The decision whether to attend graduate school is often a financial decision. For some careers there is a limit to how far a person can go without eventually getting an advanced degree. For some careers, there is simply no way to enter the profession without a graduate degree. If graduate school is a route in your future and there is no wealthy benefactor stepping up to write the check, affording graduate school can be a daunting prospect.
If you are sure that graduate school makes financial sense, there are number of places to go for help paying for it. The first stop is the Department of Education’s website, where you will fill out a Free Application for Student Aid, or FAFSA. This might not be new for all potential graduate students because it was also necessary for student aid during undergraduate school. Yet for many undergraduate students, it was done by parents behind the scenes. This form will begin the process for many student financial aid programs, including aid programs unique to the individual school and federal programs that will apply no matter where the student goes.
One such program is the Graduate PLUS loan., which is somewhat of a misnomer, since the PLUS loan is a Parent Loan For Undergraduate Students. The Grad PLUS is a federally sponsored loan that can be made in the amount up to the total cost of attendance minus other aid received by the student. The loan carries a 7.9% interest rate, and in theory it goes into repayment immediately after final disbursement, but repayment can be deferred as long as the student is still in school more than half time.
If leaving graduate school with extensive loan debt is not ideal, a second option for affording graduate school is to attend part time at night while still working full time. Many schools offer night programs in law, business, and social sciences that are as highly regarded as their daytime counterparts. This option is less common for graduate studies in humanities, physical sciences, and medicine. A twist on the same plan would be to attend graduate school full time during the school year and work full time during the summers, vacations, or nights and weekends to supplement the income and reduce the amount of student loans needed to graduate.
For some students, another option is to consider military service either before or after graduate school. For some disciplines, including medicine and law, the military will offer scholarships and loan repayment for graduates who commit to serve for a number of years after graduate school. For other disciplines, service in the military for more than three years will qualify a student for up to 36 months of the new Post-9/11 GI Bill, which includes money for tuition, room and board, and books. In addition, the same program allows veterans to transfer their benefits to spouses and children.
Finally, many students have good luck in aggressively searching for scholarships outside of the FAFSA process through online sites that match specialized scholarships with students meeting their criteria. Although this will not necessarily pay for all of graduate school, it may well chip away at the debt that comes with it.
Graduate school can be a sensible investment, and with preparation, research, and a willingness to search out finance options, it does not need to be the first step to a life of debt repayment. Creative juggling of work, loans, summer jobs, scholarships, and grants can get the graduate degree without the debt an open doors to additional career opportunities.