Applying to a U.S. university can be stressful and challenging. But with an acceptance letter in hand, prospective international students can move on to the next step in the admissions process: demonstrating financial ability to pay for tuition, books and living expenses while studying in the U.S.
Applicants will work with the designated school official, or DSO, who serves as a liaison between a school and the Student and Exchange Visitor Program. SEVP is a U.S. government program that ensures U.S. schools and international students comply with U.S. laws and regulations. DSOs "are required to receive, review and evaluate proof of financial responsibility for an international student prior to issuing the student a Form I-20," Carissa Cutrell, a spokeswoman for U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement, wrote in an email.
An I-20 certifies that an international student has been admitted for full-time study once proof of financial ability is established. Cutrell says both prospective undergraduate and graduate students must provide evidence that meets their school's specific requirements.
After a school issues an I-20, students are then eligible to apply for a student visa at a U.S. embassy or consulate. A U.S. government official will review the documents, including the evidence of financial ability, and make the final decision about whether a student can pay, and will then issue a student visa to study in the U.S.
"There are different ways to finance study in the United States and requirements vary by U.S. higher education institution," a U.S. Department of State official wrote in an email.
Here are some ways prospective international students can demonstrate financial ability:
-- Bank statements or employer letter
-- Scholarship and financial aid letters
-- Investments or other assets
-- Government or other official agency funding
Bank Statements or Employer Letter
U.S. colleges and universities require proof that money is available, which can be illustrated by bank statements from a parent, friend or other relative or sponsor. For instance, on its website, American University in Washington, D.C., provides examples of acceptable documents international students can submit as evidence, including a sample bank letter.
"Students must show financial ability in the form of liquid assets to be eligible for a Form I-20," says Patrick Morrison, associate director at the University of South Dakota International Office. "The clear majority of our students use private family funds held in savings or checking accounts to prove financial ability."
Schools typically want students to demonstrate the ability to pay one year of academic and living expenses, but some ask for ability to pay for more than one year. For example, Cornell University in New York requires proof of support for at least two years of study through a bank statement showing sufficient funds or a bank letter indicating the required funds will be available, per the school's website.
Proof of financial ability can be provided in any currency, Morrison says, as schools use a currency conversion tool to ensure that the amount of foreign currency equals or exceeds their minimum requirements in U.S. dollars. Cutrell notes that each school's DSO enters a student's financial ability in U.S. currency into the Student and Exchange Visitor Information System, or SEVIS, which is used by the U.S. government to maintain information on international students. She says she is not aware of any U.S. federal government requirement to have notarized documents.
A letter from an employer on official business letterhead showing annual salary is also evidence of financial ability. However, experts say prospective international undergraduate students should not consider potential on-campus employment to count toward proof of financial ability.
Scholarship and Financial Aid Letters
Prospective international students can also demonstrate financial ability if they have scholarship money from their home country or the U.S. school.
Egyptian national Habiba Aly, a tennis player who competes in her home country and internationally, was offered a full scholarship to attend the University of South Dakota. She is a junior majoring in media and journalism with a specialization in strategic communication and minoring in business.
"I needed the admission letter and the scholarship offer for the embassy to issue the visa," Aly says.
Prospective international graduate students may use other similar ways to prove financial ability.
"Many graduate students receive some or all of their funding from the university in the form of graduate assistantships," Morrison says.
He also notes that a pre-authorization letter from a private student loan lender would be a sufficient example of a financial aid letter.
Investments or Other Assets
Prospective international students may be able to demonstrate financial ability through mutual funds and annuities, proof of property or certain investments. However, the type of investments or assets accepted can vary widely among schools.
"Each university has its own policies in determining what documents are sufficient to prove financial ability to attend their university," Morrison says.
For example, Indiana University--Bloomington accepts investment statements but submitted documents must show clear proof of the funds' liquidity and the cash surrender value, per the school's website. The University of Washington--Tacoma's website states that pay stubs, tax records, stocks, bonds or proof of property ownership are not acceptable financial resources.
Morrison says each school has its own policy in determining how much funding an international student must have "by calculating the average cost of attendance for one year of study at a given institution, inclusive of tuition and living costs."
Government or Other Official Agency Funding
Financial proof can take many forms, such as government funding programs like those from the Saudi Arabian Cultural Mission.
"The most common sponsored student programs are in the Middle East -- Oman, UAE, Saudi Arabia, Kuwait -- but there are others as well," Morrison says. "We have had a Ph.D. student from Malaysia on Malaysian government sponsorship in the past, for example. Pakistan also has an initiative whereby they hope to increase mobility of Ph.D. students to American universities."
Students should keep in mind that government or other official agency funding documents should be translated into English, experts say.
For example, in its guidelines, the University of Southern California states that it requires "certified, professional translations for all financial documents not issued in English."
For students seeking assistance, the Department of State's EducationUSA network of global student advisers can help with navigating the U.S. college and university admissions process through the Five Steps to U.S. Study resource, including understanding how to pay for school. EducationUSA is a Department of State network of more than 400 international student advising centers around the world.
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