"Safety Schools" for International Student Needing Financial Aid?

Question: Dear Dean,

I am an international student who will be applying this year to colleges in the United States. Unfortunately, my family requires full financial assistance to afford to send me to college. Would you advise that I apply to smaller Liberal Arts Colleges, or to larger Universities? My current college list is a medley of both of them.

I worry that LACs may not have the funding to grant me full aid, and that the competition for places at Universities (especially the ones that are need-blind for internationals) will lead to my being rejected. I fear that extensive financial need will be the Achilles heel of my application.

Is it likely that I will be turned down if I require more funding than another applicant who has similar stats to mine?

I was wondering, also, if there were any safety schools that provide funding for internationals.

Thank you!

Your best chance at a scholarship is to apply to colleges where the typical first-year student has grades and test scores that are well below your own. One way to search for such schools is to use College Confidential's SuperMatch. See: You can use the left-hand menu to indicate your preferences for location, major, size, etc. But under the “My Scores" heading, enter numbers that are lower than the actual ones. Similarly, under the “Getting In" heading, choose “Wide Open" or at least “Selective."

Once you've generated “Results," compare them to the list you'll find here. This helpful list, compiled by Douglas C. Thompson for the Overseas Association for College Admission Counseling, provides the names of many (although not all) of the colleges that offer aid to international applicants. Pay particular attention to the “Average Award" column and how it compares to the “Cost to Attend." As you've already noted, a small handful of the most generous colleges and universities are also “need blind," but these places are cut-throat competitive for all applicants. If you are willing to attend a less selective college, your chances will improve greatly. And if you don't find enough colleges that are on both lists, go back to your SuperMatch search and expand your preferences. Chances are, you will find a mix of liberal arts colleges and universities that end up on your target-college roster. The “wealthier" LAC's tend to have funding for internationals while the less wealthy universities will not.

I also urge you to consider an “Early Decision" application, if available at your target colleges. Although many students who need money assume that they should not apply “ED" because it means making a “binding" commitment (and a few colleges don't even allow Early applications from international students who need money), the truth is that you can walk away from an acceptance (as long as you do it promptly) IF your financial aid offer doesn't meet your family's requirements. And YOU make this determination … not the college. (Warning; Many ED deadlines are only a week away; so act swiftly if you decide to aim for ED.)

Because most colleges admit very few international students who need aid, an ED application demonstrates your strong interest in a school, and admission officials often prefer to allocate their financial aid dollars to students who have shown this interest.

For example, a few years ago, an international student in in my orbit really wanted to attend Smith College in Massachusetts. She needed a lot of financial aid, and I urged her to apply Early Decision to Smith. But she didn't, claiming that she wanted to take extra time to perfect her application. I thought that this was not a wise plan, and, indeed, Smith admitted another applicant from this student's country during the ED round—a candidate who also needed a lot of aid. So when it was time for the Regular Decision round, the Smith folks wanted to spend their aid dollars on students from different countries since this girl's country was already represented in the first-year class.

“My" student ended up at DePauw University in Indiana, which did offer her generous aid. It was far from her top choice and not a fabulous match in some respects, but she did have a good experience there nonetheless and has done very well since, gaining admission to a well regarded graduate program. Indeed, Midwestern colleges and universities can often be a good bet for international students because East Coast and West Coast schools are commonly better known … and more popular … with applicants from abroad than those in the middle of the U.S. seem to be. While there are some notable exceptions (e.g., U. of Chicago, Northwestern University), places like DePauw are more easily overlooked.

So the moral of the story is that Early Decision can be often be a good plan for international students who need aid, but it's also important to consider a range of institutions, and don't get too focused on one particular college or type of college or level of selectivity, especially if you need a lot of aid. It is likely that you will be turned down if applicants who look similar to you “on paper" need less financial aid than you do. It may be hard for you to make an Early Decision commitment to a college that you consider to be a “Safety School," and that's understandable., but being willing to do so will boost your chances of getting admitted somewhere and appropriately aided. And even if you don't apply ED, you may be able to use SuperMatch, along with Doug Thompson's list, to find some reasonable options. However, for international students seeking money, there is no such thing as a true “Safety."