Ways to pay for graduate school

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Graduate school can further your career in meaningful ways, but it’s also expensive. If you can’t pay for graduate school out of pocket, there are plenty of ways to make a graduate degree more affordable, including student loans, scholarships and grants.

How to pay for graduate school

If you need help paying for graduate school, consider looking for financial aid through a variety of sources.

Scholarships

Scholarships are free gift aid that are typically given based on merit or academic performance. Because scholarships are most heavily advertised to high school and undergraduate students, scholarships for graduate students often fall under the radar. “In fact, just 15 percent of grad students pay for college with scholarships or grants,” says Ashley Boucher, manager of corporate communications at Sallie Mae.

To find scholarships for graduate school, it’s usually easiest to use scholarship search engines like Unigo, the College Board’s Scholarship Search, Sallie Mae’s Graduate School Scholarship Tool and Fastweb.

Grants

Grants are another type of gift aid that doesn’t need to be repaid. While scholarships are typically merit-based, grants are more likely to require financial need.

Grants can be offered through a number of organizations and programs. Here are a few grants that you can apply for:

  • Federal grants: Grants like the TEACH Grant are available through the Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA). You can view the complete list of federal grants on the application.
  • State grants: Most states offer grants based on financial need. You’ll apply for these through the FAFSA.
  • Private organization grants: Many private organizations offer substantial grants to graduate students, but they are typically only offered to members of the organization. Contact local or national organizations to see what’s available and whether you’re eligible.

Fellowships

Fellowships are programs that typically cover the cost of tuition and offer a stipend in return for things like research studies, peer tutoring and student teaching. Some fellowships even offer housing and grocery stipends. Fellowships are similar to scholarships, but they’re usually offered by degree-specific departments within the college or university. For example, if you’re getting a graduate degree in English, the English department would be where you complete your fellowship.

Fellowships are offered to students who excel academically and are generally very competitive programs.

Work-study

Work-study is a type of part-time job offered through universities as a way to help students pay for school. Work-study programs are usually more flexible than off-campus jobs, and unlike with scholarships and grants, the funds you earn go directly to you. Work-study is available through the FAFSA; you’ll simply mark your interest when you fill out the form.

Federal student loans

Graduate students can choose between two federal student loans: Direct Unsubsidized student loans and grad PLUS loans. With Direct Unsubsidized student loans, you can borrow up to $20,500 each academic year, with an aggregate limit of $138,500. With grad PLUS loans, you can borrow up to the entire cost of attendance, minus any other financial aid you receive. Interest rates are fixed and are the same for all borrowers.

Direct Unsubsidized Loans are usually the best place to start, since interest rates are lower than those of grad PLUS loans and there’s no credit check. While PLUS loans don’t have a minimum credit score requirement, they will do a credit check to ensure that you don’t have any adverse credit history. You can apply for federal graduate school loans through the FAFSA. Just keep in mind that any money you borrow will have to be paid back, usually over a period of 10 to 25 years.

Private student loans

Graduate school loans from private lenders are a type of student loan that originates from banks, credit unions and online lenders. Whether you’re going to law school, business school or medical school, it’s likely that there’s a lender offering student loans specifically for your degree.

Private student loans have a wide range of interest rates that are determined by your credit score and financial health. If you have good credit, your interest rates could be lower than what you get through federal loans, but the inverse is true as well. Interest rates can also be either fixed or variable.

The biggest downside of private student loans is that they don’t come with the benefits of federal student loans, like income-driven repayment or long forbearance periods, which is why it’s important to maximize the federal aid first.

Affordable graduate school options

When it comes to making graduate school more affordable, there are practical ways to lower the cost of your next degree.

Online programs

Online graduate programs are often much more affordable than in-person attendance because there aren’t as many costs to factor in, like on-campus housing and resources. With many online programs, you’ll be responsible only for tuition costs while still getting a quality education. Just make sure that the program is fully accredited and from a credible institution before enrolling.

In-state public universities

When possible, seek out universities in your state that offer the degree program you’re looking for — doing so could save you thousands of dollars a semester. Public universities are also generally more affordable than private, while offering a similar quality of education.

Tuition reciprocity programs

Some states have agreements with neighboring states that allow out-of-state students to attend college at in-state rates. For instance, the Western Undergraduate Exchange allows students within 16 participating states to attend college at no more than 150 percent that college’s in-state rate, saving students an average of $10,000.

Next steps

When it comes to your graduate education, it’s important to start making a plan as soon as possible. Here are three steps to crafting a plan to pay for school:

  1. Consider your own interests and needs: Are you going to be participating as a full-time or a half-time student? When you’re a full-time student, you’ll complete your degree and can start your career earlier, but half-time attendance can leave more room for a job that can help you fund your education.
  2. Apply aggressively for scholarships: Start applying for grants, fellowships and scholarships as soon as the deadlines open, and apply for as many as possible. The amount of money you win this way will dictate how much you’ll need to borrow in student loans.
  3. Decide what you can realistically afford: Once you have your award money totaled up, think about your financial future. Will your master’s degree still leave you with six-figure student loan debt? The return on investment (ROI) of your degree could help you determine which type of school you pursue and how long you could be paying off student loans.

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Written by
Hanneh Gundersen
Student loans reporter
Hanneh Gundersen specializes in everything related to student loans and helping you finance your next educational endeavor. She aims to help others reach their collegiate and financial goals through making student loans easier to understand.
Edited by
Student loans editor