A USC international student says she is struggling to pay for college after an unexpected family situation

She said the financial aid office can’t help her due to its university policy.

Meng Ru, a student from China, says she feels uncertain about her future at USC. A sophomore majoring in accounting, Ru is doing well academically and said she has a lot of friends, but she has been torn apart by her financial situation due to an unexpected family situation.

She wants to continue her education at USC, but, two years after her father suffered a stroke, she is struggling to find the means to continue paying for it. And unlike American students, Ru doesn't have access to need-based aid from the university.

At USC, international students do not qualify for need-based financial aid, according to the websites of the USC Financial Aid Office and USC Admission. They can only get merit-based scholarships, jobs and private loans as financial assistance, albeit with limitations. For example, Ru fits the criteria of the limited choices on the scholarship list.

Over the past three weeks, Annenberg Media reached out to USC multiple times for comments from its financial aid office and Office of International Services, or OIS, and USC said it's looking into Ru's situation. But we have yet to receive a response.

Right after Ru committed to USC in 2016, her father had a stroke, which paralyzed one arm and affected his mobility. While his condition improved, he still can't walk normally and is unable to return to work. She said her father is also showing symptoms of facial paralysis, adding that he still needs medical treatment periodically.

Ru's father owns a construction company, and her mother is the company's accountant. She said her family hasn't had an income since the stroke. Ru said the worst part is her father's company invested money to start a project that he expected to see profits from before the stroke occurred. Since then, the project hasn't moved forward.

"To be honest with you, the company is shattered at this point," Ru said. "My mother already told all employees that they can leave if they want because the company won't be able to pay their salaries for a period of time."

Her family used savings to pay her first two years' tuition, but now it is running out and has forced her mother to borrow money from friends and relatives.

USC has only gotten more expensive since Ru was admitted. In March, USC announced a nearly $2,000 tuition increase for the 2018-2019 school year, which will total $55,320. USC Provost Michael Quick responded in a statement about the tuition increase, "I'm proud that our university aid continues to meet the financial needs of our students — of whom two-thirds receive some form of assistance — and we will continue to admit qualified students without regard to their ability to pay."

To try to sustain her USC education, Ru said she contacted the USC Financial Aid Office. The office told her that the university doesn't give financial aid to international students and suggested that she find loans. According to the office's website, international students who want a loan need to find a credit-worthy U.S. citizen or U.S. permanent resident as a co-borrower.

"I was surprised," she said. "If loans are the solutions, why would I come to [the financial aid office]?"

She also reached out to OIS and was told that the only feasible way to reduce her financial burden is to work part-time. But as an international student, to be authorized to work outside of campus, she needs to register for a Curricular Practical Training class, which takes one or two units out of her unit budget.

International students in the United States are not eligible for federal grants or loans, but some American colleges offer institutional aid to international students.

According to a report published by the College Board's Annual Survey of Colleges, which analyzes data from 2,500 U.S. higher education institutions that accept international students, 17 percent of these institutions give need-based or non-need based institutional financial aid to international students. The percentage for private institutions is 36 percent.

Ru said one of her friends, a Chinese international student studying at Washington University in St. Louis (WashU), had a similar issue, a family financial emergency. But Her friend was able to get financial aid from the university.

WashU is a private university in Missouri. Both prospective and current international students there are eligible for need-based financial assistance, according to the university's undergraduate admission website. The university's Office for International Students and Scholars adds on its website that "it is unusual for a student to receive any financial assistance after enrollment. After admission, a student must show a substantial change in the family financial situation – a change which arose after enrolling at the University."

WashU is not alone. Some private universities, such as Harvard and MIT, also allow international students to apply for need-based financial aid before and after enrollment.

Many universities like Cornell, Stanford, Duke and Columbia say need-based financial aid is only available for prospective international students who indicate the need in their college applications; though some of them indicate that this could affect the students' admission chance.

University of California, Berkeley, a public university, also recognizes that international students could face unforeseen changes that will significantly impact financial situations, according to the Berkeley International Office. It offers BIO Need-Based Financial Aid Awards and Shih Loan Program as external supports for international students experiencing unexpected financial issues.

For Ru, whose parents also have her younger brother to care for, her situation has caused more stress than her classes. On top of that, her father's health has also had an impact on her family.

"I feel he has turned into another person that has a weird temper," she said, explaining that his doctor said her father's brain can't handle pressure or intense workloads. "Sometimes, I feel he's like a baby. He is frustrated and mad about himself. I can tell."

Ru said she always had plans to attend college in the United States. As of now, she has tailored her course plans, so that she can graduate from USC in three years instead of four. But that's still a lot for her family, even with this compromise.

"If I could have known what would happen now to my family when I was in high school," she said. "I would not have chosen to study abroad in America to give this much financial burden to my family."

You can reach Ruby Yuan via email: kaidiyua@usc.edu