by Laura O’Brien Gatzionis, IECA (Greece) and Linda Magnussen, MBA, IECA (VT)

International student applicants must submit financial documentation that demonstrates the ability to pay for their undergraduate education before they can receive a visa to attend a US college. This additional hurdle is often a confusing step for many families.

Student Visa

International students are required by the US government to have a student visa to attend college in the United States. To apply for that visa, the student must first obtain a certificate of eligibility for nonimmigrant student status. The US academic institution or program that the student will attend must provide that completed form prior to the student’s interview at the local embassy or consulate.

Certification of Finances

First, however, the college is obliged to require proof that the student can afford the cost of attendance. Often known as the certification of finances, this financial documentation is usually requested after a student has been accepted and has made a deposit at the college. But it is becoming more common for this requirement to be included as part of the application process, particularly for institutions that are need-aware for international students.

Colleges may request financial documentation to cover one year of attendance or may require documentation for the full four years typical of an undergraduate degree. Part of the standard required documentation is an original bank letter addressed directly to the college stating that the funds are available. Sufficient financial resources may be a combination of personal funding, parental support, sponsor’s support, finances provided by the student’s home government, loans, and financial scholarships and aid given by the college.

Financial Aid

Families should be aware that if international students do not apply for financial aid as part of the application process, they will probably not be eligible for aid as upperclassmen. It’s important that families understand that requests for financial aid must be made at the time of the original application and that the required documentation to apply for aid varies by college. Because international students are not eligible for federal aid, they may end up receiving little or no financial aid from the United States, depending on the college.

Some colleges that require financial documentation as part of the application process do an excellent job of making that information accessible and obvious by listing it as one of the required steps on the international-student admissions webpage. At many institutions, however, the requirement is less obvious—or nonexistent—and an applicant must conduct his or her own research. We have often found it necessary to contact the admissions office directly to decipher the deadline, the specific requirements, and where the paperwork should be sent.

Forms & Official Documents

Colleges may use their own institutional form or perhaps the more typical College Board International Certification of Finance form. Some institutions will only accept original documents; therefore, the family needs to know in advance what is required because that sensitive paperwork must be sent from abroad to each college that makes the request. Sometimes the required paperwork can be sent by e-mail or fax, but we recommend that it be sent by courier, which has added challenges and costs. Without sufficient guidance, it is often quite difficult for a student to understand which documents are required, when those documents should be filed, to which office they should be sent, and what follow-up is needed to ensure that all documentation has been received and is complete.

IECs who are working with non–US passport holders should be aware that this is a nonstandardized process. Institutions that require financial documentation as part of the application process might consider the application incomplete and decline to evaluate the student’s application if they don’t receive the paperwork by the deadline. We have heard stories of students missing the opportunity to attend college in the United States—even if they were not applying for any financial aid—because they were not aware of this financial requirement.

You may choose to assist your families by researching the schools’ websites and contacting international admissions officers when necessary to create a spreadsheet that includes the diverse requirements. Or you may prefer that families take full responsibility for collecting that information and complying with requirements. In either case, you should be certain to give your clients timely notice about this important part of the application process for international students.

Laura O’Brien Gatzionis can be reached at [email protected].
Linda Magnussen can be reached at [email protected].