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How to Pay for Your STEM Degree as an International Student

Key Takeaways

  • International students pursuing a STEM degree in the U.S. may find it difficult to fund their education with scholarships and grants alone.
  • Options to bridge the financial gap include private student loans and part-time employment.
  • Other ways international students can reduce costs include living off-campus with a roommate, carpooling and using free resources their school offers.

Out of the 1 million international students in the United States, 55% pursued science, technology, engineering and mathematics, or STEM, fields, according to data from the Open Doors 2023 Report on International Educational Exchange by the Institute of International Education.

While higher education costs are a burden for many, international students face unique challenges. International students are ineligible for federal financial aid, so they don’t have access to financing like federal student loans. But there are other options international students can use to pay for their STEM degree.

Costs of a STEM Degree for International Students

Before figuring out how to pay for a STEM degree, evaluate your potential expenses.

  • Travel costs. Consider the cost of a flight and any accommodations. 
  • Visa application fees. As an international student, you’ll pay a visa application fee and potentially a visa issuance fee. 
  • Tuition fees for STEM programs. Tuition prices will vary by school. For example, the estimated tuition cost for an undergraduate engineering student at the University of Iowa for the 2023-2024 academic year was $31,940, while it was $65,640 at Columbia University.
  • Living expenses. The total amount can vary significantly depending on the location. Estimated living costs at Iowa for 2023-2024 were $12,616, while they were $16,800 at Columbia.
  • Other incidental costs. Books, health insurance, transportation and any other incidental costs should be added to the total. 

Costs can add up quickly and present challenges. “Navigating the U.S. education system as an international student, I was immediately confronted with the harsh financial realities we face,” says Chuky Ofoegbu, founder and CEO of Sojourning Scholar, a resource to help international students. “Securing student loans under fair terms was daunting, hindered by limited options in my home country, Nigeria, and the high-risk profile attributed to international students in the U.S. However, these barriers did not define my journey.”

Scholarships and Grants for STEM Students

As “gift aid,” scholarships and grants can help cover costs so you can afford your STEM degree as an international student. You can find scholarships for STEM majors using a scholarship search tool. Grants can come from your school or organizations and foundations with a focus on STEM fields.

“Through scholarships, fellowships and assistantships, I financed my STEM degrees in mechanical engineering at the Ohio State University and the University of Texas at Austin,” says Ofoegbu.

There may be a limited amount of scholarships or grants for international students, but there are different places you can get funding.

University-specific Scholarships

International students can look into university-specific scholarships. Every school will have different funding opportunities, so STEM majors can research what’s available within their department or university. There’s also another way international students can look for STEM scholarships.

“An often-neglected strategy most students miss out on is engaging with alumni networks, particularly those who have navigated the same journey as international students,” says Ofoegbu. “These individuals have walked the same path and can provide invaluable advice and potentially open doors to scholarship opportunities not found through traditional searches.”

Private Scholarships and Endowments

To help pay for your STEM degree as an international student, look into private scholarships designed for students in STEM fields. Some scholarship search tools include:

You may be able to find scholarships that are open to international students, like the GeneTex Scholarship Program, which offers an award of $2,000 to undergraduate or graduate STEM majors.

Endowments, which are financial gifts that help offset your higher education costs, may also be available through your school.

Other Ways to Fund a STEM Degree as an International Student

Part-time Employment 

F-1 students are legally permitted to work up to 20 hours per week in a qualifying on-campus job. Taking on part-time employment during your studies can help cover some of your living costs.

“I was a grader, a tutor for math, physics, computer science and French. I was an indoor soccer referee; you name it, I did it,” says Manu Smadja, former international student and CEO and co-founder of MPower Financing, a private student loan lender specifically for international students..

Off-campus jobs for international students may be available through Curricular Practical Training or Optional Practical Training. Through these programs, you can gain employment pertaining to your degree. If you’re in one of the STEM fields, this can be a good opportunity to get hands-on experience while earning some money.

For STEM Optional Practical Training, you may work with a pre-completion OPT while you’re in school and work with a post-completion OPT when you’re done with your studies. Afterward, you can also apply for the STEM OPT extension to continue, which is 24 months.

Private Student Loans

International students who have exhausted available grants, scholarships and employment opportunities may still face a gap in funding. Unfortunately, federal student loans aren’t an option for international students – but private student loans are.

Financial institutions like banks, credit unions and online lenders offer private loans. While private loans are an option, many private student loan lenders require a U.S.-based co-signer with good credit. Co-signers take on the legal responsibility for the loan if it ends up in default.

That can be a tall ask for international students. “By definition, if you’re an international student, you’re unlikely to have a parent in the U.S. or someone willing to co-sign a loan, for it’s a big liability.” says Smadja.

While international students may not have the same number of lenders to choose from as domestic students, there are still options available. When considering private student loans, compare:

  • Interest rate.
  • Repayment requirements.
  • Term lengths.
  • Hardship options.
  • Discounts.
  • Co-signer release.

If you’re unsure about the terminology or loan process, reach out to your school’s financial aid office for help deciphering terms and conditions.

Bottom Line 

Paying for school as an international student can be expensive. You can reduce costs by living off-campus with a roommate, carpooling with another student, walking or biking to school and using all of the library’s resources.

Though there may be fewer resources for international students, it’s possible to secure some funding to get a STEM degree.

“Beyond funding, this path was a master class in resilience and strategic planning,” says Ofoegbu, “teaching me how to navigate and overcome the complexities of international student financing.”

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