How to Pay for Grad School

Paying for a graduate degree is different from paying for an undergraduate degree. We'll tell you how, and help you get started.

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Whether it’s a combo of loans, scholarships and savings or one amazing research fellowship, there are many different ways to fund your education. And since financial aid packages vary widely, most experts will tell you that the most direct approach is to talk to individual grad schools about your goals.

But before you make the call, arm yourself with the facts. How should you tackle your application? Have you explored all possible sources of funding, including scholarship databases? Does your choice of subject affect your decision?  You’ll impress the heck out of universities on your shortlist if you know your financial options. What’s more, you’ll keep yourself from drowning in debt for the rest of your life.

Keep reading – we’ll walk you through the key factors to consider, and the many specific ways you have of financing your graduate degree. If you’re on the fence about whether to go to grad school or how to pick one, we’ve got some advice on that too.

Where to Start

Who to Talk To

Individual Graduate Schools / Academic Divisions / Departments

Many universities now have financial aid officers who expressly deal with graduate students.

Your first step is look at the website for the individual graduate school (e.g. medicine, law, business, etc.) or division/department (e.g. humanities, physical science, etc.) you’re considering. This website will usually list specific financial aid information for graduate students and provide you with someone to contact with questions.

It’s worthwhile starting a conversation with these folks. Since a lot of money flows from the graduate school itself, staff liaisons will often have details on relevant fellowships, grants, assistantships, work opportunities and related areas of funding. They’ll also be able to tell you how current students are financing their degrees.

University Financial Aid Office

Many universities now have financial aid officers who expressly deal with graduate students. They will have answers to many of your questions regarding federal aid and loans and advice on applications. As U.S. News & World Report points out, you can also ask the financial aid office for useful information such as the:

  • Percentage of students receiving financial aid from university loans and scholarships
  • Average need-based scholarship awarded
  • Mean, cumulative debt for the most recent graduating class

While you’re in the vicinity, you may wish to contact the diversity office, research office and/or related offices. For example, there could be a staff member in the research office who works with grads on writing funding proposals.

Don’t be afraid to double-check the data you receive. Universities are selling you a product, and unscrupulous schools will try to “massage” their numbers (e.g. overstating job placement figures for law school graduates).

Individual Faculty & Students

You also have the option to contact individual faculty members and current grad students to express your interest in their projects.

Before you do so, take a close look at their research and how they receive their funding (e.g. government grants). Brief them on your educational goals and current situation. Remember: you’re not asking them for money; you’re building goodwill within the institution.

Four Key Steps to Take

1. Get Organized

Applying for financial aid is going to take time. So reserve a chunk of your week for chasing down opportunities, talking to university contacts and applying for grants, scholarships and fellowships.

If you’re looking for databases of funding opportunities, our resource section is one place to start. We also recommend you look at websites, listservs and social media sites for universities, departments, community organizations, professional associations, etc. Reach out to your network for ideas.

Even if your grad school plans aren’t set in stone, it’s a good time to start assembling your application materials. The application process can take many weeks to complete.

  • Organize your references and letters of support.
  • Make copies of letters of recommendation and essays in case you can re-use them.
  • Complete your applications in time to be reread and edited.

2. Apply Early

This rule applies to everything – graduate school, FAFSA, individual scholarships and fellowships – you name it.

Applying early is especially important for graduate school:

  • Universities do not have inexhaustible funds. If you send in your application first, you are eligible for the entire “money pool.” If you apply late, much of the good stuff (e.g. grants) will have been claimed by other students.
  • Applying early also alerts grad schools to your intent. To reward your interest in them, they may come up with lucrative financial aid packages.

Applying early is especially important for graduate school.

You’ll find grad school application forms on your chosen university’s website. But be sure you have the right one. Many professional schools have their own application process (e.g. medical students fill out a separate application form to law students). Don’t forget to ask the admissions office if it’s possible to waive the application fee!

Once you’ve filled in your application, the university will take a look at your financial situation.

  • In most cases, you will automatically be considered for awards and scholarships that match your profile.
  • However, there are some institutional grants, assistantships/fellowships and scholarships that require separate applications. These may be funded with money from private donors, alumni, etc.

