While the education in USA seems prohibitively costly at first glance, the good news is that there is decent possibility of funding if you can get into a reputed grad school (depends on other factors too). Universities and Professors in USA are funded by government and other agencies that invest in research; these funds are, in turn, used to support research students. Except when recession hits the funding grants, schools do try their best to support as many PhD students as possible. This is the reason why getting funding in PhD is easier than getting for Master’s because it is understood that PhD students are contributing more towards research. Similarly Master’s in Engineering schools has more grants and research funding than Management oriented programs such as MIS/MEM and MBA. MBA is practically not funded because the goal of a MBA grad is to join corporate world and not research. Schools are more likely to fund students working closely in research.
How Grad School funds its students:
These are the monetary awards given to students based on some qualifications, which could be academic excellence or extra curricular talent (sports related scholarships). There might be additional qualifications for these awards such as nationality, ethnic background, gender etc. These can be given in the form of a one-time cash award or be yearly covering your length of study. A school may have few such scholarships and they might ask for a separate application for these scholarships. Given the competition and scarcity of such awards, it is better to not bank on one. However, do find out about these especially if your academic record is excellent.
2. Tuition waivers
Sometimes, a school may offer full or partial tuition waiver to few students. It is usually awarded in conjunction with teaching or research assistantships (see below). A student still needs to pay other kind of fee (health insurance, administrative, library etc.) as tuition waivers only cover the tuition fee. These are most likely announced along with the news of your admission. For example, Case Western Reserve University typically offers 40- 50% tuition waiver at the time of sending the admission letter to its MEM students. In this case, the I-20 will only show remaining tuition fee to be paid by the student.
This is the most common form of funding offered by the graduate school to its admitted students especially PhD students. Getting an assistantship involves getting a cash stipend in return for some work that you do officially in the school itself. Normally, a student is allowed to work up to 20 hours per week. These are frequently combined with a full/partial tuition waivers in research oriented programs such as MS. However, assistantships offered in MIS/MEM programs may be only paid hourly and not include a tuition waiver (exceptions apply). There are three main kind of assistantships:
As per Virginia Tech, “graduate teaching assistants (GTAs) provide academic program support under the supervision of a faculty member. GTAs may assist faculty in the department in teaching undergraduate courses, including laboratory teaching assignments, or in providing other appropriate professional assistance, including grading examinations, problem sets, and/or lab assignments, setting up displays for lectures and laboratory sections, and preparing or maintaining equipment used in laboratory sections.”
As per Virginia Tech, “graduate research assistants (GRAs) are graduate students conducting academically significant research under the direction of a faculty member, who is generally a principal investigator on an external grant or contract. Graduate research assistantships are awarded by departments and professors who are engaged in research projects. Since GRAs are often funded by sponsored research grants, they may be paid at a higher stipend level than GAs or GTAs.” When I was studying at University of Illinois, Urbana Champaign, I received an RA by a Professor in Wireless Networking that paid me a cash stipend (for 20 hours per week work) along with a full tuition waiver. It meant that I did not have to pay any tuition fee and got a stipend that easily covered my living expenses and helped me save some money as well.
Again, as per Virginia Tech, “graduate assistants (GAs) are graduate students who provide academic and program support. GA responsibilities may be administrative in nature and consist of duties unrelated directly to teaching or research (such as academic advising, program planning, advising student groups, and assisting with the administration of student services offices). GA responsibilities may also be academic in nature and include grading examinations, problem sets, and/or lab assignments, setting up displays for lectures or laboratory sections, and preparing or maintaining equipment used in laboratory sections.”
These are similar to scholarships but awarded solely based on the financial need of a student. American universities may offer several forms of government-supported grants but these are usually available only to American citizens.
What if I do not receive any funding from the university at the time of admission?
Do not write off your funding chances just yet. These days, schools have stopped giving funding except to PhD students but it does not mean that you cannot find one after being admitted. In most cases, Master’s (especially MIS/MEM) students will not receive funding at the time of admission. First, you should have done some research on funding possibility at a school before deciding to apply for it. This includes contacting current students and recent graduates and asking them how did they fund their education. If you hear favorable funding news (let’s say multiple students tell you that they received some form of funding after reaching the campus), then you can still consider attending this school and hunting for funding after arriving on campus. The downside to this is that you still need to manage and show higher finances for your visa interview since you have no funding to show to the visa officer. Many students take a loan if they cannot show sufficient personal funds and go to the school. There, they start looking for funding and return the loan as soon as they find it. This is what I did because I had not received any financial assistance when I was admitted to UIUC. However, it is a risk and you must do some background research on how likely it is to find funding before making such a decision. Again, if you have shortlisted schools after proper research, you would have applied only to the schools where you can manage the finances.
There are other types of funding that you can look for outside what is offered by the school. These include:
- External Scholarships/Fellowships – You can look for scholarships offered by private organizations external to your school as well. These are given to students with exceptional records and pass some qualifying criteria. To compete for these, you have to fill out a separate application which usually includes writing few essays explaining why you deserve the scholarship and how will you use it. All reputed universities often have a database of merit-based scholarship and fellowship opportunities available to its students.
For example, University of Washington lists it at Student Financial Aid. Other than that, you can search on Internet for opportunities available to you. Scholarships In India 2016, Fellowships In India 2016, Internships In India 2016, Financial Aid For Education 2016, Students Grants For Schools And Colleges, Scholarships 2016 lists a lot of active scholarships in India. Fulbright Program is one of the most reputed scholarships available worldwide on a merit basis. As expected, there is a lot of competition for these awards.
- On-campus jobs – These include helper positions on campus such as the school library, dining hall, housing office, bookstore etc. and allow international students to work up to 20 hours per week. Students working in these jobs are paid hourly (usually sufficient to cover living expenses) and do not get tuition waivers. These are the least preferred form of funding since they do not usually involve building any valuable skills.
- Bank loans – Lastly, if nothing else works out, a student has to look for loans to finance her education. There are a lot of loan schemes now available but most of them are processed only once you receive an admit. Since loan processing takes a long time, it is advisable to start early.
I have covered funding, finances, employment opportunities, application strategies more comprehensively in MS BOOK: Smart Engineer’s complete guide to MS in USA