Most graduate students balance work and studies, a fact of life that starts in college where nearly half of students work at least 30 hours per week while 25% work full-time. Graduate work alone takes its toll on the mind and body, and it’s worsened by the financial burden of paying for tuition, fees and room and board. So what really are the best tips for paying for grad school?
The Graduate Debt Dilemma
Indeed, graduate students have reason to be concerned about the financial costs of earning their degree – the average cost of a master’s degree is $66,340 while a doctor’s degree costs $111,900 on average! And then there’s the student loan debts that many graduate students must deal with alongside the challenges of the current job market.
But before you become discouraged by these figures, you must take a step back and look at the silver lining of graduate school! You can actually earn your graduate degree without getting into overwhelming student loan debt and, thus, enjoy peace of mind.
Here are 10 effective strategies that you can adopt even before you enroll in graduate school.
1. Plan Your Finances
If you have a plan, then you plan to succeed – and it’s true when you’re planning on earning your graduate degree! Make a sound and solid plan that takes into account your current financial status and its possible changes. While unexpected things will happen, you won;t be taken too much by surprise, thanks to your SMART plan.
- Look at your income and expenses, find ways to save for your educational costs, and perhaps look for other sources of income.
- Discuss your graduate study plan with your family since it will have a direct impact on your overall finances. Getting into graduate school will likely mean less time for household chores and family gatherings and less money for household expenses. Cutting back on working hours will be required at some point, obviously to keep up with the demands of graduate studies.
- Find a side hustle, if possible, or request an adult family member for assistance with the bills.
- Set your priorities – building emergency and retirement funds first followed by saving for graduate school. While a graduate degree will increase your chances for higher-paying jobs, you shouldn’t count your chickens before they hatch.
- Pay off your undergraduate debts first, if possible, or until it’s within a manageable level. More than 14% of average graduate student debt came from undergraduate student loan debt, and it can be burdensome with interest piling up.
If your graduate studies become sidelined by difficulties in finances and other reasons, you can stop and deal with life’s challenges. Remember that while graduate programs have timelines/milestones, you have sufficient leeway to complete the academic requirements, say, in seven years’ time. Regroup and recharge, then have another shot at your graduate degree!
2. File FAFSA
Even if you think that you’re ineligible for the Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA), you should still file! While you may be in a stable financial situation now, things can change and FAFSA may well mean the difference between continuing your studies or dropping out. Besides, there’s no income cut-off for federal financial aid eligibility and several factors, such as your family’s size and your year in school, have more weight.
Filing the FAFSA is easy, too, particularly if you’ve already done it as an undergraduate student. Your bank account information, tax records and investment details will be required. You should take 30 minutes to fill in the details on the FAFSA form and double-check it for errors. You also have the option of sending your completed FAFSA form to up to 10 schools.
Note that there are several key differences between undergraduate and graduate federal financial aid including:
- You, a graduate student, are considered an independent individual even if you’re still living with your parents. You must then use your personal financial information instead of your parents’ information.
- You will be paying higher interest rates on graduate loans. Unsubsidized loans have a 5.28% interest.
- You aren’t eligible for Pell Grants, but you may qualify if you’re pursuing a post-baccalaureate teacher certification (Emphasis on “may” as there are strict eligibility criteria)
- You are ineligible for subsidized federal loans. But you can borrow Direct PLUS Loans and unsubsidized loans, both of which have interest that accrues as soon as these are disbursed. You may borrow up to $20,500 in direct unsubsidized loans every year while the Direct PLUS Loan can be used to cover the gap between your cost of attendance and financial aid received.
- You are eligible for several federal grants including the Fulbright Grant, the TEACH Grant, and the Iraq and Afghanistan Service Grants, as well as the federal work-study program.
Graduate students may also take out more federal loans than their undergraduate counterparts. But that said, you must be uber-careful when borrowing since these must be repaid at a later date. The consequences of not repaying student loan debts will have a direct impact on your life!
You should also pay the interest on your graduate student loans even while you’re still in school! This way, the interest will not be capitalized when your grace period ends. Interest capitalization means the outstanding interest is tacked onto the loan’s principal amount.
3. Be a Smart Borrower
Graduate students owe approximately 50% of the total student debt loans but only 25% of individuals who took out these loans went to graduate school! The irony makes it crucial for graduate students who want to take out loans for study purposes to have second thoughts about their plans. But unless you’re a trust fund kid, taking out student loans will likely be in your future.
Then again, you can be a smart borrower and earn your degree with manageable student loan debts! Start by doing your homework – asking the schools you’re interested in for cost of attendance and financial aid information, for starters. You can then do an objective comparison between these schools and choose based on your current financial status.
You will be able to shop around for the best student loans, which can be federal loans or private loans. Don’t dismiss private loans easily since these can offer better interest rates in certain cases, such as with a co-signer. But be sure to look into federal loans since these usually have better terms and conditions for graduate students, as well as offer income-driven repayment plans and loan forgiveness programs.
