Home to nearly 4,000 degree-granting post-secondary institutions, the U.S. offers ample opportunity for its citizens as well as immigrants to pursue higher education. Actually, one out of every three students enrolled in post-secondary institutions in the U.S. is a first or second-generation immigrant or an international student who lives temporarily in the country specifically for studying.
If you’d like to join the millions of immigrant and international students currently enrolled in the American higher education system, this guide will tell you what you need to know to achieve your goal.
Do you need a special visa to attend college as a U.S. immigrant?
Yes, United States’ law requires most immigrants to obtain student visas to study in the country. There are three types of international student visas:
- M-1 Visa for studying at trade schools
- F-1 Visa for studying at colleges and universities
- J-1 Visa for participating in cultural exchange programs that include coursework at a college or university
To get an M-1 or F-1 Visa, you need to be able to pay for your education and gain admission to an American post-secondary school. J-1 Visas require acceptance into a cultural exchange program.
Normally, a portion of the fees for participation and tuition are paid for by your country’s government or a nonprofit organization.
Citizens of Canada and Bermuda are usually exempt from the international student visa program and can typically study in the U.S. if they hold a valid passport issued by their home country.
Online vs. on-campus education
Both online and on-campus academic programs are available for most areas of study and are offered through a variety of different types of universities and colleges.
Pros and cons of online study
There are several benefits of online study, especially for people who travel a lot or who work while they will be attending school. The pros include:
- Flexibility: Studying online gives you the ability to travel, so you can see more of the U.S. or return home to visit your family and keep up with your coursework.
- Cost at private institutions: At private universities, in particular, the average cost of an online degree is much less expensive compared to on-campus study.
- Ability to work at your own pace: Many online degree programs are self-paced, giving you the freedom to complete coursework according to your schedule.
The drawbacks of online study include:
- Cost at public institutions: At public universities, the average cost of an online degree is very similar to that for the same degree obtained through on-campus study.
- Accessibility: You can’t typically obtain a student visa for online-only study in the U.S., so this option is only available for immigrants who are U.S. citizens, permanent residents, or green card holders.
- Missing out on the full college experience: Although online courses do often include interaction with peers, studying solely online doesn’t provide the same opportunity to socialize and have the full U.S. college experience.
Pros and cons of on-campus study
On-campus study provides students with unique opportunities to interact with their professors and mentors in the field. In-person interactions with classmates foster collaboration and learning about different perspectives. The pros include:
- Eligibility: You can apply for a student visa to travel to the U.S. and attend on-campus study at an SEVP-certified college or university. On-campus study is also open to immigrants who are U.S. citizens, permanent residents, or green card holders.
- Full college experience: Studying on campus gives you opportunities to attend events, participate in extracurricular activities, and socialize face-to-face with other students.
- Potential for more academic options: Some colleges and universities offer more on-campus degree and certificate programs than online options. Choosing to study in-person can offer you more majors to choose from.
The drawbacks of on-campus study include:
- Set schedule: For on-campus study, you’ll usually attend class lectures 1–5 times per week. The school establishes the schedule, and some courses may only be offered at one time of day. This means you have less control over your schedule.
- Cost: At private universities, you might pay more for an on-campus program.
Community colleges vs. universities
Another important consideration for studying in the U.S. is whether you will attend a community college or a private or public college or university. Here’s how these post-secondary institutions compare to each other.
- Colleges are private and public institutions that grant 4-year bachelor’s degrees and may also have associate degree, certificate, and diploma programs.
- Universities are private and public institutions that grant 4-year bachelor’s degrees and post-graduate degrees like master’s and doctoral degrees. They may also have associate degree, certificate, and diploma programs.
There are public, private, and community options among colleges and universities.
- Public institutions receive funding from state or local governments and may offer reduced tuition for domestic students, which generally includes U.S. citizens, permanent residents, and green card holders
- Private institutions receive funding through trusts and donations rather than from the government. These institutions are usually more expensive to attend.
- Community colleges are cost-efficient public institutions that usually grant certificates, diplomas, and 2-year associate degrees. Nearly half of all college students in the U.S. attend programs at community colleges, and around one-fourth of them are immigrants.
Community colleges tend to be less expensive than 4-year colleges and universities. In addition, they often have more relaxed admission standards that make them more accessible for immigrants.
However, most community colleges do not offer bachelor’s degrees. Depending on your career path, a B.A. or B.S. degree might be required. In that case, you have options.
If you want to transfer to a four-year university or college, you can work with your international student advisor or academic advisor to find out more about deadlines for applying and how your current credits will transfer to your new school. They will also help you address any changes to your visa, if needed.
Financial aid, scholarships & grants for immigrants returning to school
Whether you choose a community college or a four-year school online or on-campus, higher education costs money. Fortunately, there are financial aid opportunities available for students.
Federal student aid
U.S. permanent residents and individuals who hold special immigrant statuses may qualify for federal student aid through the U.S. Department of Education. Federal student aid is needs-based and includes grants that don’t need to be repaid, as well as loans that do require repayment.
State student aid
Some states offer special financial aid programs for immigrants or allow U.S. permanent residents and green card holders to apply for standard state-based student aid. Contact the Department of Education in your state for more information.
Post-secondary institutions may offer discounted tuition, scholarships, or grants for immigrants with demonstrated financial need. Research the institutional aid options on the website of your college or university, or call the bursar’s office to find out more financial aid information.
This program awards scholarships of $5,000–$20,000 to immigrants and their children who plan to attend a public college or university in the U.S. Learn more on their website to find out if you qualify.
