Graduate school can be a great way to differentiate yourself in the job market and specialize in an industry or field of your choice. For many, though, financing a graduate degree can feel out of reach. Especially for those who already carry debt from their time as undergraduates.
The graduate financial aid process differs from the undergraduate one. Many of the federal programs aren’t as readily available, and there is more competition for a fewer number of scholarships and grants.
Still, there are some good options to choose from if you’re looking to get financial help. Here are some of the best ways to finance your graduate education:
One source of funding that doesn’t exist at the undergraduate level, but is an option at the graduate, is aid through corporate programs. Some companies will pay for their employees’ degrees, usually contingent on an amount of time worked for the company already. As well as a commitment to continue working for them after the degree is completed.
Although almost exclusively confined to fortune 100’s, they’re worth checking out if you plan on going to graduate school.
Consulting, tech, and finance are vastly overrepresented industries where companies help their employees get through graduate school. Not all will cover 100% of tuition and fees, but many will give a yearly stipend to full or part-time students in their employ.
The William D. Ford Direct Loan Program offers graduate students unsubsidized loans, which means they accrue interest while the student is enrolled in school.
This is the largest government loan program for graduates, as students can expect a maximum of $20,500 per school year. If this amount isn’t sufficient, they may also apply for Direct PLUS loans to reach their total financial need.
Good credit history is generally a requirement for access to these loans. As in the undergraduate process, students must submit FAFSA and meet the requirements needed for federal aid eligibility.
Things to know about loans
A word of caution: students should only take out loans when, and in the amount, that is absolutely necessary. Given they have to pay interest on them while in school, and forgiveness or cancellation is rare, they should only take out what is needed for their education.
Graduate loans have higher maximums than undergraduate ones because it’s more expensive to get an M.A than B.A. Students who apply will be seen as independents; this means that individuals will generally have access to more money in loans.
It’s essential to keep in mind that you still have to pay them off, and just because you’re eligible doesn’t mean you should take out every cent you can.
Government Pell Grants and FSEOGs are a common way of paying for undergrad, but these forms of federal aid are only available to graduate students under particular circumstances.
Namely, only those who are pursuing some kind of post-undergraduate teacher’s certification or licenses are eligible.
As always, private loans should be your last choice after you’ve exhausted all federal, state, institutional, and non-profit options. They normally have the worst terms, require a credit check or cosigner, and don’t have flexible repayment options.
That being said, if a student has a good credit history and is being offered favorable terms and interest rates on a loan, you might want to jump at that chance. As long as the terms are clear and the creditor is reputable, then they should be treated as a serious source of aid for graduate school.
School scholarships are a good source of aid for would-be graduate students. Though not as common as undergraduate scholarships, many institutions will provide merit-based aid to students with exceptional academic and professional backgrounds. However, unlike the undergraduate application process, which is simplified by the College Board’s CSS Profile, no such equivalent aggregator exists at the graduate level.
To obtain this kind of aid, graduate students must generally apply through each of their individual schools’ financial services offices. Each will vary in the number, amounts, and selectivity of their scholarships, but as a general rule, you can expect them to be competitive. This is because the competition is much greater at the graduate level. After all, it self-selects for the most ambitious, and the number of resources available are less than for those pursuing a bachelor’s.
The Federal Work-Study Program is available at both the undergraduate and graduate levels, where it functions in almost identical ways.
Under work-study, the government allows students to work on or off-campus. Graduate students are paid either by the hour or on a salary, depending on the kind of job they’re performing. They are also guaranteed at least the federal minimum wage.
The purpose of work-study is to give students access to extra income for school-related expenses, without affecting their aid eligibility. This is because FAFSA® calculates aid through EFC (Expected Family Contribution) and COA (Cost of Attendance), student income is included in that formula. So if you’re making more money, then your EFC increases and your aid eligibility goes down.
Teacher and Research Assistant
One of the benefits of being in graduate school is that you are in a position to capitalize on your specific experience and skill set. Most undergraduate classes have TA’s (Teacher’s Assistants) who answer students’ questions and grade their papers. They are usually decently paid as well as a great resume builder.
Similarly, a lot of professors are involved in at least some kind of research and require skilled assistants to collect and analyze data and conduct literature reviews. A lot of graduate students, especially those looking to get into academia, will find this kind of job a worthwhile pursuit.
Even if this is not the case, research experience is a good indicator of knowledge and experience in a particular field. It’s a foot in the door and a relationship-building experience you’ll be glad you took part in.
There are plenty of sources you can use to help finance your graduate education. As a general rule, you should first look for free money that’s already available to you via FAFSA® or scholarships. Federal student aid is usually your best bet. However, it doesn’t hurt to go deal hunting.
Make sure to do your due diligence beforehand, so once school starts, you’ll be well set up financially to concentrate only on school and get that graduate diploma.