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Signing on for grad school is a big decision, but more and more students are making it each year. In 2019, more than 820,000 students graduated with a master’s degree in the United States.
The price of grad school, however, remains high. Students who graduate with a master’s degree carry an average debt of $84,300. Once you’ve decided on a master’s degree, you have to spend months meticulously assembling your applications and crossing your fingers for good news. But perhaps the biggest challenge in planning for grad school is figuring out how exactly you’re supposed to pay for it.
Luckily, there are numerous ways to finance your advanced degree (even ways without taking out loans), and investing in graduate education is frequently worth it; the right degree has the potential for a massive return on investment.
The complicated part is determining what options are available to you and figuring out how to hack your way through grad school with the smallest bill. If you’re considering going to grad school, we’ve laid out some key financing options.
Take a deep breath, remember that education is a reward unto itself, and read on to learn how to formulate a plan to pay for your graduate education.
Fill Out Your FAFSA
If you received financial aid or federal student loans during undergrad, you’re probably familiar with the Free Application for Federal Student Aid, usually called by its friendlier name: the FAFSA®. The FAFSA is an application to determine what types of federal financial assistance you might qualify for.
Many students who are applying for grad school are considered “independent,” for FAFSA purposes. This means that even if your mom is supplementing your monthly groceries with weekly homemade lasagnas and you’re still using your parents’ password to binge watch Netflix, you may not need to include their financial information on your FAFSA application.
Assess Your Federal Options
Your FAFSA will determine your eligibility for federal student loans, federal work-study, and federal grants. In addition, your college may use your FAFSA to determine your eligibility for aid from the school itself. Here’s a closer look at the three federal options.
Federal Student Loans
Federal student loans are one popular way that students pay for grad school. Federal student loans allow you to borrow money from the federal government in order to finance your education.
Depending on the loan type, payments on these student loans can be deferred until after graduation and sometimes qualify you for certain tax deductions (like taking a tax deduction for interest paid on your student loans). There are different types of federal student loans, and each type has varying eligibility requirements and maximum borrowing amounts.
Some federal loans offer loan forgiveness after a certain number of payments and meeting certain stringent qualifications—like working in particular public sector or non-profit jobs. (Meaning, it’s currently difficult to qualify for loan forgiveness, so it’s not something to bank on—more on that later in this post.)
Unlike student loans, federal grants do not need to be repaid. It may be possible to receive some grant funding to help you pay for graduate school. Filling out the FAFSA is the first step to determine whether you’re eligible. You can find the full list of federal student grant programs here.
Federal Work-Study Program
Just like undergrad, you might be eligible for work-study jobs during grad school. Eligibility for work-study jobs is also based on your FAFSA. These jobs often pay you to work at your university for a set number of hours.
They can oftentimes be doubly beneficial – in addition to earning money, you can sometimes secure a work-study position that is relevant to your field of study. You usually have to go through an application process in order to secure a work-study job.
Work-study is a type of financial aid available to students who qualify based on their financial needs. You can apply for the program when you fill out your FAFSA. If you qualify for work-study it will be part of your federal financial aid award.
Even if you receive your work-study award you may still have to find a job that qualifies. Many schools have online databases where you can look for and apply to jobs.
Typically, financial aid is awarded on a first-come, first served basis, so the earlier you file your FAFSA the better chance you’ll likely have of securing work-study as a part of your financial aid award.
Figuring out What Your University Can Offer You
After narrowing down your federal options, make sure to consider what university-specific funding might be available. Many schools offer their own grants, scholarships, and fellowships. Your school’s financial aid office likely has a specific program or contact person for graduate students who are applying for institutional assistance.
Many schools will use the FAFSA to determine what, if anything, the school can offer you, but some schools use their own applications.
Although another deadline is the last thing you need, seeking out and applying for school-specific aid can be one of the most successful ways to pay for grad school: Awards can range from a small grant to full tuition remission.
Thinking Outside the Box
There are a variety of lesser-known ways to pay for grad school out there. They sometimes take extra research and effort to find, but any additional funds are worth it. Here are some of the ways to pay for grad school that you just might find hiding under a rock.
Employer Tuition Reimbursement
It might sound too good to be true, but some employers are happy to reimburse employees for a portion of their grad school costs. Employers that have tuition reimbursement plans set their own requirements and application process.
Make sure to consider any constraints your employer puts on their tuition reimbursement program, including things like staying at the company for a certain number of years after graduation or only funding certain types of degree programs.
If your employer doesn’t already have a program in place, don’t despair. It is almost always worth asking your company if they offer any benefits to employees pursuing a higher degree.
Some employers might offer professional development funding that can be used to help you pay for school or let you keep a more flexible work schedule to accommodate your classes.
Becoming an In-State Resident
If you’re applying for graduate school after taking a few years off to work, you might be surprised to find how costs have changed since your undergraduate days. Graduate students interested in a public university can save tens of thousands of dollars by considering a university in the state they already live in.
Each state has different requirements for determining residency, so if you are planning on relocating to attend grad school be sure to look into the requirements for the state the school you are planning to attend.
Certain states require only one year of full-time residency before you can qualify for in-state tuition, while others require three years. During that time, you could work as much as possible to save money for graduate school. More savings could mean fewer loans, and taking on less debt is definitely appealing to most grad students!