Other scholarships and grants
Nonprofit organizations and philanthropic trusts provide thousands of scholarships for students in the U.S., and some of these programs are open to immigrants. The U.S. Department of Labor offers the CareerOneStop scholarship finder to help you quickly search for scholarships.
Other ways to fund your education
In addition to financial aid, you may be able to obtain money for college through the following options below.
- Borrowing money from family and friends
- Applying for private student loans through U.S. financial institutions; College Raptor offers a tool that lets immigrants and non-immigrants quickly find loan programs
- Working on campus at the college or university you will attend in work-study programs
- F-1 student visa holders may also be permitted to work on campus in some circumstances
- Starting a side hustle; however, some student visas do not allow international students to work if it’s not aligned with your major
Have a professional degree in your home country? Here’s how to practice in the U.S.
If you already hold a professional degree from an institution in your home country, you may be eligible to work in your field in the U.S.
To practice law in the U.S., you will need to gain admission to the Bar Association for the state where you intend to work. Each state has its own rules regarding the licensing of immigrant lawyers.
Depending on where you live, you may only need to take the state’s bar exam to become a lawyer in the U.S. if you have a valid law license and a minimum number of years of experience.
Other states may require you to take additional courses. Contact the state bar association for your state for more information.
In the U.S., state departments of education establish the minimum education and training requirements for elementary and secondary school teachers. A bachelor’s degree in education is usually necessary for teacher’s to work in the public school system. Private schools and charter schools have different requirements that may be more lenient.
If you have the required educational background, you may be able to take the teacher certification test for your state. Some states may have additional certification requirements for immigrant teachers, such as extra coursework or letters of reference.
Contact the department of education for your state for more information.
State government agencies issue licenses for nurses in the U.S. The education requirements for nurses vary by position.
Licensed practical and vocational nurses (LPNs and LVNs) normally only need certificates that require 1 year of education, while registered nurses (RNs) must usually hold a 2-year associate or bachelor’s degree in nursing. Most states also require prospective nurses to pass the NCLEX exam administered by the National Council of State Boards of Nursing (NCSBN).
If you currently work as a nurse in your home country, you may be able to become a one in the U.S. simply by passing the NCLEX. Some states may require you to take additional training courses before the exam. Contact your state’s board of nursing for more information.
Physicians and other healthcare practitioners
States establish their own rules regarding the licensing of physicians and other healthcare practitioners. To find out the rules regarding the licensing of immigrant healthcare providers, you’ll need to contact the body in charge of regulating your profession in your state. If you’re not sure which agency to contact, the Department of Labor for your state may be of assistance.
Generally, physicians must receive a bachelor’s degree and a medical degree from an accredited medical school and complete a residency to receive a license. In addition, most states require prospective physicians to pass the United States Medical Licensing Examination (USMLE) Step 1 and Step 2 tests.
Doctors who received their licensing and training outside the U.S. may need to complete additional coursework to qualify for a state-issued license.
Tips for success for nontraditional immigrant students
Nontraditional immigrant students may need to juggle family, work, and school. To succeed as a nontraditional student, try out some of the tips below.
Consider a trade school
Trade schools typically have shorter training programs, allowing you to prepare for a new career in less time. Many schools offer flexible programs for working adults. You can pursue many areas of study, including those listed below.
- Air traffic control
- Allied health like radiation therapy and X-ray technology
- Auto repair
- Computer-aided drafting
- Construction management
- Court reporting
- Database administration
- Dental hygiene
- Electrical technology
- Film editing
- Funeral service technology
- Graphic design
- Heating, ventilation, and air conditioning technology
- Machine technology
- Legal assisting
- Logistics management
- Medical assisting
- Medical billing and coding
Check out the Accrediting Commission of Career Schools and Colleges’ search tool to find trade schools in your area.
Choose a flexible program
Nontraditional immigrant students may benefit from flexible college programs such as:
- Online-only degrees where you take classes virtually
- Hybrid degrees that combine flexible online coursework with in-person learning
- Part-time degree programs that usually allow you to take less than 12 credits of coursework per semester
- Evening-only programs that make it possible to work during the day
- Saturday-only programs where you take classes on Saturdays
Create a budget
Establishing a monthly budget can help you manage your finances while you work and attend school. Not sure where to start? Check out one of the many budgeting apps available.
Enhance your English skills
Many colleges and universities require students to pass the Test of English as a Foreign Language (TOEFL) exam before admission because courses are taught in English. You can pay for in-person or online TOEFL prep classes to prepare for the exam, but it’s also possible to brush up on your English skills on your own.
- Take a Massive Open Online Course (MOOC): These online courses have open enrollment and take large numbers of students. Some classes are free, while others require you to pay a fee to enroll or to receive a certificate of completion. The Open Professional English Network is a good starting point for English language-learning MOOCs.
- Use free online English lessons: Websites like USA Learns, Let’s Talk, and Oxford Online English offer free online English lessons. You can complete an entire program or look for topics of interest.
- Attend courses at a community college: Many community colleges offer in-person and virtual English as a second language courses. Use this search tool to find your local community college.
- Use language-learning apps: Top language-learning apps allow you to study English 24/7 on your mobile device.
Join an organization in your field
Professional organizations related to your chosen profession or your community of origin, like the Philippine Nurses Association of America, can connect you with resources to help you prepare for your new career.
Many of these organizations offer conferences and networking opportunities that you can attend to meet potential employers and mentors. Search your profession and ethnicity on a search engine to find specific organizations that apply to you.