Many people want the advanced degree that grad school gives you, but not the debt that comes along with it. People go back to school for various reasons, but grad school isn’t cheap. Yes, those with a graduate or professional degree earned about $12,948 more a year than those who just held a bachelor’s degree in 2019. However, the average cumulative student loan debt for those who graduated with a master’s degree was $50,300 in 2015-2016, according to the National Center for Education Statistics. Paying for grad school shouldn’t leave you with high debt that you doubt you can pay off anytime soon. However, here are some ways to pay for grad school with the least amount of student loan debt:
1. Money from Federal and State Sources
In order to get money from Federal or State sources, you are going to have to fill out the Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA), as many who went to undergrad are probably already familiar with. If you are looking for aid in the form of grants, loans, scholarships, or federal work-study, you will have to apply through this. You are probably now old enough to qualify as an independent student. This means that you no longer need to give your parents’ financial information on the FAFSA form.
If you are applying to law or medical school you will still need your parent’s financial info, but you won’t need their signatures like in undergrad. In addition, if you are pursuing education for teaching, you can apply for the Teacher Education Assistance for College and Higher Education (TEACH) Grant Program which grants you up to $4,000 if you are getting a master’s degree. You will need to work in a high-need, low-income area for a specific amount of time in order to qualify, and if you don’t meet all of the requirements, the grant turns into a direct unsubsidized loan.
Federal Pell Grants are also available to students who are getting a post-baccalaureate teacher certification program. You need to show financial needs, and the amount will change each year. It is important that you apply using the application as soon as possible because the FAFSA may also be a requirement to qualify for state and institutional grants and scholarships.
2. Your Employer
If your company wants to keep you, it might be in their best interest to pay for your grad school. It differs for every employer, but this can mean a tuition reimbursement program or writing a proposal about how your advanced degree could help you in doing your job. You could also apply for a job at a university that gives free tuition as a benefit. It might take longer to complete a degree this way as employees are limited on the number of free or reduced-price credit hours each semester, but you don’t need to necessarily find a job in your field to take advantage of free tuition.
3. Graduate Assistantships
Getting a graduate assistantship can be worth the effort because they provide money for part of or all of your tuition and a living stipend on top of the resume-boosting experience. You can either be a teaching assistant (TA) during your time at a graduate or Ph.D. program. Depending on the school/program, you might spend a good portion of your time preparing for class each week. You will also spend more time with faculty which can give you valuable connections and mentors.
Another option is being a research assistant. Many fields of study require research and as a graduate research assistant, you can be tasked with duties such as developing proposals and looking for outside funding to collect data and present findings. Another option is becoming an administrative assistant. Grad students who serve as these provide administrative support to their department. This can be a valuable addition to your resume, provide you with work experience, and can be influential in the connections you make.
4. Your Institution
As a grad student, you have the chance to be awarded scholarships and grants from your school and your academic department. One source of funding is a fellowship which is essentially a scholarship given for academic excellence or research rather than financial aid. This can also be a valuable addition to your resume. However, academic fellowships are highly competitive, and the process involves more than an application. You will most likely have to submit nominations, recommendations, and presentations. You can find out more information through your school’s graduate program chair and your adviser about fellowships available in the field you are looking to go into.
5. Federal Student Loans
Graduate students are limited to two options for federal student loans: Direct Plus Loans and Direct Unsubsidized Loans. Neither are subsidized, so the Department of Education won’t pay the occurring interest while you are in school. However, because of the ongoing pandemic, federally held student loans are in forbearance through September of 2021. During this time, loans will not accrue interest and you can make loan payments without incurring late fees. However, you will still owe money at some point. If you want to apply, you will have to fill out the FAFSA application again. If you are pursuing an advanced degree in public service or working for a government or non-profit organization, you can also qualify for Public Service Loan Forgiveness. However, make sure to review the list of strict requirements before you consider this as an option.
6. Professional Organizations
If you have looked at federal, state, and institutional sources for funding, you can also look within your field. You can join organizations within your desired profession. This could cost money to join as a member, but many will offer student discounts. You can then be eligible for money the group distributes to encourage growth within the profession.
7. Private Lender Student Loans
Federal loans you take out as a graduate student most often come at a higher interest rate than the ones given to undergrads. However, because you went to grad school to earn a larger paycheck in most cases, you will be more likely to negotiate better interest rates on private loans after graduation. Make sure to avoid private loans while in school, but afterward, it might be a good idea to refinance.