Tips for International Students Considering U.S. Public Colleges

Reyna Gobel

Amelia Rivera-Barreto, a sophomore Guatemalan student studying anthropology and music at the University of Minnesota, said she had two choices when deciding where to attend college in the United States: "Go to a small liberal arts college if I get a scholarship, or go to a college I could afford."

At about $19,000 per year for out-of-state tuition and fees in 2012-2013, the University of Minnesota's price tag was cheaper than her other options. Further reducing her costs, she received a $2,000 scholarship this semester, and she expects to receive $1,000 in scholarships per semester until graduation from the public school.

[Get tips on finding U.S. scholarships for international students.]

Thirty percent of international freshmen receive a partial scholarship, says Audra Gerlach, director of international recruitment for the University of Minnesota. While it's a common myth that only private colleges in the United States offer scholarship funding, many public universities do as well, experts say.

And the starting price is often cheaper. According to the College Board, the average published undergraduate, out-of-state tuition and fees for a public four-year university in 2012-2013 was $7,350 less than the average published charges for a private university.

International students should keep the following tips in mind when saving to attend an American public university.

1. Ditch preconceived notions: "Depending on their country of origin, students either perceive private schools or public schools as tops in their country," says Robert Hardin, assistant director of admissions for international recruitment at the University of Oregon. "But in the United States, there is no such distinction," he notes. A state school could be ranked as the best in the country in one program, while a private school ranks the highest in another, Gerlach says.

For instance, in the U.S. News 2013 Best Colleges rankings, the University of Texas--Austin, a public school, took the No. 1 spot in the country for accounting, while the University of Pennsylvania, a private institution, ranked the highest for finance. Price doesn't dictate quality, experts say; therefore, it's important that families of international students save what they can and then review their school choices.

[Follow these steps to start saving for American colleges early.]

2. Estimate costs based on out-of-state tuition: Unlike private schools, which generally offer one tuition price for all students, public universities often offer different prices for students residing in the state prior to admission.

Therefore, a student from Minnesota would usually not pay the same price as a student from California to attend a California public university. International students will generally pay the same price as out-of-state students. For instance, depending on which campus of Ohio's public Miami University that students attend, out-of-state first year students could pay between roughly $9,000 to $15,500 more for the current school year than in-state students.

[Learn more about studying in the United States.]

3. Consider scholarship options, but save based on tuition prices: The University of Oregon offers cultural scholarships that could cover between $6,000 and $27,000 of college costs, Hardin says. These scholarships are solely for international students who develop a winning project that helps others learn about their culture in the University of Oregon community.

Past winners created presentations on being a war refugee or volunteered at the school's radio station DJing Brazilian music, Hardin says. But it isn't guaranteed when you apply that you'll receive funding, as you won't find out until you receive your admissions acceptance letter, he adds.

It's important to save for school based on pre-scholarship prices, Hardin advises. For instance, if your family can afford to pay a maximum of $30,000 per year including all expenses from tuition to housing, you can still apply to the University of Oregon, he notes. Some students who received a partial scholarship for the 2012-2013 school year were able to reduce the $43,410 cost of attendance to below $30,000.

But you should also apply to at least two universities that are within your family's budget if you don't receive a scholarship, he suggests.

Reyna Gobel, frequently quoted as an expert on student loans and college costs, is the author of "Graduation Debt: How To Manage Student Loans And Live Your Life" and "How Smart Students Pay for School: The Best Way to Save for College, Get the Right Loans, and Repay Debt." She has appeared on PBS's Nightly Business Report and speaks regularly at CollegeWeekLive.