You must also understand your graduate education’s return on investment, which includes assessing the total cost of attendance and the possible post-graduation salary. As a rule of thumb, you shouldn’t spend more on your graduate education than your expected post-graduation salary. For example, if you’re spending $50,000 a year for your studies and $80,000 is your expected post-graduation salary, then it makes sound financial sense.
Don’t borrow too much money! This is common sense advice but many graduate students make the mistake of using their student loans for non-tuition purposes. Don’t spend the money for your day-to-day expenses, lifestyle purchases and other expenses that are neither related to your studies nor boost your enjoyment of its rewards afterward. Remember that once you make a lifestyle purchase using your student loan, the actual price of the product or service increases by 25%, no thanks to interest capitalization.
You should also borrow below the federal borrowing limits, if possible. While you may be tempted to max it out, you shouldn’t because student loans accrue interest – the higher the principal amount, the higher the total interest payments will be. You may end up paying more interest than the principal!
If you’re not well-versed in federal financial aid for graduate students, you can always ask for information from your university’s financial aid officers. There’s no harm in asking, not to mention that they have reliable information about the types of student loans you’re eligible for and the ways to use them to your advantage.
You can also use the student loan calculator and ask about state and school-sponsored loan repayment programs, many of which have loan forgiveness plans for professionals pursuing in-demand careers. The latter includes teaching, primary medical care, and public interest sectors.
Most importantly, pay your student loans even before you earn your graduate degree! Don’t wait until the repayment period starts, usually six months after graduation, but pay at a much earlier date. Even $10-$20 per month in payment while you’re still in graduate school can make a difference in your loan balance.
4. Earn Scholarships, Fellowships and Grants
Before you apply for loans, you must first exhaust all avenues to decrease your tuition payments, among other education-related expenses! The best avenues are, of course, scholarships, fellowships and grants. Note that most of these free funds aren’t based on your financial need – academic merit is the primary criterion.
Aside from institutional and external scholarships, graduate students also have a wide range of fellowships available. Many universities offer fellowships to the cream of the crop in addition to the federal government and private organizations offering them, too. Fellowships provide financial support but there’s usually no commensurate service requirement. The best examples are:
- American Educational Research Association Dissertation Grants
- GEM Fellowships
- NSF Graduate Research Fellowship Program
- Woodrow Wilson Dissertation Fellowship in Women’s Studies
- Fulbright U.S. Student Program
- Charlotte W. Newcombe Doctoral Dissertation Fellowships
Grants are based more on the graduate students’ financial need while scholarships are based more on merit. Funding for grants comes mostly from the state and federal governments, and the criteria can include cost of attendance, disability status, and family income.
Tip: Before you dismiss any scholarship, grant or fellowship as being out of your league, you should first ask for details and apply if you qualify even under minimum requirements. While these are competitive programs, you won’t know if you qualify if you don’t try!
5. Ask Your Employer for Assistance
Many more employers are offering either new or upgraded versions of their tuition assistance programs in the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic. While the reasons, criteria and coverage vary between employers, these programs are designed to assist employees gain new knowledge and skills. In turn, these companies benefit by attracting and retaining employees with skill sets relevant, if not valuable, to their bottom lines.
No wonder then that most companies with tuition assistance programs require their employees to enroll in graduate programs connected with their specific jobs. You may, for example, be able to avail of tuition assistance for an MBA in Accounting degree if you’re gunning for a leadership position in accounting.
Be sure to check the terms and conditions of your employer’s tuition assistance program before signing the related contract. You don’t want to be surprised about commensurate service requirements or partial repayment policies. Take note, too, that up to $5,250 in tuition assistance is tax-free.
Tip: You will likely be required to continue working with your company while pursuing your graduate degree. You must then consider the extended timeline of your part-time studies and full-time employment, which may be followed by a certain number of years spent with the company as compensation for the tuition assistance. Your long-term career goals may have to be changed for this reason.
Companies with tuition assistance programs include Amazon (full college tuition for hourly workers); BP (up to 90% tuition reimbursement); Deloitte (full tuition reimbursement); and Disney (100% tuition within the Aspire network).
6. Become A Working Student in Your School
Research, teaching and graduate assistantships are viable alternatives to working outside of your school to pay for your incidental expenses. As an assistant, you will receive a monthly stipend, which can cover your non-academic expenses including room and board, as well as other perks. These can include a fee waiver, which is one less financial cost to cover, and university health insurance for your medical and dental needs.
Aside from being efficient means of paying for your graduate education, assistantships provide hands-on experience in your field and boost your resume. You can also establish a stronger and wide professional network since you will be working with experts in your field. Your excellent performance can even earn you their approval and, thus, make it easier to request for letters of recommendation, a competitive edge in the job marketplace.
