Finding Financial Aid for Graduate Students

More and more, a graduate degree is becoming the gateway for career advancement. Financing graduate study, however, isn’t as easy as it was in college.

More and more, young college graduates and established professionals are finding themselves going back to graduate school to complete a masters degree or to earn a doctorate. For some areas of study, such as the sciences and the humanities, a masters degree has been viewed as a step towards a stable career with advancement opportunities, teaching positions at a college or university, or as an extension of undergraduate study in order to start a career in that particular field. With the growing number of adults going to college and completing undergraduate degrees, however, more and more established professionals and recent college graduates find themselves applying to graduate school in order to remain competitive in their fields, or to even be qualified for positions that are available.

Paying for graduate school, however, is very different from paying for an undergraduate college education. In many fields, traditional scholarships and grants are hard to come by, if they exist at all. Those who need help financing graduate school must consider their cost of attendance in addition to outstanding student loan debt, know their options regarding financial aid, and who to contact with questions regarding financial aid for graduate students.

The Cost of Attending Graduate School

According to Lorain County Community College, every bit of education a person can get following high school graduation increases the amount of money they will earn over the course of their working life. A college graduate with a bachelor’s degree will, on average, earn $2.1 million over their lifetime. A graduate with a master’s degree will earn $2.5 million and a doctoral degree will, on average, earn someone $3.4 million.

While the financial and professional benefits are enticing, there are more factors to consider when calculating the cost of attending graduate school.

  • Actual cost of attendanceThis is simply tuition and fees charged by the college or university in order to be enrolled. This figure may also include memberships for campus recreation centers, technology fees, health insurance, and meal plans for dining in campus facilities.
  • Books and suppliesWhile these are not included on bills, these are a necessary part of going to school at any level. Graduate students have to take fewer credit hours per term in order to be considered full time students, but that does not mean that they will have fewer books or not need certain supplies, such as a computer, notebooks, or supplies specific to their area of study.
  • Living expensesMost graduate students do not live in residence halls or are not given a cost of living allowance. Rent, food, and utilities must be taken into account as these will come directly out of the student’s pocket.
  • Student loan paymentsJust as not all student loans are created equal, not all student loans are able to be deferred once a borrower returns to school. Some loans, such as emergency loans disbursed directly from a college or university fund or those who have used the maximum number of lifetime deferrments, must be paid on regardless of the borrower’s educational status. It is possible to make reduced payments or make interest-only payments, but borrowers must contact the agency holding their loans before making any decisions that could have a negative effect on their credit score.

There are ways to make graduate school cheaper. If possible, consider opting out of certain perks of attending a college or university if they aren’t needed, such as recreation center access, student legal services, health insurance or health center fees, meal plans, or credit overload fees for taking more than a specified number of credit hours in a given term. Buy used textbooks instead of new editions, or if available, consider renting books and materials from the college or university at a lower cost and return them at the end of the term.

Financial aid

Financial Aid Options for Graduate Students

There are a few options available to graduate students who need assistance in paying for school. Many of these options are similar to those available to undergraduates, but the terms and conditions are different because of standard characteristics of most graduate students.

Most importantly, graduate students who want to be considered for need-based aid must file the Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA). Many applicants will recognize this form from their undergraduate years, while older graduate students may not even know that this application exists. Those who need to file a FAFSA can do so at the FAFSA website or can contact their school’s financial aid office for assistance. A student’s FAFSA must be filed every year that a student wishes to receive aid and should be filed as soon as one’s federal income tax returns have been submitted.

According to U.S. News and World Report, there are four main ways a student can have most, or all, of the cost of going to graduate school paid for without going broke.

  • Employer tuition benefitsAs more and more employers are looking to hire or increase the number of highly-qualified employees, more and more companies are offering tuition reimbursement or remission benefits to cover at least a portion of educational expenses.
  • Scholarships and grantsFinding scholarships and grants in graduate school is much different than it is for college students. In this case, gift aid is often merit-based and offered through specific academic programs or private organizations, not the school’s financial aid office.
  • Assistantships or FellowshipsThese can come in a variety of forms, such as teaching positions, research assistants, administrative positions, or working in an area in which a student has extensive undergraduate experience, such as residence life or student affairs. These positions often come with a stipend and a full or partial tuition waiver, depending upon the college or university’s policy. For more information, students should contact their department of graduate affairs or graduate program coordinator.
  • LoansStudent loans are not just for undergraduate degrees. In addition to private loans, graduate students who have filed a FAFSA are eligible for unsubsidized federal Stafford and PLUS loans, as long as they have not reached their maximum lifetime borrowing limit.

Questions About Financial Aid for Graduate School

Financial aid can be confusing and intimidating for anyone at any stage in their educational career, but there are ways to find help.

For questions about loan deferrments, borrowers should contact their loan holding agency. This contact information can often be found on paper statements or on the agency’s website, along with forms needed to secure a deferrment.

For questions regarding the FAFSA, filers can contact their school’s financial aid office or the FAFSA website. Those with questions about assistantships or fellowships should contact the unit providing the position, most often the student’s department of study or the graduate affairs division of their college or university.

Paying for graduate school is an investment that has been proven to pay off regardless of a student’s field of study. Graduate study does not have to break the bank, however, or cause a student to dramatically alter their financial lives.