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Graduate School is just the beginning

Paying for School

Just as with paying for college, paying for graduate school can be difficult. Winning admission is tough enough, but even if you're accepted into a graduate program, you still have to pay for it, and that may be your single greatest obstacle to earning an advanced degree. Consider that the average cost of law school tuition for a single year is over $20,000 (and as much as $30,000 at a private school). You'll spend even more for a year at a medical school. Other graduate school programs aren't quite that expensive, but they're also edging toward $20,000 per year. And tuition isn't the only cost of paying for graduate school. There's also the income you'll lose by not working for several years or by working only in a part-time job. This is the point where you should pull out a calculator, add up the total amount of money that your graduate education is likely to cost you, and stare long and hard at the total. Do you think getting a master's or a PhD is worth that much money? Most people decide, usually after a little reflection, that it is, not only in terms of the greater salary that they'll receive once they have the advanced degree, but also in terms of the personal satisfaction that they'll feel after accomplishing something as meaningful as a graduate degree.

But unless you're independently wealthy, paying for graduate school is still going to be a problem. If you're serious about getting an advanced degree you shouldn't let money issues daunt you, but you do need to think about how you're going to pay for your education. And if you don't have the money on hand, there are financial aid programs that will help you. Furthermore, you may able to save tens of thousands of dollars by choosing to enroll at a university run by the state in which you live. If this option isn't available to you or there isn't a suitable graduate program at your state university, explore the possibility of going to school in a nearby state that has a reciprocal agreement with your state to offer tuition at the same discount offered to residents. Another alternative is to go to school in another state for a year while establishing residency in that state, then apply for tuition as a local resident, though this gambit may be explicitly prohibited by some universities. You should contact the school in advance to find out.

Tuition won't be your only expense. There will be textbooks, which often cost more than a hundred dollars apiece, just as they did when you were an undergraduate. Consider buying the books used, either at the university bookstore or through an Internet bookseller. (Many textbook dealers can be found through And if you're going to school in a different city or state, you'll need a place to live. Start shopping for housing as far in advance as you can, before other students have snapped up the best deals. You'll also need groceries and household supplies. You don't want to live on macaroni and cheese or ramen noodles while earning your degree. Be sure to plan carefully. Put together a realistic budget for food and other expenses and stick to it.

Don't forget the mundane but necessary items that nobody wants to run out of, like laundry detergent, light bulbs, trash bags, toilet paper, shampoo, soap, and so on. It may not seem like these items will be a significant part of your budget, but they add up fast. Also, you'll need to pay for phone service, either a landline or a cell phone or both. Decide in advance whether you'd be better off with a flat-rate long distance service or one where you pay as you go. And unless you want to do without any kind of entertainment, leave some room in your budget for cable TV, movie rentals, and occasional meals in a restaurant. Transportation can also cost money. If you're lucky, you'll be living so close to school and shopping that you can walk everywhere you need to go. If you're further from school or need to drive to a shopping center for groceries, then factor in the cost of keeping a car. You'll need gas, which is no trivial expense these days, and an emergency fund for repairs and towing. If you don't have a car and you aren't close to the places you need to go, you'll need fare for the bus, subway, and the occasional taxi. By now you've probably realized that there are significant expenses involved in maintaining a student lifestyle, especially if you won't be living with your parents while getting your degree. You'll need to watch your money. And your school may require additional fees for on-campus parking, health insurance, laboratory fees, and other miscellaneous expenses. Ask somebody at the university about these fees or check the school's web site to see if it provides an estimate of how many such fees the average student will be expected to pay. Depending on your particular situation, you may not incur all these expenses, but you need to keep them in mind.

Once you've made a rough estimate of how expensive your life as a grad student is going to be, you have to figure out a way to pay for it. We suggest three different ways in which you can do that.