Becoming an RA
You probably remember your undergrad Resident Advisor (RA). They were the ones who helped you get settled into your dorm room, showed you how to get to the nearest dining hall, and yelled at you for breaking quiet hours.
RAs may be under-appreciated, but they’re often compensated handsomely for their duties. Students are typically compensated for a portion or all of their room and board. Some schools even include a meal plan and sometimes even reduced tuition or a stipend.
The compensation you receive will depend on the school you are attending, so check with your residential life office to see what the current RA salary is at your school.
While there are plenty of perks to being an RA, don’t underestimate the responsibility that comes with the position. It can be a time-intensive position, requiring round-the-clock supervision.
Still, the perks of being an RA may be measured in saving money each year. By having a free place to live and a free meal plan, you could save more and eat a diet that doesn’t just consist of ramen and stale pizza. RAs rarely have to share a room, so you’ll also have more privacy than you would in an apartment with roommates.
Because RAs receive so many benefits, competition for the job can be fierce and selective. Polish your resume and hone your interview skills before applying. The difference between working as an RA and having to take out loans for rent could affect your life for years to come.
Finding a TA Position
If you’re a graduate student, you can often find a position as a Teaching Assistant or Research Assistant for a professor. The position will be related to your undergrad or graduate studies and often requires grading papers, conducting research, organizing labs, or prepping for class. You probably had several TAs during your undergraduate classes and didn’t even realize they were students too.
TAs can be paid with a stipend or through reduced tuition depending on which school you attend. Not only can the job help you to potentially avoid student loans, but it also gives you networking experience with people in your field.
The professor you work with can recommend you for a job, bring you to conferences, and serve as a reference.
Being a TA may help boost your resume, especially if you apply for a Ph.D. program or want to be a professor someday. According to PayScale.com, the average TA earns around $13 an hour.
Similar to a job as an RA, securing a TA position can be competitive. Apply early and get to know the professors who will make the decisions.
Applying for Grants and Scholarships
Do you remember all those random essay contests and company scholarship applications your classmates fired off in their senior year of high school? Well, grad school is no different. There are private scholarships out there, you just need to find them.
Scholarship for the unusually tall? Check. Essay contest on automatic sprinkler systems? You betcha. In addition to the weird and wonderful one-off scholarships, there are industry-specific scholarships that are intended to help graduate students pursue specific fields of study.
An easy way to search for scholarships is through one of the many websites that gather and tag scholarships by criteria. Keeping all your grad school and FAFSA materials handy means that you’ll have easy access to the information you’ll need for scholarship applications.
As we mentioned at the top of this post, grad students have to submit the Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA®) in order to potentially qualify for federal grants—just as undergrads do. Grants and scholarships are a great source of financing for graduate school because they don’t need to be repaid.
Grants are available from both the federal and state governments, as well as from the university itself (again, many universities use the FAFSA to determine their own institutional aid, so filling it out is essential). Some companies provide their own grants or scholarships, and many private organizations sponsor grants.
It never hurts to apply for a grant or scholarship, no matter how small it might seem. Think of it this way—every dollar received is one less dollar you need to borrow or earn.
Private Student Loans
If you’re not eligible for scholarships or grants, or you’ve maxed out how much you can borrow using federal student loans, you can apply for a private student loan to help cover the cost of grad school.
Private graduate school loan rates and terms will vary by lender, and some private loans have variable interest rates, which means they can fluctuate over time. Doing your research with any private lender you’re considering is worth it to ensure you know exactly what a loan with them would look like.
Make sure to consider several different types of private student loan lenders before you make your decision. Private student loans are one area where it pays to be a savvy shopper. You’ll want to consider origination fees, payment schedules, and interest rates.
Federal Student Loan Forgiveness Programs
Federal student loan forgiveness programs either assist with monthly loan payments or can discharge a remaining federal student loan balance after a certain number of qualifying payments.
One such program is the Public Service Loan Forgiveness (or PSLF) program. The PSLF program allows qualifying federal student loan borrowers who work in certain public interest fields to discharge their loans after 120 monthly, on-time, qualifying payments.
Additionally, some employers offer loan repayment assistance to help with high monthly payments. While loan forgiveness programs don’t help you with the upfront cost of paying for grad school, they may offer a meaningful solution for federal student loan repayment. (Unfortunately, private student loans don’t qualify for these federal programs.)
Refinancing Your Undergraduate Loans
If you currently have loans from your undergraduate degree, you may be able to refinance them to get a lower monthly payment by extending your repayment term length. That can free up more money to put towards grad school, although that usually means you’ll pay more in interest.
Or refinancing student loans at a lower interest rate can help you pay less interest over the loan’s lifetime. That may not seem like such a big deal now but could come in handy when you’re saving up for a down payment on your first house.
Switching to a lower monthly payment can give you more flexibility in your budget, which is perfect for a time when money is tight. Once you finish grad school, you could start making extra payments and repay your loans ahead of schedule.
We get it: Going back to school, and possibly taking on more debt, is nerve-wracking. You’re making a big investment in your education, but the good news is there are grants and scholarships that you won’t have to pay back. If you need more funding to cover the cost, there are federal and private student loans.
Taking the time to find the best combination of loans and funding is crucial. It might sound scary, but taking it one step at a time can help you to assess all the options available and make the best financial decision for you.
SoFi is a leader in the student loan space—offering both private student loans to help pay your way through school, or refinancing options to help you pay off your loans faster.