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Common Data Set:

The US higher education is a highly regulated and scrutinized sector. The colleges are required to report their student data to federal and state governments as well as gazillions of other places such as college ranking organizations: US News, Peterson's, College Board. Almost all the higher education institutions have Institutional Research (and/or) Assessment offices (IR) that supply this data. Over the years the data providers i.e., higher education institutions and data consumers have agreed on a set of data reports called, Common Data Set (CDS). The goal is to improve the quality and accuracy of information provided to all involved in a student’s transition into higher education, as well as to reduce the reporting burden on data providers. The CDS provides a comprehensive picture of a college or university. It is often published on its website. The CDS is organized into,   A. General Information B. Enrollment and Persistence (including retention and graduation rates) C. First-Time, First-Year (Freshman) Admission D. Transfer Admission E. Academic Offerings and Policies F. Student Life G. Annual Expenses (i.e., tuition and fees) H. Financial Aid I. Instructional Faculty and Class Size J. Degrees Conferred. Many colleges and universities publish multiple years of CDS, for example Fordham University publishes 10 years worth of CDS on its website. The CDS provides a wealth of data for families and students to help their decision making process. For example, if you want to know the average GPA or SAT/ACT score of the first year students enrolled in a college or university you are interested in, CDS is the place to go.

Need-Blind and Need-aware Admission Process:

Until a few years ago, admissions and financial aid offices in most colleges and universities operated as separate and independent entities. In fact, it was frowned upon if the financial aid information of a student is shared with the admissions office, and if an admit decision was made, in-part based on the financial situation of the student. Though this is still the case with the "need-blind" institutions, it is not the case with the vast majority of colleges and universities right. There are a number of need-blind institutions with substantial endowment funds that would satisfy 100% of the financial need of an admitted student (Amherst, Bowdoin, Brown, Columbia, Davidson, Harvard, MIT, Pomona, Princeton, Stanford, Swarthmore, University of Chicago etc.). In other words, if an applicant is admitted to one of these institutions, his/her full financial need is borne by the institution ("free ride"). In general, endowment return is earmarked for institutional aid. These are all private, not-for-profits. (Note, University of Chicago is not a public university.) Anyhow, an admission counselor is capable of deciphering an applicant's financial situation by looking at the application. Therefore, "need-blind" admission may be an illusion. There are pretty good liberal arts colleges such as Connecticut College, Trinity College in Connecticut that provides 100% demonstrated financial need. In this case, a family is expected to provide an amount equals to their expected family contribution (EFC). A typical a private, not-for-profit utilizes a "need-aware" or "need-sensitive" approach. In other words, the admission decision is made, in-part based on the student's financial need. In such an approach, the prospective admits are ranked in ascending of their financial need and the list is cut when the allocated financial aid budget is met. A portion of students, who are just below the cut are placed in a wait list (WL). These are students who fill the gap when some accepted students deny their acceptance or choose to go somewhere else. In this model, if a student has a large financial need, he/she is unlikely to be admitted even though the student might meet the college's admission criteria (test scores, GPA, grades, APs, ECs etc). So, my advise is, don't be disappointed if you are not admitted to your number one school, there is a lot going on in the admission decision. The school that admits you really wants you there.

US Colleges & Universities that Offer Financial Aid to International Students

Some of these colleges are Ivy League and top liberal arts colleges. All of them are highly selective and prestigious higher education institutions in the US. All of them are private non-profits, except for University of Wisconsin – Madison.

