Master's degree programs offer international students more campus-based work options, grants, and scholarships than undergraduate degrees. No matter how much aid is offered, however, there are extra expenses every student should consider when budgeting.
Saharnaz Mirzazad moved to Colorado from Iran with her husband in 2010 to study at the University of Colorado—Denver. Her husband, who was studying environmental design, was offered a position as a teaching assistant, while she, an urban and regional planning student, was not. Mirzazad quickly discovered a teaching assistant's salary wasn't enough for both of them to live on, although she thought it would be before they moved. She found several other surprising expenses.
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Mirzazad and experts offer the following tips for international students budgeting for grad school.
1. Calculate expenses for family members: If family members are moving with the student to the United States—such as a spouse or child—the cost of living will be higher. Calculate costs of housing, food, healthcare, and other expenses for the whole family when budgeting.
A teaching assistant's salary is based on one person's expenses, Mirzazad discovered. "We faced a problem," she says. "We had to figure out another money source to live on."
Additional sources of employment are generally other on-campus opportunities for the spouse who's studying in another program or money from family in their home country, experts say. Strict visa rules limit the employment options for students and their families.
2. Research historic tuition rate increases: If you're getting a scholarship, ask if the scholarship is adjustable annually to accommodate for tuition increases, Mirzazad says.
While it may be difficult to determine how much tuition will be a year from now, prospective international students should contact the school's financial aid office by phone or E-mail to ask about past tuition increases, she says. Students should start planning budgets for their second year of study before arriving in the United States.
"Students may be surprised to notice tuition increases of 10 percent or 20 percent for their second year of study," she says.
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3. Look into financial assistance for students in specific fields: "A large number of students going to Ph.D. programs receive funding from the U.S. university they go to, and a smaller but still significant number at the master's level also get some amount of financial aid," says Renuka Raja Rao, India country coordinator for EducationUSA Advising Services. Important factors are the program, research, and faculty interests, she says.
"The availability of teaching fellowships will often depend on your academic area of study," Robert Hardin, assistant director of admissions for international recruitment at the University of Oregon. "For instance, teaching fellowships in the field of business are not very common, while teaching fellowships in the hard sciences are much more common."
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A fellowship is a graduate scholarship that normally comes with responsibilities to teach a class or perform research. Bhavita Walia, a graduate student from India studying biomedical science at the University of Connecticut, has her tuition waived. In exchange, she teaches.
However, she still has to stick to a tight budget. She recommends getting a roommate and discussing shared expenses. "It is quite expensive to furnish an entire apartment by yourself," she says. "For me, it wiped out a significant chunk of my savings, and I still have things I need to buy."
4. Learn about the U.S. healthcare system: Mirzazad wasn't prepared for American healthcare. In Iran, she had a public healthcare system where she didn't have to worry about the costs of doctor's visits.
In the United States, she made the mistake of choosing a doctor outside of her insurance network and paid more money. Students should request insurance paperwork from the school before arrival in order to review potential costs, experts say.
Prospective students should ask schools about copay charges—a set fee a patient is charged per visit that often depends on the type of doctor being seen—as well as the amount the student must pay for emergency hospital visits. Other services could have a deductible, an amount the student must pay before the insurance company pays the balance. While a student may not need medical services beyond general checkups, it's best to prepare for medical costs in case they arise.
For more international student tips and news, explore the Studying in the United States center.