So talk to the right people, make a list and prepare your applications well-ahead of time. Deadlines for scholarships may come up before the grad school application.

3. Do a Cost-Benefit Analysis (CBA)

You can always do an estimated CBA before applying to schools (and we recommend it). However, once you have detailed information on your funding, a new CBA will tell you whether you can afford the specific program.

  1. Add up all your degree costs, including tuition, transportation, family expenses, food, course materials, rent, health insurance, certification costs, loan interest repayments, etc.
  2. Subtract any money earned from grants, fellowships, assistantships, etc.
  3. Compare this final figure to your projected future earnings

For example, let’s say an MBA degree costs you $40,000. After graduation, you expect to earn an extra $10,000 annually. That means – if all goes well – it will take you 4 years to pay off your degree. Just remember that sometimes things don’t all go well.

You can try this for yourself with LearnVest Grad School Calculator. We’ve also listed a number of loan interest calculators in our resources section.

4. Compare & Negotiate Financial Aid Packages

So you’ve filled out your FAFSA, applied early and you’ve been accepted! But now your grad school is presenting you with a financial aid package that’s primarily composed of student loans. Can you negotiate the terms?

The answer is yes, ifyou negotiate with tact. Some schools, especially those with low acceptance rates, may be willing to help you out.

Contact your financial aid officer and explain your options. Be honest. It’s okay to let your grad school know if you’ve been offered better financial aid packages, but don’t lie about the terms.

Is this program your top pick? Tell them. Instead of demanding new financing, ask, “how can we make this work?” And don’t forget to talk to individual departments about funding opportunities you may have missed in your initial research.

Where’s the Money?

Federal, State & University Aid

What You Should Know

There are few things about federal, state and university aid that change in grad school.

If you’ve been through the funding gauntlet as an undergrad, you’re probably already aware that financial aid is provided by a variety of bodies, including the federal government, the state government and the university itself. We cover the ABCs about these sources – and more – in our guide on How to Pay for College.

On the other hand, there are few things about federal, state and university aid that change in grad school. These may make a degree more affordable than you might imagine. So before you take any options off the table, check out the following sections for specific tips and advice.

Federal Aid & FAFSA

Yep, we’re afraid it’s back to filling out the FAFSA. As usual, you should submit this as soon as you can after October 1st.

The good news is that college graduates are considered “independent”. That means you won’t need your parents’ financial info in order to apply for federal aid. You will, however, need your tax return and personal financial info.

There are exceptions to this general rule. For instance, if you’re an undergraduate and applying for law school, you may be required to provide proof of family income and the like.

Unfortunately, unless you’re interested in a post-baccalaureate teacher certification program, Pell Grants are not available at the graduate level. However, a variety of other federal options are still out there, including loans (see our loan section below) and federal work-study.

State Aid

When it comes to state financial aid, it’s worth doing a little digging on graduate degree options. In-state programs are generally cheaper than out-of-state programs, but you may be surprised at your choices.

  • Neighboring States: For example, if you live in a neighboring state or the same region as your preferred school, you may qualify for in-state tuition. It never hurts to check with the university financial aid office.
  • Regional College Exchange: While you’re there, you can also ask whether the school participates in a regional college exchange. Some universities offer in-state tuition rates if your preferred program is not offered at partner schools within your home state.
  • Residency Options: Desperate to attend UMass but live in Seattle? Think creatively. You have the option to move to the state to establish residency, work for a few years to save money and then apply to your first choice school.

And, as always, we recommend you look into every kind of state-specific scholarship you can find.

University Aid

In addition to FAFSA, you’re going to have fill out school-specific applications and possibly a CSS/Profile. Universities have a vast stew of loans, grants, scholarships and other sources of aid that they have the power to dole out. But, as Oliver Twist discovered, you don’t always get what you need.

Also remember that scholarships and assistantships may be distributed by departments or your specific graduate school (e.g. School of Education), not the central financial aid office. So perform due diligence and talk to the right people.