Amherst College, Bates College, Barnard College, Berea College, Brandeis University, Brown University, Bryn Mawr College, Bucknell University, Carleton College, Clark UniversityColgate UniversityCollege of Wooster, Columbia University, Cornell University, Dartmouth College, Davidson College, Emory University, Franklin & Marshall College, Gettysburg College, Grinnell College, Harvard University, Lafayette College, Macalester College, Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Mt. Holyoke College, Occidental College, Oberlin College, Pitzer College, Pomona College, Princeton University, Reed College, Rice University, Smith College, Stanford University, St John’s College, Swarthmore College, Trinity CollegeTufts University, Union College, University of ChicagoUniversity of Notre Dame, University of RochesterUniversity of PennsylvaniaUniversity of Wisconsin – Madison, Vanderbilt UniversityVassar College,   Washington and Lee, Washington University in St. LouisWellesley College, Wesleyan University, Williams College, Yale University. Please note, while this is a long list, it is not a full list of US colleges & universities that offer financial aid to international students.

In 2022 "You are welcome here" campaign, participating colleges and universities will each offer two annual, renewable scholarships that cover a minimum of 50% tuition to selected international undergraduates dedicated to furthering the #YouAreWelcomeHere message. (

US Colleges with Free Tuition

The demand free college tuition is an on-going debate in the USA. The Excelsior Scholarship, in combination with other student financial aid programs, allows students to attend a SUNY (State University of New York) or CUNY (City University of New York) college tuition-free. The program covers tuition for eligible SUNY and CUNY students who are residents of New York. For the 2021-22 academic year, families who earned $125,000 or less in the tax year 2019 are eligible to apply. While free college is always a controversial topic, following colleges have already established tuition-free policies. Most of these colleges are somewhat less selective with a few notable exceptions such as United States Coast Guard Academy, United States Military Academy and United States Naval Academy. Some are religiously-affiliated and/or veteran-focused, and some are technical/vocational colleges. The free tuition policies may not be applicable to international students.

Alice Lloyd College (KY), The Apprentice School (VA), Barclay College (KS), Berea College (KY), College of the Ozarks (MO), Curtis Institute of Music (PA), Deep Springs College (CA), Haskell Indian Nations University (KS), United States Air Force Academy (CO), United States Coast Guard Academy (CT), United States Merchant Marine Academy (NY), United States Military Academy (NY), United States Naval Academy (MD), University of New Hampshire, Warren Wilson College (NC), Webb Institute (NY), Williamson College of the Trades (PA).

Higher Education Institutions:

There are public institutions such as University of Connecticut or University of Maryland. These are large, public, land grant institutions. Every 50 states have one of them. In addition, states may have its own state university system, for an example, ECSU, CCSU, WCSU and SCSU in Connecticut and SUNY in New York. These state institutions are much smaller in size, and less expensive than the public land grant institutions. There are private not-for-profit institutions such as Harvard, Yale, Princeton, Columbia, Wesleyan University and University of Southern California. There are four-year, liberal arts colleges that are much smaller and expensive such as Swarthmore Colege and Amherst College. Some of the institutions are religiously affiliated such as Villanova University and Fordham University. Then, there are private for-profit institutions such as University of Phoenix and DeVry University. The private for-profit universities are known to use aggressive marketing tactics to attract students. Private not-for-profit institutions can be divided into three categories: highly selective (Yale), selective (Fordham University) and less selective (University of New Haven).  It is very easy to get admission to a less selective institution. These institutions offer four-year college degrees. There are institutions that offer two-year associate degrees, which are called community colleges, such as Gateway Community College. The community colleges are the least expensive; therefore, some students prefer to enroll there first and transfer to a four-year university later.

College Sticker Price:

What the college or university publicizes in US News and college guides such as Petersons and Barrons as its tuition and fees is the sticker price. However, only a very small percentage of the incoming freshmen pay the sticker price because most of them would qualify for need-based, merit or a combination of it based scholarships and grants that reduce their sticker price. This process is called discounting. For an example, if the sticker price (tuition and fees) is $50,000 and the institution offers 50% discount, you pay only $25,000 + Cost of Attendance (COA), say, $15,000 = $40,000 per one year, and $160,000 in four years. In my estimate it a bit too much. I would say no student should carry a debt burden of more than $100,000 when they graduate. Many parents want their children to receive the best education possible; therefore, they are ready to carry a large amount of debt.

