment history when reviewing OPT applications. “If the United States Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS) discovers that you worked illegally, they could not only deny your application but also cancel your visa and ban you from the United States.”
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