Student Loans

What You Should Know

If you’re considering taking out a student loan – federal or private – you should realize that most graduate loans are:

  • Available in larger initial loan amounts than undergraduate loans
  • Often offered at a higher interest rate than undergraduate loans
  • Not subsidized – interest rates start accruing immediately (an exception is the Perkins loan)
  • Saddled with different terms of repayment than undergraduate loans

Costs can add up. For each graduate loan, you will also have to consider financial factors such as initial processing fees, add-on fees at repayment, payment plans and the like.

To make it worse, even if you postpone or defer your undergraduate loan payments during graduate school, they will still accumulate interest.

The resulting accumulation of debt can be staggering. When you finally earn your graduate degree and start repaying your loans, you may be shocked at just how much you owe.

We cover some of the quirks of graduate loans below, but for more comprehensive information, see the sections on Federal Student Loans and Private Student Loans in our guide to How to Pay for College.

Federal Perkins Loans

Perkins loans are available for graduate students with exceptional financial need, but funds are often scarce. Money is given to participating universities by the government, and the university acts as the lender.

  • Graduate students can borrow up to $8,000 per year, with a maximum, including undergraduate amounts, of $60,000.
  • The interest rate is fixed at 5% and you do not have to begin repayment until 9 months after graduation.

Federal Direct Unsubsidized Loans (a.k.a. Stafford Loans)

The graduate loan limits for an unsubsidized Stafford loan are better than undergraduate limits.

  • You can borrow up to $20,500 each year, with a lifetime maximum of $138,500 for graduate or professional students.
  • For students in certain health fields, these limits are raised to $41,167 annually and a lifetime cap of $224,000.

Interest rates are fixed and determined as of June 1 each year. For example, direct unsubsidized loans that were first disbursed on or after 7/1/14 and before 7/1/15 have an interest rate of 6.21%.

It’s vital to realize that an unsubsidized loan means you are responsible for any interest that accrues while you are studying. If you choose to defer paying this interest until after graduation, the interest you owe will be added to the loan principal.

Federal Graduate PLUS Loans

Unlike the undergraduate PLUS loan, your parents cannot take out a Graduate PLUS loan for your education expenses. You, and you alone, are responsible for loan repayments.

  • The maximum PLUS loan amount you can borrow is the cost of attendance (determined by your school) minus any other financial assistance received.
  • Borrowers have to pass a credit check; those with accounts in collections or bankruptcy may be denied.
  • There is also a loan fee that is proportionately deducted from each loan disbursement.

Like the Stafford loan, interest rates are fixed. For Direct PLUS Loans first disbursed on or after July 1, 2014, and before July 1, 2015, the interest rate is 7.21%.

As a graduate student, your loan will be placed into deferment while you are enrolled (at least half-time) and for an additional six months after you cease to be enrolled (at least half-time).

Private Loans

Most financial advisors will tell you to opt for a graduate loan from the federal government. These loans generally have the best terms and interest rates.

Nevertheless, there are plenty of private lenders, including universities, that also issue loans to graduates, and you may find that you need to resort to these. We talk a lot about these options in the section on Private Student Loans in our guide on How to Pay for College. Always be sure you understand the terms.

Loan Forgiveness/Loan Repayment Assistance Programs (LRAPs)

Loan forgiveness programs and LRAPs are offered by universities, states and the federal government. These are often intended for graduates who opt for a career in a non-profit or public interest sector (e.g. teaching, law, medicine, etc.).

For example:

But before you start filling in forms:

  • Be sure you’re eligible to apply.
  • Check how many awards are given and for what amounts.
  • Determine if your loans qualify for repayment.
  • Examine the terms of the contract very carefully.

For instance, in order to qualify for an LRAP, you may be required to work in a public service job for a certain number of years. If you break this contract, you will be responsible for all your loan repayments.

Savings

Section 529 Plans

You can keep Section 529 plans working for you long into graduate school:

  • Don’t withdraw all your 529 funds during your undergraduate years; allow some of this money to remain accruing interest.
  • Consider working before graduate school and saving money for a few years.
  • Keep adding money (even if you’re withdrawing funds) while you’re an undergraduate. You and/or your family may find state grants that match your contributions.