Cost of Attendance (COA):

It is the total cost that you will have to bear for attending a particular college or university. It includes tuition and fees, room and board (meals), books, supplies, transportation and other personal expenses. The cost of attendance is also referred as the budget. This is the figure that a student should be looking at. COA may differ from student to student depending on resident or commuter status, dependent (with parents or guardian) or independent student (all by himself) status, on or off campus residency etc. The low interest student loans such as Federal Perkins Loan or Stafford loan cover the budget.

Expected Family Contribution (EFC):

EFC is how much the family can afford to pay. In other words, it is the sum a family is supposed to pitch in. There are two methods of calculating EFC: IM - institutional method or FM - federal method based on how the family applied for financial aid. If the family applies via FAFSA, the institutions use the federal method (FM). The IM is developed by the College Board to be used with their CSS Profile financial aid application. The equation and forms to compute EFC:FM is publicly available. There are several sites that offers EFC:FM calculators. The general equation is Cost of Attendance (COA) - (EFC:FM) = Financial Need. If you file taxes by using Turbo Tax or Tax Act the application prompts for FAFSA which includes EFC:FC worksheet. Generally, the family may have to bear the EFC if the student is not receiving any merit-based (quality) financial aid. The Ivy League schools such as Columbia, Yale or Harvard provide 100% of students financial need, "need-blind admission". Since they give admission based on student's merit, Ivy League schools award only need-based aid. If the parent's income (Adjust Gross Income or AGI) is under a certain threshold ($59,999 in 2018-19), Harvard pays everything, including room and board. This gives rise to the idea that it may be better, after all, not to apply to Ivy League, if the family is in a high income bracket and the student has good SAT/SAT scores, because you wouldn't get merit-based aid. In these circumstances, if you apply to a university which awards merit-based aid, you may be better off, financially. On the other hand, Ivy schools offer a unique and the most challenging education experience. They also have exceptional alumni networks when it comes to placing their graduates in jobs. Therefore, it is a no-brainer that you can easily land on a job if you attend a top-rated school like an Ivy League school.

Discount Rate:

The equation for discount rate is, institutional aid (scholarships and grants, not loans) divided by tuition. A student should look at both the sticker price and the average discount rate of the college or university he is applying. According the NACUBO the average tuition discount rate for first-time freshmen has reached 48.6% in 2015-16 academic year. That means, in many institutions the incoming freshmen are paying half tuition! Rising discount rate, while detrimental to schools, is good for the families because their ultimate debt burden (if apply for loans) depends on it.

Net Price and Net Price Calculator (NPC):

There is doubt that the college tuition is rising. With the “high sticker price and high discount” model used by colleges and universities, it is often confusing to figure out what is the actual out-of-pocket cost. To combat this confusion, the US Department of Education required Higher Education Institutions that receive federal money (that means almost all of them!) to publish a “Net Price Calculator” on their websites starting 2011. After a series of questions, the NPC is supposedly tell you what the out-of-pocket cost of a student in similar circumstances is going to be. Most institutions offer short and long versions of NPC. For an example, the Harvard and Yale short version of NPC takes only a few minutes to complete. If you are thinking of holding the institution accountable for what is produced by their NPC, that might not fly well though; therefore, it is prudent to consider NPC as an estimate. Having said that, it is a reasonable estimate (it is better than no estimate) and NPC should be accurate to about $1000-$5,000. If you have decided on your short list, you should always run the NPC for each of those schools.

Merit-based or Need-based Institutional Financial Aid:

In describing financial aid, there is different perspectives in private vs public colleges and universities--the two main types of US higher education institutions. The institutional aid is the best thing that is offered by a private college with a high sticker price. It doesn't make much of a difference in a public college which is relatively less expensive. The competition for financial aid money is high in private colleges and universities than publics. It makes private colleges more affordable. Privates also offer mobility that they do not distinguish between in-state or out-of-state tuition as do many of the publics. The in-state tuition at a public college or university is lower than out-of-state tuition. Because of this reason, privates are more attractive to international students who must pay out-of-state tuition in publics. In addition, for the price, privates offer small classes, personalized service, more student-faculty interactions, and job placement.

