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US college costs can be broken down mainly into the following categories: application fees, tuition, books, test fees (SAT/GRE/TOEFL), test preparation fees, other administrative fees, housing, visa fees, food, health insurance and transportation (both to get to the US and local transportation costs once in the US). Many of these fees are start up expenditures and are neither trivial nor refundable. Good examples here are the application fee, your test fees or the US visa fee. Here's a four year graphic for Texas A & M, a famous public school in College Station, Texas.
As you can see, the two largest components of US college education are tuition fees and living expenses (housing and food). We will spare you the burden of describing the latter but focus on the former!
Credit Hours and Tuition Fees
A credit hour simply represents one hour of class per week for one term or semester. Most US schools break up an academic year into semesters (Fall, Spring, Summer) and each semester generally is 16 weeks long. For example, the Fall semester typically starts the last week of August and runs through the third week of December.
Let's say you sign up for a class that awards you 3 Semester Credit Hours (SCH). What this means is that for the next 16 weeks, you will meet your professor in class (lecture or lab) for 3 hours a week. Perhaps you meet twice a week for a 1 hour 20 minute class; or you meet for a full long 3-hour class in the evening (with two 10-minute breaks included). The idea is that you will receive 16 x 3 = 48 hours of instruction for that class throughout the semester. If your semester is shorter (as in the Summer when there are fewer weeks in the calendar), you will simply end up meeting for more classes during the week.
Colleges charge their fees based on credit hours. If the out-of-state tuition costs for a semester hour are $400, it means that you, as an international student, will pay $1,200 to sign up for this 3 SCH class. Note that at US Public universities, residents who live in the state are provided huge discounts in tuition costs of up to 50%, sometimes more. That is, for the same class, your friend who sits next to you and has lived in the state with his family for many years may only pay $200 per credit hour for a total cost of only $600. This differential pricing is annoying but unfortunately a fact of US academic life.
We would like to repeat what we said in Step 5. As a rule, international students do not qualify for in-state tuition - even during the second year of study. Some people mislead incoming students by insisting that if a person can work as a summer intern for three months, he can claim in-state tuition rates for the second year since the person paid taxes during employment. This is wrong. Most states require people to have paid taxes for at least one year before they can qualify for preferential treatment. Private schools do not discriminate in their fees - all students, resident, non-resident or international pay the same fees.
We now know how much tuition you will pay to complete a single class. But how much will you spend to earn a full degree? A typical four-year BA/BS degree will require you to complete 120 credit hours. So, at $400 per credit hour, this works out to $48,000 for the entire degree - approximately $12,000 per year.
Some schools do the math for you and publish fees for the semester (or year) assuming that you will complete 15 credit hours per semester/30 credit hours a year. For example, the University of Texas in Dallas (a Public university) charges in-state tuition of $5,903 for the Fall semester but an out-of-state tuition of $15,189 per year - a discount of 61% for residents.
What if you are interested in Graduate School to earn a MS/ME degree? Luckily the principle is the same. You pay by the credit hour. Each class is typically 3 SCH (some, like a Masters thesis could be 6 SCH). Most MS degrees are awarded if you complete 36 SCH - that is, 12 Masters level courses if you don't pursue a thesis. At UT Dallas, an international student pursuing a MS degree would pay $4,138 per course - and nearly $50,000 for a 12-course Masters degree.
Credit Hour Transfers
Most colleges and universities honor credit hours earned at other colleges and universities, with some limitations. For an MS degree, up to 9 credit hours earned at another US institution could be transferred although some schools limit this to just 6 credit hours. What this means is that if you attend University A in the Fall semester and sign up for three classes (each with three credit hours), you could potentially transfer to University B for the Spring semester with all those 9 credit hours in tact. Your new school will recognize those hours but won't assign a grade to them when you receive your degree.
For BA/BS degrees, transfer programs especially from 2-year community colleges are a lot more lenient and well defined. In other words, you could attend a 2-year community college where tuition rates are much lower and complete up to 60 credit hours - half the needed credit hours to graduate - and transfer all those credits to a 4-year college. This is a Core Idea which we will exploit to lower your costs and improve ROI.
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