As always, we recommend you talk to a trusted financial advisor about your options and evaluate your 529 approach annually.

IRA/401(k) Retirement Savings

As long as you’re paying for qualified educational expenses, the IRS will allow you to withdraw funds from your IRA without having to pay the 10% additional tax for early withdrawal. However, you may have to pay income tax on part of the amount distributed. Thankfully, if you’re a poor graduate student, that income tax is probably not going to be very high.

Work for a large company with 401(k) plans? You may be able to withdraw up to 50% of your vested 401(k) value as a loan. You’re basically borrowing your own money, and paying it back with interest through paycheck deductions.

Although it sounds great, borrowing off your 401(k) can be a slippery slope:

  • You lose all the compound interest you might have earned by keeping the money in the 401(k).
  • You may not be able to contribute to your 401(k) until you’ve cleared your loan.
  • If something happens to your job (you’re fired or wish to leave), you have to pay back the loan immediately.

The upshot is – think very carefully before you dip into your retirement savings.

Fellowships, Assistantships & Scholarships

Fellowships

Fellowships are lucrative academic awards that apply to graduate and post-graduate projects. They’re typically merit-based and include famous programs like the Rhodes, Marshall and Fulbright. As such, they’re highly sought after!

Each fellowship is different. For some, you may receive a tuition waiver and a generous stipend. You may be able to conduct your own research without having to teach. You may be funded to travel overseas and work on an independent project. For others, you may be asked to complete partial repayment or a service commitment after graduation.

Wondering about the difference between graduate fellowships and scholarships? Although the line is very fuzzy, fellowships often concentrate on specific research or academic projects. Browse our resources section to begin your search.

Assistantships

Teaching, research and service assistantships give graduate students real-world experience and allow them to make back part of their tuition. Assistantships are common in large state universities and extremely common in the physical sciences fields.

Most assistantships will reward your work with a full or partial tuition waiver and a stipend. Although it’s lighter than full-time, the workload can limit how many classes you take per semester. Some assistantships come with health benefits.

  • Research Assistants conduct experiments and simulations, write and edit reports, tackle focus group research and literature reviews – anything to do with the department’s research project.
  • Teaching Assistants (TAs) teach undergraduate classes. High-level doctoral candidates may tackle graduate level courses.
  • Service Assistants/Graduate Assistants (GAs) work in administrative roles for faculty and staff (e.g. student services office).
  • Resident Assistants (RA) live in dorms and provide assistance to undergraduates in return for free room and board or tuition.

To find an assistantship, talk to faculty and check the school’s job listings and your departmental website. You can also search the web for research assistantships in your field of interest.

Scholarships

Graduate scholarships are awarded on the basis of academic or merit-based achievements, and offer students support for tuition and education costs.

For tips on starting your search, you can browse through our section on College Scholarships in How to Pay for College. We’ve also listed a variety of scholarship databases and lists, including scholarships for minorities and underrepresented groups, in our resources section.

Grants

Broadly speaking, grants are given in exchange for the completion of an educational project. Grants are available from the federal government, universities, states, private organizations – you name it.

You’ve probably already come across programs such as the federal TEACH Grant and the Pell Grant. But there are student grants for all kinds of academic purposes (e.g. travel, research, training, etc.). Even small grants can help reduce your costs.

Employer Assistance & Job Advice

How Your Job Affects Your Decision to go to Grad School

Every employer is going to react differently to your decision to go to graduate school. They may be generous enough to offer educational assistance. They may be unwilling to give you time off for classes. They may ask you to opt for an online degree instead of losing you to another state.

You won’t know until you have the discussion. Just remember that if you quit your job, you may lose your health insurance and benefits. Even if your company agrees to put your job on hold for a year or two, you still have to account for the loss of income. You can do it – it’s just going to take careful planning.

Employer Assistance

Check your benefits package – your company may have a tuition assistance or tuition reimbursement program. According to the 2014 Employee Benefits Survey from the Society for Human Resource Management (SHRM), 50% of respondents offered graduate educational assistance.

  • You can exclude up to $5,250 of these educational assistance benefits per year on your income tax form.
  • A 2013 SHRM study discovered that the average maximum reimbursement allowed for tuition/education expenses was $4,591.