The Ivy-league colleges and universities such as Yale, Harvard, Princeton, Colombia, and University of Pennsylvania presume that all their applicants are of equal quality; therefore, they do not offer merit-based aid (aid based on how good the student is: SAT/ACT, HS GPA, Nation Merit Scholarship, extra curricular (EC) etc). If a student is admitted to an Ivy-league, the student's full  unmet financial need is borne by the college or university. If student's family do not have any income to bear the COA or it is blow a certain threshold, it will be paid in full or a "full ride." In contrast, a student must receive a presidential scholarship in a private for a "full ride." The AGI threshold is $59,999 for 2018-19 for Harvard, so if a student's AGI is below this threshold, he will get a "full ride" on the courtesy of Harvard's 36.6 billion endowment (2018-19)!

I remember one of my professors (a good friend of mine) moved to USA because of his child was admitted an Ivy-league. He was a US permanent resident, and even though his wife could legally work, she didn't because, if so, the AGI would push them over the threshold and make them pay some portion of the tuition. Why someone would earn $30,000 and pay $20,000 in tuition when she can stay home, chill out and save $20,000?

When a financial aid "package" is offered in March, the institutional aid (not loans) is broken down by grants and scholarships. The college or university commit the package for four years. Some scholarships such as the Deans is tied to maintaining a high GPA. In certain colleges and universities, when the tuition and fees increase by a smaller percent (3-4%) in the subsequent years, the package may not change. Therefore, families must be prepared to cough out a smaller amount of dollars (or loan) each year to fill the difference between tuition and fees and the financial aid (including loans).  

Private college and universities, other than Ivys provide merit-based financial aid, in addition to need-based (or combination thereof); therefore, if you are very a good student in a high income bracket, it makes sense to select a private rather than an Ivy, get a very good financial aid package, and graduate with a low student loan debt. Perhaps, you can attend an Ivy for graduate studies (Ph.D. or Master's). Definitely, the Ivy's connections and network make it make it much easier to land on a good job after graduating. However, in the eyes of an employer, if a candidate has solid credentials from a good university, technically, it is what matters, if you want to get a job. And surviving in an Ivy with equally good students, isn't a walk in the park either, however, it gives you a very good stature in the society.

Free Application for Student Financial Aid (FAFSA)

FAFSA is mandatory for those who are seeking federal student aid or those who are applying for need-based financial aid from colleges and universities. Non-residents of the US are not eligible for federal student loans, but US permanent residents are eligible. However, filing for College Board's CSS Profile instead of FAFSA may be required if the university offers need-based financial aid to the international students. Many universities do offer need-based aid. The federal government opens the FAFSA application in October (previously January) of each year using PPY (previous previous year tax information). However, the financial condition of the family gathered through parents tax filings in FAFSA is somewhat limited. The colleges and universities use the financial information to compute financial need by using federal method (FM) if the student files FAFSA or institutional method (IM), if the student files the CSS Profile. Many private institutions require financial aid applicants to complete a CSS Profile to get a broader overview of the families financial health. If an applicant is interested in institutional aid or student loans, including work study, he/she must complete either FAFSA or CSS profile. Sometimes, with the "need-aware" admission policies, a student with substantial financial need is may not receive admission.

