How To Fund Graduate School
You may think that because you completed four years of your undergraduate degree successfully that getting into graduate school will be a cinch. After all, you’re officially a bachelor of your discipline. You’ve accomplished something. And it’s true, a bachelor’s degree is a significant achievement in your life; however, making the transition to graduate school is an entirely different battle.
You’re no longer being walked through the process of higher education. Once you’re in grad school, you’re expected to have it all, know it all, and do it all. One of those challenges is funding graduate school. Different schools have different programs and policies, and how to fund graduate school is an important – but achievable – hurdle for many would-be students.
The Graduate School Admissions Process
Before jumping right into the question of funding, you should look at the overall structure of the admissions process. Your applications packet, for example, will have:
- Your undergraduate transcripts (sent by the registrar’s office at your undergraduate school)
- Your GRE scores (or scores of other appropriate standardized tests)
- Admissions essays (and/or personal statements)
- Letters of recommendation
Once your graduate school of choice receives these materials, you may be asked to come in for an interview. If applicable, this is a very noticeable difference between the undergraduate and graduate worlds. As much as this is for the school to vet you as thoroughly as possible beyond the facts and figures in your applications packet, the interview is also where you can vet the school by asking your own questions.
Funding Graduate School
How much does all this cost? And how are you going to pay for it? In 2009, the average cost for a year at a public graduate school was a hefty $21,900. This went up to $34,100 at a private graduate school. With numbers like that, the stories of entire families going into debt trying to pay off loans become somewhat comprehensible.
However, there are some ways to make the seemingly exorbitant costs of graduate school more manageable. Some of these ways are unique to the nature of grad school, as an institute of higher learning and research for adults, as opposed to undergraduate school, where young men and women take their first tentative steps away from home.
For example, if you are employed, you can ask your place of work to help financially support your graduate school application. A 2013 study by the Society for Human Resource Management found that 59 percent of the 550 employers they surveyed “offered graduate educational assistance” to employees who intended on pursuing a course of study.
Be aware that this isn’t a carte blanche offer; your chosen discipline needs to be connected to the overall industry of your job (a law school application while working as a paralegal bodes well for your request being approved; an acting school application does not). Also, you will probably need to have held your job for a long enough period of time that your place of employment feels comfortable sponsoring you for the degree. Asking for financial assistance only a few months after coming on board would not endear you to your employer, who has had barely any time to get to know you before you’re already asking for thousands of dollars to pursue a venture that might distract you from your professional responsibilities.
Certain companies might require you to pay back a portion of the amount upon completion of the graduate program. Graduate school is not cheap, and if your place of work sticks its neck out for you, they can reasonably expect you to return the favor when you have your degree under your belt.
Graduate schools realize that their potential students are not made of money, so they offer some encouraging, albeit complex, methods of affording their services. One of the most common methods is via scholarships, but you should know that the scholarship landscape is very different in the graduate world than what you may be familiar with from your undergraduate days.
Writing for US News, Scholarship America suggests asking your alma mater if they offer scholarships for former students who are making the transition to graduate school. However, this would only apply if you are pursuing your graduate degree in the same school where you got your undergraduate degree. It makes sense that institutions would want to incentivize and retain students who want to remain within their system; so if you’re thinking about staying close to “home” with your advanced degree, your school might be willing to work with you.
Scholarships can also come from the government. The U.S. Department of Energy Office of Science offers graduate fellowships for students seeking degrees in the areas of its specialization, such as physics, biology, chemistry, mathematics, etc. Similarly, the U.S. Department of Education has the Jacob K. Javits Fellowship, which promises fellowships to students of “superior academic ability” who are applying for selected graduate or doctoral programs.
Work for the School
The research element of grad school can be hard work. If you’re willing to take the initiative and make yourself useful to your particular department and the faculty members within, the school might be willing to meet you halfway. This can mean that you provide research assistance to your professors, or you do your own research for a personal project (which could include a thesis or a dissertation) that would be beneficial to your academic goals and your program’s department. In return, the graduate school will offer you financial support, as long as you meet certain other criteria:
- You have to be in good academic standing.
- You have to be endorsed by your faculty advisor.
- You have to be taking the expected number of courses (i.e., you cannot take a smaller course load under the assumption that since you’re going to be performing professional work for your degree, you will be entitled to lighter academic requirements).
In graduate school lingo, this is known as providing a stipend for a research assistantship. Stanford University, for example, pays its graduate teaching assistants up to $9,031 for a quarter.
For many students, there is still a financial gap between what grants and scholarships cover and the actual cost of tuition and living. This is where borrowing comes in. Programs like GradPLUS from the federal government can help students who have decent credit and who have paid off their other federal loans. Paying back your GradPLUS loan, however, starts as soon as you receive the money.
A Key Difference Between Funding Graduate School and Undergraduate School
Getting through the payment process for your undergraduate degree may have seemed like a weight off your shoulders, but funding graduate school is a different ballgame.
Certain need-based grants for low-income students, such as Pell Grants, do not apply at the graduate level. US News warns that there is “very little” financial aid for needy graduate students, because schools feel that the jobs their alumni should get upon graduation will help pay off their loans.
Notwithstanding this, you should still file a FAFSA and do so as early in the process as possible. You can qualify for small federal loans, such as the Stafford loan, and these can help.
Graduate School Loan Forgiveness
Even after you submit all the paperwork to apply for a loan and are lucky enough to qualify, things can change, and you might find yourself in a position where getting your dream job after commencement is proving tougher than you thought possible. Finaid.org calculated that students in the class of 2008 were $24,842 in debt and earned only $33,787 the following year. That’s why some schools offer loan forgiveness and loan repayment programs.
Before you start wiping the sweat off your brow, loan forgiveness and repayment programs are generally only available to students who intend on going into the non-profit or public service sectors. In 2005, a Nigerian student enrolled at Stanford Law School left the program to open non-profit schools in his native land, accruing debt of over $100,000 in the process. For their part, Stanford offered to pay 85 percent of his yearly loans for the next 10 years, as long as he continues to work with his non-profit venture. US News reports that for students who make less than $50,000, Stanford’s loan repayment goes up to 100 percent.
Similarly, the National Health Service Corps offer loan forgiveness programs for physicians and nurses in training, to incentivize them into the areas of medicine where there is the greatest need for their services.
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