International students reviewing cost of attendance estimates for U.S. universities may wonder how they're going to afford all four years of college. But it's possible to research ways to trim expenses by hundreds to thousands of dollars before arriving in the United States.
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Students from abroad should start by exploring these options for each potential school during the application process:
1. Consider off-campus housing: Choosing to live off campus can save thousands of dollars, Iowa State University International Recruiter Timothy Tesar says. Students can contact admissions to find out whether living off campus is an option for first year students. If it isn't, it will more than likely be available for subsequent years.
Research housing options by E-mailing the university's housing office or visiting its website. Ask about types of housing, rooms for rent, and potential costs if you share housing with one or more roommates, advises Michelle Larson-Krieg, director of international student and scholar services at the University of Colorado—Denver.
"Some universities have websites that list off-campus housing, while others will promote off-campus housing that is connected to campus somehow," Tesar says. "But in most cases students find it on craigslist, rent.com, apartments.com, or by word of mouth from a friend."
Sharing an apartment or house might cost less than renting a smaller apartment on your own, says Larson-Krieg. Students who live off campus are also able to use the money they would have spent on meal plans—which at Iowa State can range from around $2,900 to nearly $4,000 per school year—cooking their own food or eating at local authentic restaurants, as many Chinese students tend to do, Tesar notes.
While conducting research on housing ahead of time is helpful, don't choose a place before seeing the apartment or room for rent, Larson-Krieg advises. What's important is being able to estimate costs, not necessarily confirming housing plans.
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2. Review meal plan options: Students who opt to live on campus should research meal plans early on to avoid the common mistake of not maximizing these plans. Both international and U.S. students living on campus purchase meal plans and then buy fast food for two out of three meals per day, says Pat Kirby, international student coordinator for Missouri's Westminster College. If $5 is spent for each lunch and dinner dining out, an on-campus student adds more than $1,100 in expenses in one 16-week semester or $2,200 in two semesters.
It's important for students to research dining hall cuisine during the college selection process to assess whether meal plans meet both personal food preferences and dietary needs, Kirby says. Request sample menus by E-mail from food services offices at universities you're interested in attending.
If the menus aren't appealing to students, they should consider alternatives to the meal plan, he says. For on-campus students who are required to purchase meal plans, an alternative could be purchasing a smaller plan and budgeting the difference between the larger and smaller plans for dining out.
Students should also consider how they'll eat on semester breaks if not traveling home, Kirby notes. There are easily 45 days per year at Westminster College where school is not in session.
His college offers meals during breaks for international students, but this isn't the case for every university, he says. Students should E-mail food services offices at the universities they're considering to ask whether meals are included for international students during school breaks.
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3. Ask about guaranteed employment: Generally, international students on student visas aren't allowed jobs off campus, so they have to work on campus or not work at all, Kirby says. Some schools, however, including Westminster, offer guaranteed college employment for international students who have financial need. Guaranteed employment means it's part of the financial aid package and students have employment confirmed before arrival.
In many cases, $2,000 to $2,500 is earned per semester working clerical, tutoring, or lab assistant positions, says Kirby. For instance, Trapti Brisen, a Westminster freshman from India, works as a student assistant in the admissions office, helping with mailings and data entry and escorting students to appointments with staff members. The money she earns covers what her scholarship doesn't: health insurance, taxes, and miscellaneous personal expenses.
International students should contact university financial aid offices about guaranteed employment opportunities, Kirby notes. If a school doesn't offer guaranteed employment before arrival, ask the financial aid office about available jobs that international students should apply to once on campus.
Reyna Gobel, frequently quoted as an expert on student loans and college costs, is the author of "Graduation Debt: How To Manage Student Loans And Live Your Life" and "How Smart Students Pay for School: The Best Way to Save for College, Get the Right Loans, and Repay Debt." She has appeared on PBS's Nightly Business Report and speaks regularly at CollegeWeekLive.