Pay for it Yourself

Paying for School This may sound like an expensive option, but it's generally the best one for those who can afford it or who have sources of money. If you have substantial savings, you may want to devote a chunk of it to paying for school. Or if your parents will assist you, by all means accept their support. To finance their advanced education, students who are just finishing their undergraduate work will sometimes take a year or two off from school after graduation to work and save money, then go back for the advanced degree when there are sufficient funds in the bank. Married students sometimes live on a spouse's income while earning a master's or a doctorate. Other students take part-time jobs during the school year or over the summer to earn the money that supports them while they're in school. Some businesses are willing to be flexible in their scheduling when informed of an employee's education plans. Students can often leverage their education in order to get graduate jobs teaching or tutoring. It's not recommended that you work a full-time job while earning your degree. Earning a master's or a PhD will require at least as much of your attention as work will, and both your job and your education will suffer. It's quite possible, though, to manage a twenty-hour-a-week job and study for a degree at the same time, so a part-time job may be the solution that you're looking for. Still, only you can decide if you're capable of both holding down a job and going to grad school.

Many universities have work-study programs, supported by funds from the federal government. Unlike government loans, you won't be expected to pay back the money these programs earn you after you graduate. Work-study won't necessarily pay all of the money that grad school will cost you, but it can defer enough of the cost to make it affordable. And while work-study may mean that you'll have to take a job in the student cafeteria, it's far more likely that you'll be doing academic work related to your field of study, thus making this a valuable experience in more than just the financial sense. If this sounds like an option you want to take, apply for it as soon as possible, because the funds may be limited and the available jobs may fill up fast. The financial aid office at your future college should know if work-study is available, and you can ask them not only about the available positions but also about the procedures you'll need to go through to enter the program. It's also possible that, if you're currently employed, the company you work for would be willing to reimburse part or all of your tuition expenses. You should be able to learn the details from the human resources department. You might be able to work a part-time schedule while receiving financial assistance with earning your degree. Because these programs "reimburse" your expenses, you'll need to pay them up front and then receive the money from your employer at the end of the school year or semester. There may also be a minimum grade level that you need to maintain. But if you think such funds may be available, it's certainly worth your while to ask.

Federal Student Loans

The federal government has a student loan program. You're probably aware of this already because you may have used the student loan program to finance your undergraduate degree or you may know someone who did. It's not as well known that the federal government will loan money to graduate students to help them obtain advanced degrees. Unfortunately, this doesn't include Pell grants (which don't have to be repaid) or PLUS loans (which are taken out by parents to help pay for their children's education); those are limited to undergraduate degrees. But you might want to consider a Stafford loan. These aren't based on financial need, so you don't have to plead poverty, nor will you need to get your credit approved. Stafford loans come in two varieties, subsidized and unsubsidized. With a subsidized loan, you won't incur any interest as long as you maintain half-time status at school, nor will interest begin to accrue until six months after you graduate. On the other hand, interest will be charged on an unsubsidized loan from the moment it's granted, but you won't have to make payments on the interest until after you graduate (unless you fall below half-time status at school). Subsidized loans can be as much as $8,500 a year, or $18,500 a year with combined subsidized and unsubsidized funds, up to a limit of $138,500. (This limit includes Stafford loans taken out while still an undergraduate.) Also consider the federal government's Perkins loan program. These federal student loans are available for grad students, up to $5,000 a year, if you can establish a financial need for them. Other loan programs are available for specialized fields, such as medicine.

So money need not be an obstacle to getting your graduate degree. The money is out there, as long as you're willing to pay it back once you're finished with school. Once again, however, you shouldn't wait to apply for one of these loans. There's only a limited amount of money available and it will be apportioned on a first-come, first-served basis. Talk with someone in the financial office of your grad school and find out what you need to do to apply for the loans. They'll give you the forms and they'll almost certainly give you advice on how to fill them out. You'll need to fill out the Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA), which will take you at least a couple of hours to complete. You'll probably also have to fill out forms from the university itself if you're planning to finance your education with federal aid. When determining how much to borrow, keep in mind that you'll need to pay it back in just a few years. You don't want to go further into debt than you have to. Be realistic about how much you're going to owe and your ability to pay it back after graduation. Find out what your monthly payments are going to be and decide if you'll be earning enough money in the near future to make those payments while still supporting yourself on your earnings. Consider your employment prospects. If you're working on a master's degree in English literature, you may not be able to find a job that will cover five hundred dollars per month in loan payments. And be warned: Bankruptcy will not get you out of paying a federal student loan. Nonetheless, such loans can be a valuable way of financing a grad school education and can more than pay for themselves in the long run. But be cautious when borrowing. The money isn't free and you don't want to hobble yourself with bills that you won't be able to afford.