This money isn’t always free. In the case of tuition reimbursement, employers will often expect you to work at the firm for a certain number of years and/or pay back your tuition. To qualify for aid, you may be required to maintain a certain GPA. If you break your agreement, you’ll be responsible for a truckload of debt.

A few tips for approaching your HR department and supervisor:

  • Plan Ahead: It can take you more than a year to find the right graduate program and line up company support.
  • Put Together a Presentation: Show how your degree will add value to the firm.
  • Think Outside the Box: If your employer can’t provide tuition reimbursement, perhaps the company can help with time off or comp time for classes.

Remember, too, that most universities offer tuition reimbursement for their employees. You could consider working for a university full-time and taking classes part-time or on the weekend.

Outside Jobs

Trying to figure out how to combine class demands with useful career experience? Try looking into:

  • Part-time work at your current place of employment
  • Teaching opportunities at neighboring community colleges
  • Research assistantships
  • Freelance writing
  • Tutoring
  • Scoring standardized tests

Public Service & AmeriCorps

A number of organizations provide community service scholarships, loan forgiveness programs, tuition assistance and/or stipends in return for public service. These include government programs such as AmeriCorps and Learn and Serve America, as well as independent organizations such as Sponsor Change.

AmeriCorps members may be eligible for loan forbearance and interest accrual payments on qualified student loans. They are also in the running for the Segal AmeriCorps Education Award, a post-service benefit received by those who complete a term of national service in an approved program – AmeriCorps VISTA, AmeriCorps NCCC or AmeriCorps State and National. Recipients are awarded up to $5,730 per year to repay loans or finance continuing education.

Don’t forget to talk to your university’s financial aid office about options. For example, the National Service Graduate Fellowship at Michigan Tech is available to students who have provided service through the military, AmeriCorps or the Peace Corps. This generous fellowship is equal to approximately one-third of graduate tuition.

Tax Incentives, Tuition Waivers & More

Tax Incentives

In addition to making $5,250 in educational assistance benefits from your employer tax-free, the IRS offers a few other incentives for graduate students:

  • Lifetime Learning Tax Credit: Allows eligible students to claim 20% of the first $10,000 of qualified education expenses or a maximum of $2,000 per taxpayer. It’s available to single filers whose modified adjusted gross income is $62,000 or less ($52,000 to claim the full credit); joint filers must earn under $124,000 ($104,000 to claim the full credit).
  • Student Loan Interest Deduction: A special deduction allowed for low-income taxpayers paying interest on a student loan. Your modified adjusted gross income must be less than $80,000 ($160,000 if filing a joint return).
  • Tax Benefits for Work-Related Education: If you’re earning your degree to keep your current job or improve current job skills, you may be able to deduct un-reimbursed education expenses.
  • Tuition & Fees Deduction: Allows eligible students to reduce the amount of income subject to tax by up to $4,000 for qualified education expenses. It cannot be used in the same year as the Lifetime Learning Tax Credit.

Talk to an accountant to learn whether you will be eligible for these incentives and to get advice on how to file your tax return.

Tuition Waivers

Some universities will waive or reduce your tuition and fees if you meet certain criteria. For example:

  • You have completed a term of public service.
  • You are the child of a school employee.
  • You have a pressing financial need.

To determine which universities offer these benefits, check with your individual school and your state Department of Education (DOE). The DOE will have information on waivers at publicly funded state schools.

Schools may hand out tuition waivers on a first-come, first-served basis, so apply early! Some may also withdraw their waiver offer if you receive scholarship, grant and/or fellowship funding.

Alumni Discounts

Happy with the quality of your undergraduate degree? Contact the financial aid office of your alma mater. Graduate schools often offer tuition discounts to alumni.

Military Options

What You Should Know

We’ve tried to cover all the main elements of Military Financial Aid in our guide on How to Pay for College. However, there are a few subject-specific scholarship programs that we can examine in more detail here, including:

Army ROTC

You also have the option to enlist in the Army ROTC before graduate school. In a typical situation, you might:

  • Take the month-long Leadership Training Course (LTC) in the summer before you enroll.
  • Contract with the Army during graduate school, receiving 100% of your tuition.
  • Serve in the Army for 3 years of active duty or the National Guard for 6 years.

