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Funding your American Education

By Farooq A. Kperogi, Ph.D. Twitter:  @farooqkperogi   The questions that my last week’s write-up on American education provoked f...

By Farooq A. Kperogi, Ph.D.
Twitter: @farooqkperogi
The questions that my last week’s write-up on American education provoked from readers can be thematized into two: questions that sought information on how to finance one’s education in America and questions about whether holders of the Juris Doctor (JD) degree can prefix the title “Dr.” to their names. I will respond to the first set of questions this week and the second set next week.

Let me start with how to finance undergraduate education in America.  American citizens and legal permanent residents (“Green Card” holders are classified as “legal permanent residents”) have a variety of options to fund their education. But I will talk about three here.  

People from well-heeled homes, of course, directly pay their tuition fees. That's the first option. But such people are in the minority. University education in the United States is inordinately pricey. For example, it costs $$39,849 (that is, about 6.3 million naira) a year to attend Harvard University. (Yale University, another Ivy League university in the league of Harvard, costs over $40,000). 

Good public universities (that is, universities owned by state governments; there are no federal universities in America) charge between $27,000 and $30,000 (that is, between 4.4 million naira and 4.7 million naira) in tuition per year. Low-end public universities could charge as low as $10,902(about 1.7 million) in tuition per annum.  Note that these figures exclude accommodation and living expenses.

As you can probably guess, more than 70 percent of Americans who attend private and public universities don’t pay tuition fees directly from their pockets. Many fund their education through financial aid and student loans from their government. No application is turned down. The loans are repaid piecemeal once students graduate and have a job.  

Another popular source of funding for undergraduate education is merit- and need-based scholarships. In the state of Georgia, for instance, they have what’s called HOPE Scholarship (HOPE stands for “Helping Outstanding Pupils Educationally) that pays most of the tuition fees for students who have a B average in their high school GPA and maintain same throughout their undergraduate education. Students who drop below a B average will be excluded from benefiting from the scholarship. Unlike financial aid or student loans, it is free and not repayable upon graduation. 

Almost every state in the United States has the equivalent of this program. Of course, to be a beneficiary, you not only have to be an American citizen or a legal permanent resident, you also have to be a state “resident,” which means you or your parents have to have lived and paid taxes in the state for at least one year prior to enrolling in a university located in the state.

As it should be obvious by now, non-Americans have few, if any, options to finance their education outside of paying directly from their pockets. But that’s for undergraduate education. Graduate education is an entirely different ball game.

In America, very few people use their personal funds to finance their graduate education. This fact is as true for American citizens and legal permanent residents as it is for non-Americans. Graduate education is funded, for the most part, by universities. The exceptions are professional degrees like MBA, JD, MD (Doctor of Medicine), etc.; students enrolled in these degrees must either pay their way or get student loans. (President Obama finished paying off his student loans for his JD and bachelor’s degrees only in 2007, that is, 24 years after his bachelor’s degree, 16 years after his law degree, and one year before he became president!)

Most universities here hardly admit students into their academic master’s and Ph.D. programs if they have no resources to finance them. That’s why admission to graduate studies is very competitive and why not every qualified applicant gets accepted. Compare that to the UK where almost anyone with a bachelor’s degree, any bachelor’s degree, AND the capacity to pay steep tuition fees is admitted to graduate programs. I am not saying this to disparage UK graduate education. I only want to point out that private and public universities in America (NOT for-profit American universities, mind you) don’t expect people to fund their graduate education. This used to be the case even in the UK until the 1970s. (Note that it is harder to get funded for a master's program than it is for PhD program).

OK, there are basically three sources of funding for graduate education here. The first is graduate teaching assistantship. It is awarded to applicants who have high GRE scores, an impressive undergraduate GPA, relevant work history, and capacity to teach. People awarded graduate assistantships often teach lower-level undergraduate courses under the supervision of a senior professor. For their work, their tuition fee (which runs into thousands of dollars, that is, millions of naira) is waived. In addition, they get a monthly stipend (which adds up to a decent amount when converted into naira) to help with living expenses. (Monthly stipends for teaching and other kinds of assistantships are often sufficient to support just one person. If you want to bring your family, you have to look for additional support.)

Most Ph.D. programs, in fact, require that doctoral students teach undergraduate students in the course of their studies.

People who have no capacity to teach but who have great potential to succeed in graduate studies are granted research assistantships--if they qualify. This requires the beneficiaries to assist professors with their research in exchange for a full or partial tuition waiver and a monthly stipend. The funding for the research assistantship can either come directly from the department where a student is enrolled or from a generous research grant won by a professor. Research assistantships are more common in the physical sciences than they are in the social sciences and the humanities.

The third source of funding for graduate education, especially for doctoral studies, is fellowships. A fellowship is money granted by a university or a foundation or other agency to support advanced study or research. (Note that not all universities have fellowships). Prospective graduate students competitively apply for a limited number of fellowships each year, and they are often awarded to applicants with high GRE scores, excellent undergraduate or graduate GPA, compelling research proposals, etc. 

Fellowships pay for the entire cost of students’ graduate education plus a generous monthly stipend. Best of all: beneficiaries are not required to do anything in exchange for the tuition waiver and stipend—unlike teaching and research assistantships. They only need to be “in good standing,” which means they must never fall below a B average in the course of their doctoral coursework. (This is true, by the way, for all graduate students in all American universities, whether or not they receive financial support from their schools).

How do you know which type of funding to apply for? Well, the answer is simple: check the websites of the universities you are applying to. They usually list the kinds of funding they have available for students, including non-American students. Applicants wishing to be considered for financial support are usually required to apply early. So check the deadlines and send inquiries to graduate program coordinators.

I hope my readers find this helpful.

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