With 65% of seniors graduating from college with student loan debt, you likely want to find financial aid for grad school. After all, there is no need to add to your stack of student loans if you can avoid it.
The good news is that funding your graduate degree does not need to be expensive. With many options available for financial aid for graduate students, you might even be able to avoid student loans altogether.
How to get financial aid for grad school
Whether you’re looking for financial aid for your master’s degree or another advanced degree, there are a number of opportunities available to you. Check out the options below before resorting to expensive student loans.
Apply for a fellowship
If you’re looking to enter a specific field, a fellowship can be an excellent way to secure funding for your education. Fellowships are merit-based grants that can not only cover your tuition but also your room and board, and other living expenses.
Fellowships can come from a variety of places. You can apply for them through your school for what’s called an institutional fellowship, through federal funding and from outside organizations.
Not only can these fellowships help keep your educational costs low, but they can also help you hone your skills in the field and build your resume. For example, the work you do in your fellowship might tie directly into the work you hope to earn a living for someday, such as teaching or research in a particular area. These are as much educational opportunities as financial ones, so be sure to do your research on fellowships for which you could be eligible.
You can do this easily by signing up for sites such as ProFellow, which offers a searchable database of fellowships as well as application tips to help you in the process. You can also search for fellowships with the help of a database maintained by UCLA.
Search for scholarships
Another way to get money for graduate school is through grad school scholarships. This is a great option because you don’t have to repay the funds. There are a wide variety of ways you can earn a scholarship.
For example, you might find scholarships based on merit, field of study, location and even your heritage. Don’t leave any stone unturned in your search for scholarships you might be eligible for.
Below are a few tools to help you find scholarships specifically for graduate study:
For more scholarship resources, check out Student Loan Hero’s guide to scholarship search tools to aid in your hunt.
Ask about tuition reimbursement
If you already have a job and plan to keep working while you are in grad school, then check if your employer offers tuition reimbursement. Many large companies offer this benefit to their employees who choose to pursue higher education.
Some companies set limits on the amount that you can be reimbursed for tuition each year, while others may have an unlimited policy. Talk to your human resources department to find out what your company has to offer.
Research nonprofits for help
Some prospective students are surprised to learn that they can look for financial aid from nonprofits. What you want here is a nonprofit that helps fund education for people like you — whether that’s based on how much income you have, where you come from, or even the field of study you’re interested in.
This could take a little more digging than the previous options, but you can get started by looking at resources like QuestBridge, which helps low-income students gain access to education.
Find work-study opportunities
Another way to find financial aid for grad school is to look for work-study opportunities. Federal work-study programs are awarded based on need and are available for both graduate and undergraduate programs.
These programs vary by school and are offered on a first-come, first-served basis. If you’re interested, then hurry up and fill out your Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA), which you can do for the next school year as early as the fall of the previous year.
You are awarded a certain amount based on your level of financial need, your school’s funding and when you apply. Graduate and professional students can be paid by the hour or on salary, and that pay would go directly to you. However, you can choose to have your paycheck fund your school expenses.
As for the kind of work you can do with work-study, that will depend on the program you’re in. There might even be cases when you work off-campus if your school has a partnership with a private company in an industry relevant to your degree.
Get hired in an assistantship role
Many grad students turn to assistantships to help fund their education and life while in school. However, these roles, either as a teaching assistant or research assistant, tend to be a lot of work.
The average assistantship position requires 20 hours of work per week of teaching undergraduates, conducting lab work for your professor or similar tasks. And that time commitment can add up fast when paired with a challenging course load.
Although assistantships are common, they can be limited in number. Reach out to your school as soon as possible to see what’s available and apply soon to make sure you don’t come up empty-handed.
A clinical social worker-turned-blogger and entrepreneur, Andrea Imafidon used her role as a graduate assistant to gain a higher degree without incurring too much debt. With the help of the financial aid office at her school, Imafidon found a 20-hour-per-week post as a graduate assistant, which helped her avoid additional debt and earn a decent living as a student.
“I made more than enough money to live on, travel and save money with,” Imafidon said. “My graduate assistantship was one of the highest-paying gigs on campus … [and] covered my tuition, out-of-state fees, books and housing.”
Seek out state and school aid
After you’ve scouted out your fellowship, work-study and assistantship options, the next thing to look for is aid. Two places that might offer aid are your state and your school.
First, find out if your state offers financial aid for grad students by contacting the state grant agency. Even if you are considering an out-of-state school, you should reach out to that state agency to find out if they can offer you aid. The Department of Education has a map to help you find the contact information for various agencies in each state.
Besides state aid, your school might offer financial aid. Most schools offer some form of financial aid, so it is important to find out if yours does. And if you find aid for which you could be eligible, be mindful of turning in your application on time.
Fill the gap with federal loans
If you’ve exhausted all other options, look to federal student loans to fill the gap in your financial aid for grad school. Remember to complete your FAFSA early so you can have access to the most funds possible.
The FAFSA can unlock access to more than just loans (since it can also lead you to work-study opportunities and aid such as grants), but it’s also the only way to obtain federal student loans. This is important to know because these loans come with more repayment flexibility than private loans, as they offer advantages like access to income-driven repayment plans.
The Federal Student Aid office lists the options available to you as a graduate student, for which you’ll apply when you submit your FAFSA. While knowing your options ahead of time is always helpful, it’s not absolutely necessary in this scenario. That’s because submitting just one FAFSA each year enables you to see all of the programs that you can qualify for.
If you’re offered more than one type of aid, be sure to take any grants before you take on loans. At the very least, you might be able to lower the cost of the debt you have to take out. And if you don’t feel like you received enough federal funding, you can ask for more financial aid in an appeal.
The last resort: Consider private student loans
If you’re completely out of all other options for financial aid for grad school, you can close the gap with private student loans.
Private student loans are a great tool for those in need of that extra bit of funding not covered by other means, but they’re still a serious financial product. Private loans don’t offer some of the protections that federal loans do, such as income-driven repayment plans or federal loan forgiveness.
What’s more, private loan interest rates can end up being higher, and those interest rates can cost you more money overall and keep you in debt for a longer period.
Still, it may be worth considering, depending on your personal financial situation. MyCorporation CEO Deborah Sweeney took out private and federal loans to supplement a scholarship she had that didn’t pay for all of her grad school — and for her, the debt was worth the investment.
“It has been a lifelong philosophy to not be afraid of taking loans for calculated reasons — to advance my education, to purchase a home and to invest in my business,” Sweeney said. “In turn, I work hard and spend carefully to pay off the loans as quickly as possible.”
If you’re thinking about using private student loans to supplement financial aid for grad school, weigh the costs and risks carefully before you proceed and then be prepared to pay them off quickly, like Sweeney did.
Take a beat before you take a leap
Grad school is the dream of many who wish for career advancement or a career change, or simply have a love of learning. But it’s not a dream that comes free, even when the tuition is covered through grants and other means.
Unless you go to school part time, the time you spend in grad school is time you won’t be working. That means losing out on your salary as well as the increases you’d have in your pay for each year of experience you gain.
That said, graduate school can also lead to a boost in your pay depending on the degree you get — and it might even open doors to careers you wouldn’t have had access to otherwise. Like all investments, there’s a list of benefits and disadvantages to evaluate. Make your own list of pros and cons before you make up your mind because grad school is not the right path for everyone.
And if you need a little help making this decision, here’s a handy guide to help you decide if grad school is worth it.
Sarah Sharkey contributed to this report.
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