But assistantships are extremely competitive because these are limited in number and assistants are expected to be exceptional at their jobs while also maintaining good grades. The process of applying for assistantships also demands time, energy and effort that will test your determination. The steps can be summarized as follows although each school has specific policies and procedures:
- Contact your department about current and future openings, whether as research, teaching, or graduate assistants. Every type of assistantship has its merits so be sure to consider them first.
- Research about the professors that offer assistantships since you will be working with one of them, if you’re chosen as an assistant. Ask not only about their research projects but also about their work ethic, relationships with assistants, and overall reputation.
- Prepare assistantship application documents, such as a cover letter, resume and letters of recommendation. Request for an appointment with the professors you’re interested in working with as an assistant and, if granted, discuss opportunities.
- Highlight your teaching and/or research experience as well as relevant work experiences in relation to the opportunity at hand.
With preparation and luck, you can be an assistant and pay for your education!
7. Look Into Service Programs
If you’re keenly interested in tackling issues with significant societal impact in the US and abroad, you may want to consider service programs with generous scholarships. You will not only be able to earn your graduate degree virtually debt-free but you can pursue your passion and make a difference in the world!
The best example is Peace Corps volunteers who have completed their volunteer period are eligible to receive partial or full scholarships in over 120 US-based universities. Fields of study covered include public health, law and education. If you have undergraduate loans, you may even qualify for partial cancellation, deferment or forgiveness!
Check out the AmeriCorps, too, since it has several education-related benefits for its alumni including application fee waivers and credits for service experience. The Eli Segal Education Award is for AmeriCorps alumni who can pay the award to pay their current academic expenses and/or pay qualified student loans at eligible institutions. Look for Gold schools that provide a full-ride scholarship, reimburse 25% (minimum) of tuition costs, and match the award.
Veterans of the US military are also eligible for educational benefits under the G.I. Bill. For 2020-2021, qualified military veterans received full coverage for their tuition at public in-state schools. Many also received over $25,000 in tuition coverage for enrollment in private US-based institutions and foreign schools.
8. Be Aware of Loan Reprieves and Similar Programs
If you already have undergraduate and/or graduate student loans, you must always be on the lookout for loan forgiveness, deferment and other similar programs. The money that should have been used to repay your student debt loans can then be used to pay off your current educational expenses!
The most recent loan deferment program has been extended until May 1, 2022 and it covers three major relief measures:
- Suspension of payments on eligible loans
- Zero interest on these loans
- Cessation of collections on loans in default
Note that private student loans aren’t covered by the federal loan pause program. But you can still make loan payments during the period. Remember that this is a “pause on payment” and not “loan forgiveness” so you will still pay your loans after May 1, 2022.
9. Find Programs Within Your Budget
We’re not saying to settle for less but there are alternative ways of earning your graduate degree without getting the noose of student debts around your neck! For starters, you can look for programs that are within your budget, such as general professional programs in your preferred field of study. Keep in mind that it isn’t the monetary worth of your graduate degree that matters in the job marketplace – it’s your ability to use it as a leverage to highlight your competitive edge.
You may also consider accelerated programs that cut the time-to-completion nearly in half, such as one-year master’s degree programs. The less time you spend in your graduate studies, the less tuition you’ll be paying and the less student debt you’re likely to end up with. But note, too, that accelerated programs are extremely challenging with students required to fully focus on their graduate studies, meaning possibly little to no external employment.
How about attending a public college or university? While public institutions don’t necessarily have cheap tuition, their cost of attendance is significantly lower than private schools. Better yet, look into online programs in public universities if you want a lower cost of attendance.
10. Adopt Frugal Lifestyle Habits
Frugality is a virtue when you’re a graduate student, and while it’s a challenging one, it may well be your lifeline toward earning your degree with little student loan debt. Start during your college year and, by the time you’re in graduate school, your frugal habits are already firmly in place.
- Be a reasonable cheapskate! Small expenses, particularly lifestyle purchases like Starbucks coffee, will quickly add up so you should cut back on them. Instead of going out for a night in town, you can enjoy free events and parties on campus.
- Avoid making comparisons between yourself and your peers and professors since your circumstances are unique. The less urge you have to keep up with the Joneses, the better your bank account will be.
- Use cash instead of credit cards when making purchases, big or small. Credit card interest rates are in the double digits, meaning even a small balance can quickly become overwhelming. Better yet, you may want to consider ditching your credit cards! You can save the annual fees and other charges that come even with non-usage.
- Making a budget and sticking to it is undoubtedly the most sensible advice you will get as an individual chasing after your dream of living debt-free!
Earning your graduate degree while struggling with your finances doesn’t have to be a do-or-die scenario! With careful planning, humility in requesting for assistance, and frugality, your graduate degree will soon be in your hands.