A Primer: Everything You wanted to know about Financial Aid, but didn't know who to ask

Some of the most frequent questions that we get asked on this forum are pertaining to financial aid. People want to know about scholarships, about how much financial aid they can get, about how financial aid affects their chances for admission and various other questions. So here is your one stop primer on how financial aid works and how you can get it to make your college dreams come true.

Types of Financial Aid

Merit-Based: This is what most people think of when they think of financial aid. This aid is awarded on the basis of the strength of your profile (academics, test scores etc). It has nothing to do with your family’s income and asset levels. Some colleges (like USC and the Claremont colleges) make you apply for it whereas some colleges just award it to the applicants they think are the strongest out of their applicant pool.

Need-Based: This is when colleges award you with financial aid based on your combined family income and asset levels (property and other tangible assets). Most colleges award a certain amount of aid to specific income brackets. Colleges have various calculators on their website through which you can calculate your estimated family contribution (ie: how much your family will have to pay after you are awarded financial aid). Based on your combined family income and assets, you could get a full scholarship or varying levels of partial scholarships. Sometimes you may need to complete ‘work study’ (a campus job where the wages go towards your tuition). ‘I have to work on campus for 2k of my 68k tuition’ says Udit Malik, Vanderbilt’22.

Athletic Scholarships: Many colleges offer full scholarships to recruited athletes who agree to join one of their sports team. You need to have a really high level in whichever sport and go through a slightly different application process (which involves the coaches of the colleges). Speak to your coach if you are an athlete and interested in getting athletic scholarships. It’s important to note that many athletic scholarships are contingent on the student continuing to play for the university sports team as well as maintaining certain academic standing.

Impact on Admissions

Need-Blind Admissions: This is when your application for financial aid has no bearing on your chances of admission. Examples of need blind schools are Harvard and Princeton
Need-Aware Admissions: This is the opposite, where your application for financial aid does have a bearing on your chances of admission (usually reducing your chances). Examples of such schools include Cornell University and The University of Pennsylvania.

There are certain schools that are need-blind for domestic students and US citizens but need-aware for international students. Make sure you check this on the college’s financial aid website or by contacting their financial aid office. ‘Unfortunately when you apply for financial aid, you’ll get a lot of rejections so make sure that you do your research and have a backup,’ advises Malik. Rehat Thussu, on partial scholarship at Mount Holyoke, agrees saying ‘I got waitlisted and rejected by a few colleges because of my need for financial aid.’

CSS Profile

This is the main instrument you need to get financial aid and something that you’ll need to fill out for every college. It is filled through the CollegeBoard (the same service that administers SAT and SAT Subject Tests) so you’ll need to have an account on their website. It requires information like:
National tax returns (translated into English)
Bank Statements
Mortgage information
Records of savings, stocks, bonds and trusts
Through this CSS profile, colleges can estimate how much your family contribution will be.

Unfortunately, the CSS profile is not free. It costs $25 for the initial application and $16 per college. If this affords you financial difficulties, you can fill out the International Student Aid Application instead and send it directly to the college.

Srihari Balaji’23, on partial scholarship at Union College, says to fill out the CSS profile ‘as precisely as possible’ as it helps colleges truly determine how much aid they can give you. Adhya Sharma, Yale’23 agrees, adding that it is ‘very time consuming to fill out because of the number of questions, but it helps colleges determine how much aid that you really need.’ She also advises to start early.

Application Process

Indicate that you intend to apply for financial aid through the Common Application
Fill in the CSS profile through the College Board. Each school has a specific code so make sure to include the codes of the schools that you are applying to
Submit national tax returns for your parents and you (if you file taxes). Make sure that they are signed, translated into English and have all official stamps and seals
Check if any additional documents are needed. Such documents include business documents, trust or estate documents and other additional information explaining if you have extenuating financial circumstances
Check how you send these financial aid documents to universities. Different methods include online portals, emailing the office, sending physical mail, using the College Board IDOC services etc

Alternate Financing Options

There are certain colleges that do not offer financial aid for international student or you may not get the amount of aid you require. There are always other options such as:
Education Loans: Both public and private banks offer educational loans. Most have a certain limit but there are some companies that offer limitless loans. The interest rate usually ranges from 9-15% but usually averages around 11-12%. Check your local bank or your parent’s bank for their policies and interest rates. Your college can also give grants, like a 5k grant Balaji received from his university.
Grants: There are certain organizations, both in the US and in India that give grants to international students. There are various grants that are for special interest groups including women, LGBTQ+ people etc. A quick internet search should reveal these grants, as well as speaking to a counsellor. Make sure to search early so that you don’t miss any application deadlines (if applicable).

Private Financing: There are certain individuals and companies that finance Indian students planning to study abroad. Look online as well as through other people. However, be careful and make sure that everything is legitimate.

Crowdfunding: This is quite an unconventional way of gaining funding but it’s something that has become popular recently. Crowdfunding is the practice of raising money by various people contributing small sums of money. There are crowdfunding websites like Ketto and GoFundMe that you can use.

Sharma dispels a common myth that larger and more elite schools will need you to pay more. Although they are harder to get into, her ‘outcome was more positive.’ “Yale has been incredibly generous and doubled the aid that I requested on the CSS, so I’m getting by comfortably without grants and loans.”

Things to Note

Most colleges have their own Financial Aid deadline. Make sure that you check the financial aid document submission deadlines for every college you’re applying to. The Alma Matters application calendar has financial aid deadlines for the Top 25 colleges
If you’re admitted Early Decision to a university, you can break your ED agreement ONLY if you aren’t receiving sufficient financial aid
Check back on a future article to learn about a list of scholarships and granst that you can get as an Indian student

Advice from International Students

“Make sure you have a backup plan. You need to understand that a college REALLY has to like you to want to spend money educating you. Don’t give up hope but be smart about applying’ - Udit Mallik
“Don’t overestimate and ask for too much aid from a need-aware college. Mention why you’ll be needing xyz amount of aid from. Also mention your family’s financial status elaborately in the comments section. That’ll help colleges understand your family’s financial situation better’- Srihari Balaji
“Be as elaborate and specific as possible. And don’t give up’- Rehat Thussu
“Having a backup in a cheaper country, like India or Hong Kong is extremely important. I’ve seen that people who apply for aid can be at a huge disadvantage so be smart about it” - Adhya Sharma

Make sure you ask any of your other financial aid questions on our International Students forum at almamatters.io and check back to our document repository for a complete list of grants and scholarships for Indian students.

Stay tuned for the next article in this series!