For many around the globe, studying in the United States is, and always has been, a dream. However, as costs continue to rise day by day amid a backdrop of global economic uncertainty, many international students are finding this dream farther out of reach.
Eight years ago, an Egyptian family devised a plan to send their eldest son, Ahmed Metwally, to study in the U.S. The first stage of their plan: Enroll Ahmed in an expensive American school in West Cairo rather than a public school to burnish his academic résumé. The plan also included making deposits to a bank account to cover tuition and living expenses for at least the first year of his studies abroad.
“Since then, the costs of studying in America have skyrocketed, especially in light of the depreciation of the Egyptian pound against the U.S. dollar,” Ahmed remarked. “The current amount in the bank account barely covers one semester’s expenses. The plan, which my parent thought was perfect, has failed. This has been a great shock to them, and to me.”
According to the latest Open Doors report from the Institute of International Education (IIE), the number of international students in the U.S. increased by approximately 4 percent in the 2021/22 academic year. Despite that rise, international students comprised only 5 percent of all higher education enrollments in the U.S., compared to 20 percent or more in Australia, Canada, and the United Kingdom.
Economic challenges in countries around the world could make it even more difficult for the U.S. to attract growing numbers of international students. Sluggish growth, rising inflation, and fears of a looming global recession have devalued the currencies of many international students’ home nations against the U.S. dollar. The impact has been especially severe in developing countries that have experienced economic downturns.
“The cost of living and tuition in the U.S. is continually rising,” , a Turkish student studying economics and business administration at the University of San Diego, California, said. “This puts significant financial and psychological stress on our families, as we are uncertain if we will be able to continue our studies given persistent inflation.”
High Rent, Limited Access to Financial Aid
Financial aid, which eases the tuition and cost-of-living burden on 85 percent of American students, is not available to the majority of international students, most of whom are ineligible for economic assistance from the federal government or the colleges and universities they attend.
“As international students, we’re not able to obtain many scholarships,” Sobhi Kazmouz, a Syrian medical student at the University of Illinois, said. “Often we must pay double, and in some cases more than double, the tuition fees that American students pay.”
International students are also often unable to obtain loans unless they can find a U.S. citizen or a lawful permanent resident willing to co-sign.
Beyond tuition, rising rent costs place additional pressure on international students. Most universities make housing accessible to international students at the start of the semester. However, many encounter delays in obtaining student visas and the allotted housing is gone by the time they arrive, which in some cases is past the start of the school year. Many students must then find local housing, often at exorbitant rates.
Sakshi Dureja, a fellow international student and classmate of Kazmouz’s at the University of Illinois, believes that soaring costs have even made it difficult for international students already in the U.S. to continue their studies.
“Students who were able to enroll in institutions here a few years ago are now uncertain if they will be able to complete their studies,” Dureja said. “Unfortunately, there is a lack of assistance and infrastructure in place to secure the money needed to complete their studies.”
That includes subsidizing their expenses through part-time work. Under U.S. immigration law, international students are only permitted to work for a maximum of 20 hours per week during their first year of study—and only on campus.
After their first year, they may be allowed to work off-campus under special circumstances, including financial hardship. However, the supplemental money earned through this work seldom bridges the students’ financial shortfalls.
“The financial return is insufficient,” Atithi Patel, a fellow international student at the University of Illinois, admitted. “What’s more, particularly in the early years, you need to focus a great deal on your studies and navigate the challenges of adapting to a new culture. Piling work on top of that becomes a burden, and the small earnings often barely make a difference.”
Connecting International Students to Support
Despite the considerable barriers facing overseas students in the U.S., a number of organizations are devoted to providing much needed financial assistance outside of financial aid, grant, and loan channels.
“The U.S is the most diverse international education environment in the world and our community is committed to supporting the international educational exchanges that will shape our global societies for decades to come,” explained A. Sarah Ilchman, co-president of IIE.
Founded in 1919, today IIE administers programs in 180 countries that touch the lives of 29,000 individuals through partnerships with higher education institutions, governments, donors, and, of course, students.
“Institutions have programs and partnerships in place that can provide necessary support for international students,” Ilchman said. Among these resources are the IIE’s Funding for U.S. Study database which provides information about potential sources of funding assistance for international students for all levels of post-secondary study across the full range of academic areas in all 50 U.S. states.
Other programs include the IIE Emergency Student Fund, which provides grants to international college students in the U.S. when natural disasters, war, or other crises threaten their education, and the Platform for Education in Emergencies Response (PEER), an online clearinghouse helping displaced and refugee students to connect with opportunities so they may continue formal and informal higher education.
Ilchman noted that, during and after the COVID-19 pandemic, American universities and colleges made great efforts to support the well-being of international students, with 83 percent of institutions maintaining continual communication with students concerning their health and safety into the fall of 2022. According to Ilchman, 84 percent of these universities offer mental health services to international students.
And some academic institutions are able to provide financial support in addition to psychological support, including Augustana College, a private institution in Rock Island, Illinois. At Augustana, international students currently account for 15 percent of the 2,400-student population. The university makes merit-based scholarships and financial aid available to outstanding international students.
“International students deserve scholarships and need solid financial aid,” said W. Kent Barnds, executive vice president of external relations at Augustana. “I feel that higher education is America’s greatest export, and that international diversity is critical in the classroom. Its significance lies not only in bringing our educational system to the globe, but also in exposing our local students to global ideas.”
Universities Are Also Stressed
It’s not only international students who are facing economic challenges as they seek to study in the U.S. American institutions of higher education themselves are facing a cash crunch, constraining their opportunities to assist overseas students.
“Academic institutions are suffering as a result of current economic conditions and have ongoing dilemmas in determining tuition fees, providing financial aid and scholarships, recruiting qualified personnel, and covering budget shortfalls,” said David Woodward, Senior Advisor for Global Engagement at Seattle University.
Despite these formidable challenges, Woodward believes universities and colleges must develop innovative strategies to attract and assist more international students.
“What we need more than anything else are talented students,” he said. “Everyone in the world is competing for that talent, so we have to make it much more affordable and attractive for those students to come to our country. We have to make this dream possible for the best and the brightest, no matter where in the world they’re coming from.”