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Off to University: Empty Nest …Empty Wallet?!

December, 2012
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Whether you say goodbye at the airport, train station or accompany your child all the way to the hallowed gates of their university, a child going off to college is a tearful affair. Years of studying, hard work, discipline, hope and savings, sometimes as much as USD$65,000 during the first year alone, can disappear in a swirl of congratulations and excitement.  Eventually the children will come back home whether it is for work, holiday or a family occasion, but the money? It will be followed by more until as much as US$240,000 has been spent on obtaining a post-secondary education for a single child. 

Of course the total cost of an undergraduate education varies significantly depending on the country and the type of school. Average tuition (school fees only, not including other costs such as room and board, books, etc.) for a four-year course of study for an international student in the United Kingdom ranges from US$6,500 to US$35,5001. The same course of study will cost between US$5,600 to US$17,7002 in Canada, US$5,600 to US$17,7003 in Australia and US$21,000 to US$45,0004 in the United States. Domestic students generally enjoy a significant discount on tuition versus international students, but parents should be aware of the fact that many countries are changing their qualification standards for national students and granting domestic status only to those students who have been actually living in country for the 2 to 3 years immediately prior to college matriculation5.
Given the expense, parents should dedicate time to understanding what the costs and the financial aid possibilities are at each of the colleges their child is considering for application. College costs and the financial aid packages students receive can vary significantly from college to college and from year to year.  Additionally, it is important to look not only at the first year financial picture, but also at the full 4-year financial requirement, especially if other children will be going to or leaving college over the same period as this can have a meaningful effect on the amount your family is expected to pay (“EFC” Expected Family Contribution in the USA).uni-costs-chart1
The primary component of college cost is tuition.  This figure can be found easily enough on college websites.  It is worth noting, however, whether tuition is based on academic terms (a fixed fee per semester) or credit hours (fees per courses / credits taken).  If tuition is based on credit hours, you may see additional fees run into the thousands of dollars if your student takes more than the prescribed number of credits per term. Room and board refers to costs associated with accommodation and meals. Housing costs are dependent on the living situation chosen by the student and options vary from campus dormitories, apartments and co-ops. Hint to parents: Generally speaking, having your child live with a roommate is a wonderful experience and is less expensive than living alone. Food costs vary according to the dining plans offered.  Most universities require that 1st year students buy a meal plan (usually a fixed rate for 5-day or 7-day a week access to campus cafeterias and dining halls) to ensure that students have the opportunity to eat healthily.  Books and supplies, computer & software, transportation and personal expenses are also to be considered.  While tuition makes up a significant fixed portion of total college costs, personal and transportation costs can increase dramatically if parents do not set guidelines for spending (this is especially true for international students who may want to return to their home country frequently due to homesickness or attempt to match their new friends’ spending levels in order to achieve popularity). I’ve seen students spend significant portions of their available funds on entertainment and dining, leaving their far-away parents confused and concerned about what appears to be uncontrollable costs.
Because the prices for colleges vary widely, families need to invest the necessary time to understand the “total” cost of attending college and consider their financial options carefully.  In general, there are three sources of outside (non-family) funds for post-secondary study: scholarships and grants (free money) and loans. While the vast majority of funds are allotted for students hailing from the county itself, a great many colleges have separate funds available for international students.  Families should make themselves aware of any deadlines for paperwork and know that most colleges require families to submit an International Student Certification of Finances. In addition, families seeking financial aid must complete an International Student Financial Aid Application. Both of these documents should be submitted at the time your student submits his or her application. Finally, you should also know that there are a few need-blind colleges in the USA (even among the elite universities such as Harvard), which are committed to making it financially possible for any accepted student to attend, regardless of financial ability. 
student-loans1Home country colleges and universities usually offer the most in terms of scholarships, grants and loans. While most international students fully pay their own fees without assistance, there are limited financial options for students at overseas colleges.  Students should always look to the government of their passport issuing country as many offer scholarships to promising students or those pursuing studies in especially needed fields. Families and their children should also explore scholarships and financial aid offered by government, business associations, private companies and their targeted universities in the desired country. Australia, Canada, the United Kingdom and the United States offer a breadth of possibilities to students who are well prepared and apply early. Many sources of financial aid, however, have early deadlines and students should plan to submit their financial aid applications at the same time that they submit their college applications, if not earlier. Students with financial need, especially strong grades and an excellent command of the English language should consider applying to the honors programs at their desired college as these programs sometimes offer academic scholarships to exceptional students. Be forewarned, however, that many financial awards have strict grade requirements and students whose grades fall below the minimum limit may lose their funding. Some countries allow foreign students to work on, or even off campus, under certain circumstances. Work, however, should not be relied upon for significant funding as hours are limited and schoolwork is demanding. Students should check with the International Student Affairs office before taking any type of job as some countries may consider it a violation of the provisions of the student’s “education” visa.  
A final word of caution; be sure to carefully review all financial information and documents before submitting anything. It is critical that you retain hard and soft copies of all materials submitted for your own records, as documents can be lost. Please know that any mistake on these applications is very likely to result in paperwork being sent back and awards being reduced or denied. So do your research, be precise and be early.
Finally, try not to let financing concerns drive the college matriculation decision too much. Choosing a college is one of the most important decisions that your child will make, and with thorough research and careful planning, you should be able to find an excellent fit college that also fits your wallet.
Families seeking further information on available scholarships or financial assistance can refer to the following websites:
 
 
By Tess Robinson
Co-founder of TEAM Education
 

Shanghai based TEAM Education offers one-on-one boarding school, college and graduate school admissions consulting services to students and their families. Co-Founder Tess Robinson is a graduate of Harvard Business School (MBA) and Stanford University (AB, International Relations). She has been successfully guiding students through this process for 12 years, and is also certified in College Admissions and Counseling from UCLA and a member of NACAC and OACAC, the leading professional associations for college counseling. 

Sources:
1educationuk.org
2studycanada.ca
3studyinaustralia.gov.au
4 nced.ed.gov
5guardian.co.uk
6 Sources 1-4 combined.  
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