How to Pay for Grad School
Getting your graduate degree will boost your earning potential in the future—but you still need the funding to get there. Here's how to find it.
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No matter what you're planning to study in graduate school, you're bound to face the question about how to pay for it. The good news is, an advanced degree is an investment in your future and your long-term earning potential. The Bureau of Labor Statistics consistently shows higher earnings for graduates with master's, doctoral, and professional programs.
That's great for then, but what about now? We'll introduce you to a variety of options for financing grad school, beginning with traditional loans, grants, and scholarships—and then digging deeper.
Start with FAFSA
Your first stop for figuring out how to pay for graduate school is the FAFSA, or Free Application for Federal Student Aid. It will take you less than an hour to fill out, and unlike on your FAFSAs from college, you won’t need your parents’ information.
FAFSA unlocks all federal and state aid for graduate school—including federal loans, federal and state grants, work study, and school student assistance. Submit FAFSA as early as you can each calendar year, as many aid sources are first come, first serve.
The aid package you receive from FAFSA will help you figure out how much money you need to find from other sources. If you are currently a student, start by setting up an appointment at your school’s financial aid office. They may be able to point you toward some financial sources you haven’t yet thought of.
In the meantime, get creative about your funding, and start thinking of alternative ways to pay for your education. Here are some ideas to get you started.
Eligible for merit-based aid?
If you're eligible for scholarships or fellowships that are awarded based on achievements, qualifications, or other merit criteria, that's great news. It opens up your options a tremendous amount. Here are some things you definitely want to pay attention to if you're shooting to fund your education with merit-based aid.
Programs look for both strong performance in relevant classes (think your major or your minor) and overall excellence across all coursework.
Your GRE® score
The GRE is the barometer that schools use to compare candidates across programs. Sixty-six percent of graduate school admissions officers say a strong GRE score will help a student receive merit-based scholarships, teaching assistantships or grants.
Research experience or portfolio
Regardless of which program you're going for, you can bet that there are commonly accepted standards in that field for proving you can do graduate-level work. Getting solid research experience if you're going into one of the sciences, for example—or putting together a killer portfolio if you're in a creative field—is a surefire way to boost funding opportunities.
Graduate programs are looking for future leaders in industry and academia. Leadership experience in student government, athletics, military, or volunteer work is highly prized.
Examples of merit-based aid
If you're eligible for merit-based aid, look into scholarships, fellowships, and research or work study opportunities, which offer funding that does not need to be paid back. Fastweb.com is a good place to start locating these.
- Look into the Fulbright grant programs for graduate students. You can also learn about the Fulbright program on YouTube.
- Marshall Scholars are fully funded for graduate study in the United Kingdom.
- Rhodes Scholars are provided with fully funded graduate studies opportunities at the University of Oxford.
- Teaching assistantships let you earn your tuition by assisting a professor, teaching a seminar, or leading a section.
- Research assistantships let you conduct research with faculty in your field while earning your tuition.
- Stipends are often a part of teaching or research assistantships.
Get creative about funding
Of course, you don't have to go the conventional routes when it comes to paying for your grad program. Here are some other places you can look for dollars. You may even find less competition and therefore higher chances of success in these non-traditional areas.
There are many faith-based scholarships available. They vary widely in their requirements, but they’re worth looking into if applicable to you. Even if the requirements are specific, that’s not a bad thing if you can find your niche. Remember that tighter qualifications can also mean less competition.
If you or your spouse served in the armed forces, you may be eligible for generous tuition help. The post-9/11 GI Bill will pay your full graduate tuition at a public school, and up to almost $22,000 a year at a private or foreign school. (Some private schools will waive the difference in what’s called a Yellow Ribbon program.) The amount you’re entitled to is determined by the number of months you served after September 11, 2001.
Some workplaces have generous tuition reimbursement programs. If you’re currently in the workforce, start with a call to your company’s HR department to find out if your employer will pay for all or some of your advanced degree. Many are willing to contribute, particularly if your degree will help advance their business.
Make sure you ask HR if there are any conditions for their tuition reimbursement programs; for instance, some employers require that you stay at the company for a certain amount of time while earning your advanced degree, or even after.
Students over 25 or 30 are sometimes referred to as non-traditional students. There are more than 200 scholarships aimed directly at these students. If this is you, keep it in mind as you search for funding.
If you’ve been in the workforce and have started an IRA, you are allowed to borrow against it without penalty to pay for graduate school.
This is a route that should be considered carefully: The true magic of retirement accounts is in their compounding over time—and by taking money out early, you are sacrificing future returns. Plus, an IRA withdrawal may affect your offer of financial aid.
A home equity loan
If you own a home, you can borrow against the value of your house and use that money for school, either as a loan or as a line of credit (HELOC).
Weigh this option carefully, however, since your home is on the line if you can’t make your payments or if the housing market drops. You also won’t qualify for student loan forgiveness programs if you go this route, and your interest rate could rise, given that not all home-equity loans have fixed rates.
Student loan forgiveness programs
Once you graduate, there are ways to get your debt written off if you meet certain qualifications. Only a few types of federal loans are eligible, and you have to have been making on-time payments toward them.
Most importantly, you need to be a federal employee or working in public service or at a qualifying nonprofit, with a salary beneath a particular threshold. Find more information at studentaid.ed.gov.
Student loans, simplified
If you're thinking of taking out loans to either fund grad school or supplement other funding, you might have trouble determining which are the best types of loans for you to target. We'll help you understand not only the different types of loans, but what the perks are of each.
Money advanced for educational purposes by the government or private institutions. A student borrows the principal and pays it back to the lender in installments—with interest.
While only available to undergrads, a subsidized student loan is issued by the federal government and eligible for interest benefits. The government pays the interest on subsidized loans while you're enrolled in school at least half time.
These loans are available to grad students and not based on financial need, making the amount you are allowed to take out higher. The interest on unsubsidized loans begins accruing immediately, though you are not required to begin repayment on the principle or the interest until after school.
The proportion of a loan, expressed as a percentage of the principal, that is charged by the lender to the borrower.
The period of time between the actual due date of a payment and the date you can begin payment without accruing fees or penalties. In the context of student loans, this is the time period—usually six months—between the date you graduate (or drop below half-time status) and the date you must begin repayment.
The entire period in which a borrower is responsible for repaying a loan.
Federal Stafford Loan
Subsidized or unsubsidized, low-interest federal loans that are available to undergraduate and graduate students who fill out the FAFSA. As of July 1, 2006, Stafford Loans carry fixed interest rates of 6.80% for unsubsidized loans, with lower rates for subsidized loans for undergraduates, usually about 3.40%.
Federal Perkins Loan
Low-interest loans available to undergraduate or graduate students. The government issues the loan through the student's school, which contributes a share and acts as lender. The interest rate for Perkins Loans is fixed at 5%.
Okay, this one's not a loan, but ou must fill out a FAFSA form to be eligible. Maximum available to borrow for 2011-2012 is $5,550. 98% of recipients have a family adjusted gross income of less than $60,000.
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