My son’s four years at a US university will cost me Dh1.2 million

The likes of Stanford and Columbia charge $80,000 a year and chances of getting financial aid are slim for international students

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My son studies at a British school in Dubai but has always dreamt of going to the US for higher education.

It will cost me about Dh1.2 million ($330,000) to fund that dream - and that's only the bachelor's degree.

Why the US? According to my son, it is the best country when it comes to starting salaries and it has a great culture where start-ups thrive.

As a parent, I want to give him that perfect launch pad but am I prepared to pay for that? I still don’t know.

The cost of studying at a US university as an international student varies widely based on the chosen school and programme.

International students face significantly higher tuition fees than domestic students, and financial aid can be difficult to obtain.

College Board, a US non-profit that links students with universities, reports that in the 2021-2022 academic year, the average annual tuition and fees for international undergraduate students were $37,200 at private four-year institutions, $26,820 at public four-year institutions, and $23,890 at public two-year institutions.

However, these figures reflect only the cost of tuition and fees and exclude additional expenses such as room and board, textbooks, transport and personal expenses, which can amount to several thousand dollars a year.

To top it off, the cost of attending some highly selective universities may be even higher.

What do top colleges charge?

The Ivy League group — Brown, Columbia, Cornell, Dartmouth College, Harvard, University of Pennsylvania, Princeton and Yale — are not only known for their world-class education but also their exorbitant fees.

The term “Ivy League” originally referred to the athletic conference that these eight universities formed in 1954 for intercollegiate sports competitions. But over time, the term has come to represent the overall academic and cultural prestige associated with these universities.

Here are the fees at top universities. The actual cost can vary depending on the student's programme of study, housing options, and personal expenses. It does not include additional expenses such as travel and visa fees.

In the past year, we have looked at all options to obtain financial aid — getting loans in the US, and UAE (our country of residence) and applying to need-blind universities.

What are federal student loans and can international students gain access to them?

Federal student loans, also known as government loans, enable students and parents/guardians to borrow money for college directly from the US federal government.

Some federal student loans offer income-based repayment plans for eligible borrowers, which limit payments based on the borrower’s income and family size. Moreover, these loans do not require a robust credit history.

However, international students are not eligible for US government federal student loans since they are available only to US citizens and permanent residents.

International students can obtain private loans from banks and lenders in the US, such as Sallie Mae, College Ave, Earnest and others, but there is a significant caveat — they require the borrowers to have a social security number and a US citizen or permanent resident co-signer.

The guarantor is responsible for repaying the loan in case the borrower defaults — we neither had anyone who would do this for us nor a social security number so we looked closer to home.

Education loans from UAE banks

Most big banks in the UAE give education loans but the amount they offer is small and the parents have to be the borrower.

The loan amount they give is only up to Dh300,000 and the maximum tenor is 48 months — not a very lucrative option.

The next option was to consider going to a need-blind university in the US that offers financial aid to all students. But these universities are very few in number. Let's take a look at the ones that are generous to international students.

Need-blind and need-aware universities

Need-blind and need-aware are terms used to describe a university’s policy regarding financial needs when considering students for admission.

Need-blind universities offer financial aid and scholarships to all students, irrespective of their residency and nationality. These colleges assess the income of the parents after children receive an offer letter solely based on their academic and personal achievements. Once that is done, they will provide you with financial aid.

For instance, at Harvard, one of the top universities in the world, families with an annual income of less than $75,000 are not expected to contribute to the cost of their children’s education at all. Families who earn more than $150,000 may still qualify for financial aid.

Top universities that are need-blind for international students are:

Harvard University

Yale University

Princeton University

Massachusetts Institute of Technology

Amherst College

Dartmouth College

We have applied to all need-blind universities but getting admission from even one is an uphill task.

On the other hand, need-aware universities consider financial needs when evaluating applicants. This means that a student’s ability to pay for tuition and related expenses is taken into account when making admissions decisions.

Some universities may offer partial or no financial aid to students who need it if the budget is limited. A student will have to let the university know while applying that they will need financial aid.

Universities such as New York University are need-aware, meaning that asking for financial aid can influence the admissions officer’s decision to offer admission. Such universities balance their financial aid budget with the overall number of admitted students.

But we wanted to play safe — it was better to get an offer letter and pay the entire amount, rather than jeopardise the chance of getting in.

Although need-aware universities may provide financial aid to exceptional students who demonstrate financial need, it is not guaranteed as it is with need-blind universities. Moreover, the aid given may be limited and may not cover the full amount students are looking for.

It is important for students to research and understand the financial aid policies of the universities they are interested in, especially if financial aid is a deciding factor.

American students are eligible for aid based on their income, regardless of whether the university is need-blind or need-aware and that does not impact their admission chances. That is the power of the American passport.

Building a College Scholarship Service Profile

International students who need financial aid must begin by creating their CSS profile, or College Scholarship Service Profile, on The College Board website and indicate the colleges where they require assistance.

The CSS Profile collects income and asset information from students and provides accurate and complete financial information on a schedule that suits the institution.

This information is then shared with the universities where the student has requested aid.

Since there is no income tax in the UAE, the College Board asks for documents such as salary certificates and proof of income from the parents of the applicant.

The board will also require a complete breakdown of the earnings and expenses, including car loans, grocery and utility bills, and how much did you spend on dental treatment in the past six months, among other expenses. We did all that.

It is important for international students to be prepared to share all financial details when applying for financial aid through the CSS Profile.

Once you get an offer letter from the university of your choice, they will assess all the documents uploaded on your CSS profile and will offer you aid.

The final deal

The best option is that my son gets into a need-blind university and if that does not happen I will have to choose to let him live his dream by giving him my retirement fund.

Another option is to send him to an affordable community college. But will he get an F1 visa? Now, that's another story.

Updated: March 03, 2023, 5:30 AM