For many people around the world, studying in the United States is and always has been a dream. However, as costs rise daily against a backdrop of global economic uncertainty, many international students find this dream further out of reach.
Eight years ago, an Egyptian family hatched a plan to send their eldest son, Ahmed Metwally, to study in the U.S. The first phase of their plan: Enroll Ahmed in an expensive American school in West Cairo, rather than a public school, to burnish his academic resume. The plan also included making deposits into a bank account to cover tuition and living expenses for at least the first year of study abroad.
“Since then, the cost of studying in America has skyrocketed, especially in light of the weakening of the Egyptian pound against the US dollar,” noted Ahmed. “The current amount in the bank account barely covers one semester’s expenses. The plan my parent thought was perfect had failed. It was a big shock for them and for me.”
According to the latest Open the door According to a report by the Institute of International Education (IIE), the number of international students in the US increased by approximately 4 percent in the 2021/22 academic year. Despite this increase, international students made up only 5 percent of all undergraduate students in the U.S., compared to 20 percent or more in Australia, Canada, and the United Kingdom.
Economic problems in countries around the world could make it even more difficult for the US to attract growing numbers of international students. Slow growth, rising inflation and fears of a looming global recession have devalued the currencies of many international students’ home countries against the US dollar. The impact has been particularly severe in developing countries that have experienced economic downturns.
“The cost of living and tuition fees in the US are constantly rising,” said a Turkish student studying economics and business administration at the University of San Diego in California. “This is putting significant financial and psychological pressure on our families as we are not sure if we will be able to continue our studies given the ongoing inflation.”
High rents, limited access to financial aid
Financial aid, which eases tuition and living expenses for 85 percent of American students, is not available to most international students, most of whom do not qualify for financial aid from the federal government or the colleges and universities they attend. .
“As international students, we are not able to get many scholarships,” said Sobhi Kazmouz, a Syrian medical student at the University of Illinois. “We often have to pay double, and in some cases more than double, the tuition that American students pay.”
International students are also often unable to obtain loans unless they can find a US citizen or lawful permanent resident willing to co-sign.
In addition to tuition fees, rising rent costs put additional pressure on international students. Most universities make housing available to international students at the beginning of the semester. However, many experience delays in obtaining student visas and allocated accommodation is gone by the time they arrive, which in some cases is already after the start of the school year. Many students then have to find local housing, often at exorbitant prices.
Sakshi Dureja, a classmate of Kazmouz’s at the University of Illinois, believes the skyrocketing costs have even made it harder for international students already in the US to continue their studies.
“Students who could enroll in institutions here a few years ago are now not sure if they will be able to complete their studies,” Dureja said. “Unfortunately, there is a lack of aid and infrastructure to provide the money needed to complete their studies.”
This includes subsidizing their expenses through part-time work. According to US immigration law, international students can work a maximum of 20 hours per week during their first year of study – and only on campus.
After the first year, they may be allowed to work outside the school under special circumstances, including financial difficulties. However, the extra money earned from this work rarely makes up for students’ financial shortfalls.
“The financial return is insufficient,” admitted Atithi Patel, an international student at the University of Illinois. “What’s more, especially in the early years, you have to focus a lot on your studies and manage the challenges of adapting to a new culture. Accumulating extra work becomes a burden, and small earnings often hardly make a difference.”
Connecting foreign students with support
Despite the significant obstacles facing international students in the US, a number of organizations are dedicated to providing much-needed financial assistance outside of financial aid, grants, and loan channels.
“The United States is the most diverse international educational environment in the world, and our community is committed to fostering the international educational exchanges that will shape our global societies for decades to come,” explained A. Sarah Ilchman, IIE Co-President.
Founded in 1919, IIE today manages programs in 180 countries that touch the lives of 29,000 individuals through partnerships with higher education institutions, governments, donors and, of course, students.
“Institutions have programs and partnerships that can provide the necessary support for international students,” Ilchman said. These resources include the IIE’s Funding for US Study database, which provides information on potential sources of financial aid for international students at all levels of postsecondary study across the full range of academic fields in all 50 US states.
Other programs include the IIE Emergency Student Fund, which provides grants to international undergraduate students in the U.S. when natural disasters, war or other crises threaten their education, and the Platform for Education in Emergencies (PEER), an online clearinghouse helping displaced and refugees to combined with opportunities to pursue formal and non-formal higher education.
Ilchman noted that during and after the COVID-19 pandemic, U.S. universities and colleges made major efforts to promote the well-being of international students, with 83 percent of institutions maintaining continuous communication with students regarding their health and safety through the fall of 2022. According to Ilchman, 84 percent of these the university offers mental health services to international students.
And some academic institutions are able to provide financial support in addition to psychological support, including Augustana College, a private institution in Rock Island, Illinois. At Augustana, international students currently make up 15 percent of the 2,400 students. The university provides merit-based scholarships and financial aid to outstanding international students.
“International students deserve scholarships and need solid financial aid,” said W. Kent Barnds, Augustana’s executive vice president of external relations. “I feel that higher education is America’s greatest export and that international diversity is critical in the classroom. Its significance is not only in bringing our education system to the world, but also in exposing our local students to global ideas.”
Universities are also under stress
It’s not just international students who face economic challenges when they want to study in the US. American institutions of higher education themselves face financial pressures that limit their opportunities to assist international students.
“Academic institutions are suffering as a result of current economic conditions and have ongoing dilemmas in determining tuition, providing financial aid and scholarships, recruiting qualified staff, and covering budget shortfalls,” said David Woodward, senior advisor for global engagement at Seattle University.
Despite these formidable challenges, Woodward believes that universities and colleges must develop innovative strategies to attract and assist more international students.
“What we need more than anything else is talented students,” he said. “Everyone in the world is competing for this talent, so we need to make it much more accessible and attractive for these students to come to our country. We need to make that dream possible for the best and the brightest, no matter where they come from in the world.”