Every day for nearly a month, Javed Shaikh, now a graduate student in biomedical engineering, waited in line at his local branch of the Punjab National Bank in India. While others queued to cash paychecks or buy home insurance, Shaikh returned to the bank each day in hopes of obtaining a student loan.
Shaikh had finished his undergraduate degree in India and gained admission to USC in spring 2010, but a barrier stood between him and his education: the onerous process of applying for a commercial bank loan.
“There was a financing problem,” Shaikh said. “Getting a loan, you have to spend days and stay there for the banks and go through the formalities, [like] lots of policies and long documents.”
Released this month, the annual “Open Doors” report from the Institute of International Education once again named USC the leading university in international student enrollment, but getting to USC isn’t always an easy task for international students, as USC meets 0 percent of international financial need.
In the 2010-11 academic year, 63 percent of international students studying in the United States were self- or family-funded, according to Open Doors data. Though 23 percent received full or nearly full support from U.S. universities in the form of doctoral studentships or other merit-based scholarships, foreign funding sources outweighed domestic ones almost three to one.
When a prospective domestic student visits the USC Financial Aid website, he or she is directed to a bevy of resources including scholarships, loans, need-based grants and federal work-study. International students find their options much more restricted: Merit scholarships, limited work and private financing comprise the smorgasbord.
For Shaikh, relying on the local bank for a loan, which falls under the category of private financing, was the only option, and this meant delaying the start of his graduate education.
The days at the bank turned into a month. Many days, his father came in and waited with him, and together they met with managers who would point out missing requirements on a lengthy checklist of legal forms. Finally, Shaikh had to defer his admission by a semester because a property mortgage paper needed for collateral would not go through.
Shaikh said he did not approach USC’s Office of Admissions, Financial Aid Office, Office of International Services or Office of Globalization as he tried to navigate his funding obstacle course. But even if he had, he likely would not have found much help.
Part of the reason the school provides limited information on finances for international students is that international students must show proof of financial support before admission, according to Tom McWhorter, dean of financial aid at USC.
A federal law stipulates international applicants must submit a bank or sponsor letter showing they have sufficient funds to cover tuition and living expenses for the first nine months of study. Students studying under the J-1 or F-1 temporary non-immigrant student visa do not qualify for any need-based financial aid at USC.
Anthony Bailey, associate provost of global initiatives, said the USC Office of Global Initiatives supports recruiting initiatives abroad but the focus is mostly on admissions questions, not financial questions. Students who need financial help are directed to the Office of Admission and then rerouted to the Financial Aid Office.
Patrick Moore, assistant dean of loans at the Financial Aid Office, summarized the university’s response to loan questions from international applicants: “We tell them to call banks.”
McWhorter also said the only role the Financial Aid Office plays in the international student loan process is to certify valid student loans from domestic lenders.
Nirat Patel, a graduate student studying green technologies, said that, for international students, U.S. financial aid is “a complicated process for someone who doesn’t have a relationship [with the United States].”
Patel has loans from the State Bank of India. As in Shaikh’s case, Patel’s parents were heavily involved in helping him secure the loan.
“The first thing the bank looks at is, is the parent capable of taking care of the loan?” Patel said. “Then they look at the prospects of the degree, your grades, and so forth.”
Patel does not need to repay his loan until he finds a job. But if a year or two after graduation he is still unemployed, according to a timetable set by the bank, the parent who serves as guarantor will have to pay back the loan.
The situation can be different for students from other countries. Haowang Wong, a graduate student in electrical engineering and president of the Chinese Students and Scholars Association, said foreign students might appear to lack financial need because [United States] higher education has an “only the rich need apply” image.
Though study abroad loans exist in China, Wong said students hesitate to use them.
“Most Chinese people wouldn’t borrow money from other people,” Wong said. “If they can afford it, they’ll come to the U.S., but if not, then they won’t.”
Wong also noted that cultural inclinations can sometimes get in the way.
“Chinese students won’t [tell] you if they don’t have money because it’s a sensitive topic,” Wong said.
For some international students, cultural taboos against borrowing because of the sheer difficulty of obtaining a loan mean their attendance at USC depends on scholarship availability.
Ting Lye, a junior studying business administration and neuroscience, is a Malaysian citizen who applied from the United Kingdom.
“I couldn’t borrow money from England,” Lye said. “For Malaysia, it was pretty hard because I didn’t do any of my schooling there.”
Lye ultimately selected USC because it offered merit-based scholarships, unlike Ivy League universities.
Rebecca Petersen, an adviser in the Office of International Services, said cases like Lye’s and Shaikh’s are common.
“It’s not a matter of their attitudes toward loans, but their access to them,” she said.