College Board CSS/Financial Aid PROFILE

CSS Profile provides a broader and more accurate picture of the families financial condition. Those who do not wish to apply for federal aid (FAFSA), CSS Profile is the alternative. It requires detailed financial information, including income from other sources. If a college or university wants to offer financial aid to international students who may not be able to file FAFSA and whose financial information may not be reliable or credible, CSS Profile provides a solution. Interestingly, there is a slight regional bias on completing the profile in the US. I might add that there is a socio-economic bias as well. If a student is in need for aid, it makes perfect sense (or is required) to apply for FAFSA or CSS Profile or both because that allows colleges and universities to compute student's financial need using above FM or IM methods. It is impossible to put a dollar figure into someone's income, thus for universities and colleges this is the most equitable solution to gauge how much a family can afford. Families are also getting very smart in masking their financial well-being, making it challenging for colleges and universities to distribute institutional aid dollars in an equitable manner. Generally, admission decisions are released in March, and come April, you can and should appeal your financial aid package. If you have competing offers that helps a lot because some colleges and universities match competing offers by default.

College Board SAT (SAT)

Some admission officers love standardize testing while others hate it as a measure of student quality. In addition, multiple testing can be costly for families. Though the application fees is not substantial, the test preparation can be expensive. There is no limit how many times a student can sit for a test, and a student can also opt to submit a test score or not. If three test scores are submitted, generally the highest verified total (HVT) is considered. It means the highest of the each component (Reading/Writing or Math) in each of the sittings. As a result, some colleges and universities are moving toward test-neutral admission policies, making standardize tests such as SAT and ACT optional. SAT changed its format in 2016 from 2400 scale to 1600 scale. The new scale includes SAT Math and Evidence Based Reading and Writing. Last time SAT changed its format was 2015 when it introduced Analytical Reading in place of SAT Verbal. SAT is still the most popular standardize test in the United State though its popularity is on the decline. There is a movement to forgo standardize testing and use high school GPA instead. Even though GPA is used, if a student submits SAT or ACT scores as well, it will definitely carry some weight in the admission decision--the more the merrier.

ACT Test for Students (ACT)

ACT is popular with some regions of the country. Some research say ACT is a bit biased test toward more effluent applicants. ACT tries to mimic high school education by offering subject tests such as mathematics, English, reading and science. ACT is gaining popularity as an standardize test. Since the SAT is no longer offering subject tests, ACT has become the alternative.

US News and World Report College Ranking

College ranking is like the government -- we hate it, yet, we cannot live without. Colleges and universities compete with each other for good ranking. The college presidents pay very close attention to the variables used by US News such as retention and graduation rates, student-faculty ratio, faculty resources, alumni giving, counselor rating, selectivity and financial resources and try to improve them. The Institutional Research offices are aware of the weights each of the factors so the rank the college it might receive is fairly predictable. If you are applying for college I highly recommend subscribing to it during the application process, and read about the schools that interest you. There are other rankings such as New York Times, Wall Street Journal, Princeton Review.

US New and World Report High School Ranking

Measuring the quality of a high school is very challenging, but is is doable. The data that is used to rank colleges are available in the public domains such as IPEDS. The colleges and universities are required to supply their data to multitude of surveys including IPEDS. Since their student receive student loans from the federal government, there are mandatory reporting requirements. It is a different ballgame with high schools. High schools do not have "institutional research" offices to respond to survey requests. And, the quality of the high school is notoriously correlated to the median household income of the school district, meaning high income school districts have quality high schools than medium to low income districts. The US News had started ranking high schools. The methodology which is designed in collaboration with RTI International is available. If universities and colleges shy away from standardized testing to rely on high school GPA, then, the high school ranking can play a major role.

Chronicle of Higher Education

Some folks in higher education starts their day by reading the Chronicle. After doing this for years, I have realized Chronicle is a bit unbalanced that it requires me to consume another news source such as IHE below. Nevertheless, it provides a dose of demoralizing news to began the day. I feel Chronicle, at times, attempts to give an audience, theory or research that is a bit biased or controversial. It may be the spirit of free speech. Nevertheless I read it as it provides good overall picture of the current controversies surrounding the higher education. Chronicle articles do not allow user comments. The Chronicle needs subscription to read.

