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How to Pay for Grad School

Bridget Kulla, FastWeb.com

Earning a graduate degree can be a smart idea, but how do you find the funding to pay for an expensive advanced degree? There are ways to earn a graduate degree without ending up with a lot of debt.

Figure Out How Much Money You’ll Need
First, figure out the expenses associated with getting a degree. Don’t just focus on tuition costs. Tally in extra commuting expenses, the price of healthcare, text books, supplies, and other additional costs.

Once you’ve figured out your costs, calculate how much debt you can reasonably afford. Use the loan calculator on FinAid.com to calculate debt, which can be specialized for master’s or Ph.D. students.

“Talk with students who have been in the program for a year or two. You can bounce ideas off of them and get realistic answers. They can share the strategies that they’ve been using to prepare for the expense and lack of income,” says Allison Lawton, a graduate student studying school counseling at DePaul University.

Negotiate a Better Financial Aid Package
Once you’ve figured out how much aid you’ll need, start talking with schools. A school’s financial aid offer is not set in stone. Financial aid for graduate students is based more on merit than financial need. Show schools that you will be an asset to their program and don’t be afraid to ask for more money.

At the graduate level, your department will be just as important, or more important, as the financial aid office in receiving aid. Talk to the department head to negotiate a financial aid package that works for you.

“As a graduate student, you’re more valuable to the university,” Lawton says, “You have room to ask ‘I can do [research] for you, what can you do for me?’”

Students in professional programs, like law and business, are less likely to receive funding than students in academic programs, like the sciences and religion, but are more likely to get paid internships.

Grants and Fellowships
Graduate grants and fellowships are not as numerous as undergraduate awards, so start your search early. Your best bet for funding is at the departmental level. Talk to as many people in the department as possible. Fill out your FAFSA to be considered for federal aid. Financial aid is available through private fellowship sponsors as well. Some prestigious private fellowship programs include the National Science Foundation Graduate Research Fellowship Program, the Microsoft Research Fellowship, and the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation Minority Fellowship.

Paid Assistantships
Unlike grants and fellowships, assistantships require students to work around 15 hours a week assisting in research or teaching part time. Assistantships are most common in the physical sciences and students receive, on average, $10,000, according to the National Center for Education Statistics. In some schools, you are automatically considered for an assistantship with your financial aid package. Some programs require students to be more proactive.

“I started talking to professors and seeing what their research was and what their interests were during the middle of the year to get an assistantship for the next year,” Lawton says.

Loans
If you can’t cover your costs through fellowships and assistantships, don’t despair. Nearly 60 percent of master’s degree students and more than 85 percent of professional school students borrow to meet their tuition costs. The average debt for graduate students is $23,700, according to a study by Nellie Mae. Graduate students can borrow through federal or private lenders.

To qualify for federal loans (and much private financial aid), grad students must submit a FAFSA. The federal PLUS Loan, which, until recently, was only available to the parents of college students, now lends graduate students up to the cost of attendance.

Employer Assistance Programs
Don’t overlook a valuable source of aid — your employer. In the 2003-2004 school year, 21 percent of graduate students received tuition aid from their employers, according to the National Center for Education Statistics. Employer tuition reimbursement is tax-free up to $5,250 through 2010. On average, employers with reimbursement plans contribute $3,000 to tuition.

This benefit frequently comes with strings attached. Most employers require their employees to maintain a certain grade point average, usually a “B”, while receiving funding. Some employers also require employees who receive tuition reimbursement to commit to stay with the company for a period of time after they complete their degree or they will have to return the money. If your employer doesn’t offer a tuition reimbursement benefit, it doesn’t hurt to ask if they’ll help with tuition costs.

You may be living on a tight budget while in graduate school, but an advanced degree has advantages. Not only will it help you become more knowledgeable about an area of study that interests you, but, on average, graduate degree earners have a higher salary than those with only an undergraduate degree.

“Grad school is doable. It’s scary and it’s a lot of money, but I think in the long run it’s worth it, even if it takes a while to pay it off,” Lawton says.


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