Graduate degrees can do wonders for your career. They can make your resume stand out in a competitive job market, give you the necessary skills to move up the corporate ladder, help you switch industries and boost your salary.

But going to grad school is expensive. On average, students rack up more than $70,000 in student loans to pay for school. The total cost can reach as much as six figures, depending on the program you choose. However, there are some ways to keep these costs at bay.

Key graduate school student loan debt statistics

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  • The average cost of tuition and fees for graduate school at public universities was $12,394 during the 2020-21 academic year, while tuition and fees at private schools was roughly $26,600.
  • The cost of graduate school varies greatly from one program to the next. For instance, in 2016-17, students pursuing a master’s in education spent an average of $18,812 a year in school, while medical students spent twice that amount.
  • More than half of graduate students (54%) take out loans to pay for their education.
  • The average annual borrowing amount for graduate school has more than doubled over the past two decades.
  • On average, graduate students in the U.S. leave school with about $71,000 in graduate school loans alone and $82,810 total in student loans from undergraduate and graduate school.
  • Student debt is more common among medical and law school students than other graduate degrees. It is estimated that 75 percent of professional doctorate students (including medical and law school students) graduate with student loans, versus 60 percent and 48 percent of those getting a master’s and a research doctorate, respectively.
  • Public administration, social work, fine arts and public policy are among the master’s degrees with the highest percentage of student loan borrowers.
  • Graduate students account for half of the nation’s outstanding student debt.

Average cost of graduate school

The average graduate student spends nearly $20,000 a year in tuition and fees. However, that number goes up to $28,445 for graduate students attending private nonprofit schools, while those attending public schools spend around $12,394.

But the type of institution you choose is not the only factor determining how much you’ll spend on your graduate education, as some programs cost considerably more than others.

Mary Morris, former board chair at the College Savings Foundation, says that the reason behind this is simple: Some programs just cost more to teach than others.

She says to consider the costs of training a medical doctor, for example. The labs, technology and equipment needed to provide the curriculum are more expensive than, say, materials required for training in fine arts.

Average graduate student loan debt by degree

Because graduate school is so expensive, most students have to bridge the financial gap by taking out student loans.

This has become so common that the average annual borrowing amount for graduate school more than doubled between 1994 and 2014, according to the Brookings Institution, and graduate students now account for half of the nation’s student loan debt.

When it comes to federal student loans, graduate students have two options:

  • Direct Loans. With a federal Direct Loan, graduate and professional students can borrow up to $138,500 (or up to $224,000 for medical school), with a 7.05 percent fixed interest rate for 2023-24 and an origination fee of 1.057 percent. Additionally, federal Direct Loans don’t require you to pass a credit check, and almost anyone who’s in good academic standing is eligible for them.
  • Grad PLUS loans. With a grad PLUS loan, you can borrow up to the full cost of attendance, as determined by your school. Unlike federal Direct Loans, grad PLUS loans do require students to pass a credit check and currently have a 8.05 percent fixed interest rate for 2023-24, plus a 4.228 percent origination fee.

Students can also take out private student loans to pay for school. However, these oftentimes have higher interest rates than federal student loans and offer fewer protections and repayment options.

Average graduate student loan debt by program

Most graduate students in the U.S. leave school with upward of $70,000 in graduate school debt. The amount students have to borrow fluctuates greatly by degree type (master’s versus doctorate) and field of study.

For instance, students pursuing a law degree graduate with more than double the amount in student loans than those who choose a master’s in education.

Program Average student debt in 2015-16 (most recent year with data)
MBA $66,300
Master of arts $72,800
Master of education $55,200
Master of science $62,300
PhD $98,800
Law $145,500
Medicine $246,000

Source: National Center for Education Statistics

How to lower the cost of grad school

The cost of a graduate education has consistently been on the rise for the past decade and, with inflation just beginning to cool from recent highs, sticker prices aren’t going down anytime soon. Still, there are a few options to consider that can make your degree more affordable.

Look into online or accelerated programs

Although some schools charge the same amount for both their online and their campus programs, others charge less for their online courses.

For instance, if you were to enroll in an online MBA program at Arizona State University, your tuition and fees for the 2023-24 academic year would be $24,287 if you’re a resident student. But if you choose to pursue the MBA on campus, that amount would go up to $35,303 for non-residents of Arizona.

Likewise, Morris says that finishing your degree faster can also save you “thousands” — and she’s right. A one-year in-person MBA program at the Kellogg School of Business costs $162,395, while the two-year program goes for more than $240,864.

Seek fellowships and teaching opportunities

Fellowships are a type of financial aid that is awarded to outstanding students based on their academic achievements and future potential. These programs are highly competitive, but the perks are worth it, as you could get money to pay for all your graduate school expenses or get funding for a specific research project.

Some schools also offer tuition waivers or some monetary awards for students who serve as teaching assistants. However, this does involve some time commitment on your end, so that’s something to consider.

If you’re employed, ask about tuition assistance

Some companies offer their employees help with their college expenses through a tuition reimbursement program or by paying back a portion of their loans after school. Contact your HR department to find out whether your employer offers these opportunities.

It’s worth noting that although these programs can provide some much-needed financial relief, they do come with some strings attached, such as staying in the company for a specific amount of time.

The bottom line

Going to grad school is expensive, but the rewards can be worth it. The most important thing is to research your options — both in terms of cost and financial aid — to ensure that you’re making the right choice for your wallet and career.