Inside Higher Ed

IHE is pretty good. Unlike Chronicle IHE is a free newsletter. The comments on its articles are very enjoyable, and can learn a lot about the psychic and trends of higher education by reading them. Unlike Chronicle IHE maintains a somewhat good balance of liberal and conservative views. Perhaps, someone in the higher education should read both Chronicle and IHE, if they have time, to see both sides to the controversy or development.

College Confidential

CC claims it is the worlds largest college forum. It provides inside scoop of schools of your interest. It provide a medium to learn more about a college or university. If you are interested in Harvard, you can enter Harvard's forum where prospective/current/former students and families discuss about various aspects of Harvard such as residential halls, campus life, entertainment, sports, classes, curriculum, internships, study abroad, jobs. In short, it covers the whole nine yards. I would recommend any student interested in a particular university to enter its forum and read comments. It would be immensely useful to make a decision. You can also post a question and get responses. There is an army of alumni, parents of past and present students who love to share their stories or provide insights. I have seen prospective students connect to other prospective students and current students via CC to get a better picture of the place they may spend a good four years of their life.

College Navigator

This is a tool developed by the US Federal Government to help you explore and compare features of different schools.

College Scorecard

This tool developed by the US Federal Government help you determine if a school is the right fit for you based on cost, student body and the value of your degree.

WES International Credential Evaluation

National Merit Scholarship Program

High School students who meet published program entry and participation requirements enter the National Merit Scholarship Program by taking the Preliminary SAT (PSAT) /National Merit Scholarship Qualifying Test (NMSQT) based on a schedule at the high school. A student may take PSAT or NMSQT as a juniors in most cases. Some schools offer the test in grades 8, 9, 10 as well. However, PSAT 8 (grade 8), PSAT 9 (grade 9) or PSAT 10 (grade 10) scores are not considered for entry to the National Merit Scholarship Program. 

College Board PSAT

Like the SAT, the PSAT 8/9 includes reading, math, and writing and language sections. The PSAT 10 is very similar to the SAT, with reading, math, and writing and language sections. PSAT 8/9 and 10 are good preparations for SAT. Some colleges and universities start to track prospective students based on their PSAT scores. The College Board that offers PSAT and SAT has teamed up with Khan Academy to offer SAT/PSAT tutorials and practices.

The Education Advisory Board (EAB)

The EAB is a Non-profit organization. It has become a very large conglomerate with its purchase of The Royall and Company (higher education marketing with expensive products) and Hardwick Day (enrollment and financial aid leveraging modeling experts) and other small units. It acts as consultants in higher education (mainly for the private non-profit sector). The EAB recently acquired a struggling data analytics company Rapid Insight. EAB seems to be planning to incorporate its product Navigate with Rapid Insight's analytics tool, Veera. Based on the manner EAB is expanding, I am at lost to understand its business function or mission. It looks like EAB is attempting to dump the massive amount of student data it had gathered from its 3000+ member schools into an analytical tool to perform large data analysis. However, EAB does helpful research and marketing for its member institutions. EAB research has uncovered that when the "unmet" need (amount which is not covered by institutional aid) is more than $20,000 for a university with a cost of attendance of $80,000, a student is likely to attrition.

College Board Advanced Placement (AP) Exams

AP gives students the chance to prepare for college-level work while they're still in high school by taking AP course and AP exams in number of subjects such as Math, Science, Biology, History etc. And through taking AP Exams, students can earn college credit and placement in college classes. However, transferring AP credits into college is not a walk in the park. The college must accept to receive AP credits in lieu of college credits. But AP credits may help fulfill some prerequisite to advance coursework in college. One clear cut way to earn college credits is, if the student can, enroll in college courses while in high school. The high school is a very busy period for a student, and taking college courses at the same time is only suitable for a few exceptionally talented students.

Human Capital Research Corporation (HCRC)

Maguire Associates


Technolutions (Slate)