The possibility of going deeply in debt from student loans is very real. The ceilings on federal loan amounts are very high and it's tempting to take more than you absolutely need. Furthermore, there are other loans available, from banks and other private companies, if your credit is good enough or if you can find someone to co-sign. Degrees in law and medicine are particularly expensive and almost impossible to obtain without a student loan, in part because the course work is so intensive that there's rarely time available for the student to take a job. Students in search of degrees in these fields should seriously consider going to a state university where tuitions are low and the necessary loans won't be prohibitive. Fortunately, law students can often take positions as summer interns in law offices. And despite the term "intern," some of these jobs pay well enough to offset much of the cost of a law degree, minimizing the need for loans. Students working on a medical degree can turn to the government (both federal and local) to apply for tuition repayment programs. In return for promising to work in an area of medicine that's presently underserved, the government will repay part of your student loans once you've begun your career. That way, you can provide services that society needs while substantially reducing your level of debt. It's an option worth considering.

University-Based Financial Aid

The third way you can pay for your graduate education is to get it from the school itself. You may already have experience with financial aid as an undergraduate, but it works a bit differently when you're in grad school. The aid is no longer handled by the university's finance department but by the department where you plan to get your degree. The awarding of funds is under the control of the faculty, and they can pick and choose among the students they consider to be promising or deserving. You can learn about how funding works at a university by going to its web site or reading the material that you've been given about the school and the graduate program. Get in touch directly with the department and talk to people who know the financial aid program. They should be able to tell you what chance you have of getting funds. Ask them for details about the available aid and how it's given out. They won't mind the questions; answering them is part of their job. They know that getting an advanced education is expensive and they want to help. It's in the school's interest to attract the best and brightest students they can find, and financial aid is one way that they can do this. There may also be aid that isn't handled by the specific department where you'll be getting your degree. Find out if a university-wide program for grad students is also available. Ask the relevant people what you need to do to apply. They may consider you for aid automatically or they may require that you fill out special forms. Be sure you know in advance what to do so that you don't miss out on a valuable opportunity.

There are many forms of university-based aid. The one you'll probably want to look into first is the fellowship. A fellowship is a form of cash gift or scholarship. (In fact, it may be called a scholarship.) You don't need to repay it. You don't need to do any work to earn it, other than your studies. In most cases it will be given by the university to students who have strong academic records or who are in financial need. Fellowships are given out for two to three years and may be renewable. They may be only as much as a few hundred dollars, but they may also cover all tuition costs with living expenses thrown in. Most likely, they'll be somewhere in between these two extremes. (Incidentally, you can get scholarships from organizations other than the school-for instance, from professional groups and non-profit organizations, or even from the federal government. Groups offering such grants include the Truman Scholarship Foundation, named for President Harry S. Truman. These grants can be very generous, but they aren't easy to get. Still, it's worthwhile to try for one.) Fellowships from universities are given to students who need them for financial reasons and who have good scores on standardized tests, good grades as an undergraduate, and recommendations from teachers. If you haven't finished your undergraduate work yet and you want one of these loans, concentrate on getting the best grades you can. This will not only enhance your chances of getting into grad school, but also increase your chances of getting a fellowship. Study carefully for all standardized tests. If you're lucky, you'll be able to get fellowship money and earn your master's or PhD while incurring very little debt.

Many universities also offer assistantships. As a teaching assistant or a research assistant, you'll work for your financial aid by helping out in the classroom or the laboratory. Teaching assistants not only teach students but also work closely with the rest of the faculty. This relationship with other teachers can be a very rewarding experience, and you'll be well paid for your efforts if you can wangle one of these graduate jobs. Research assistants work on computers, or in laboratories and libraries, gathering information for their professors. Assistantships may also be available elsewhere at the university-for instance, with the college administrators. Be sure to find out if these positions are available at the university you plan to attend. Generally students who work as assistants are not only given a waiver on their tuition but also paid for their time, and it's possible that such a position will allow you to go through grad school for free. Search online catalogs and other material from the school to find out if these opportunities are available to you. And don't hesitate to ask people in the department whether they think you stand a chance of getting an assistantship. If you have good grades, this may be your best shot at an affordable education.

Last Updated: 05/25/2014