Subject-Specific Advice

Paying for a Graduate Degree in Business

What You Should Know

An MBA from a great school will reap dividends. An MBA from a no-name school is going to be a waste of your time and money. According to a 2013 Forbes business school ranking, the payback period for almost all the Top 50 schools is 4 years or less.

An MBA from a no-name school is going to be a waste of your time and money.

Of course, you’re going to have to pay for that privilege. Tuition for those Top 50 schools is often over $100,000. And since the assumption is you’re going to be headed straight back into the workforce, grants and scholarships for MBAs can be hard to find.

Remember, too, that you will need to fork out money for conferences, job interviews, learning trips, club dues, internship expenses, city living and travel. So be sure to factor these into your projected Cost of Attendance (COA).

Post-Graduation Prospects

Here’s something to make you smile. A 2014 study of Top 50 MBA alumni from Forbes found that:

  • Compared to pre-MBA pay, starting pay increased by 50% over post-MBA starting pay for full-time students.
  • After 5 years post-MBA, pay had increased by 80% over post-MBA starting pay for full-time students.
  • Some of the most successful graduates had relatively low GMAT scores, and some of the least successful graduates had very high GMAT scores.

Results from the study also suggest that current MBA students should:

  • Start with a prestigious large company and learn as much as possible
  • Seek cross-functional experience rather than staying in one field
  • Begin the MBA as soon as possible, instead of spending years amassing work experience

Helpful MBA Resources

Paying for a Graduate Degree in Teacher Education

What You Should Know

First off, you don’t need a master’s degree to become a teacher. A bachelor’s degree plus licensure is the minimum requirement to teach in public elementary and secondary schools. And since around half a million U.S. teachers either move or leave the profession each year, an extra degree may not be worth the investment.

However, if you’re interested in a teaching specialization (e.g. school counseling), switching careers or leadership positions (e.g. principalship), you’ll probably need to go to graduate school. For more information, see our article on Affordable K-12 Education Degrees.

You’ll find a lot of merit- and need-based financial aid packages, especially if you’re willing to teach in underserved communities or in high-demand subjects.

Although it’s not nearly as expensive as professional school, an education degree will still cost you. According to New America Education Policy Program’s 2014 Graduate Student Debt Review, combined undergraduate and graduate debt levels for those with a master’s of education grew from $30,726 in 2004 to $50,879 in 2012.

Fortunately, there are many ways to avoid or wipe away this debt. You’ll find a lot of merit- and need-based financial aid packages, especially if you’re willing to teach in underserved communities or in high-demand subjects (STEM, Spanish, special education, etc.). In addition to Public Service Loan Forgiveness (PSLF), the federal government also has a variety of programs targeted at teachers.

We cover a few of the options below, but there are plenty more!

Job Prospects with a Graduate Degree in Teacher Education

Surprise, surprise – teaching isn’t exactly the highest paying profession in the world. According to the BLS, the median annual wage for elementary school teachers in 2012 was $53,400; for high school teachers it was $55,050. The median annual wage for elementary, middle, and high school principals was $87,760.

Does a graduate degree help with earnings? It depends. In 2011, Dick Startz found that Illinois paid 43% more to teachers with a master’s degree and Oregon only paid 3%. If you’re making only $5,000 more per year, your investment may not be worth it.

AmeriCorps National Teaching Fellowship

Recipients of the AmeriCorps National Teaching Fellowship at Citizen Schools commit to 2 years of service in public middle schools in low-income, urban areas across the U.S.

AmeriCorps Teaching Fellows receive a monthly cash stipend amounting to $23,550 annually before tax. Other important financial pluses include:

  • Up to two AmeriCorps Education Awards totaling $11,290 to pay off existing loans or pay for future tuition expenses
  • Loan forbearance on qualified loans during years of service
  • Paid discretionary time off
  • Health coverage through Blue Cross Blue Shield
  • Access to dental and vision coverage
  • Childcare benefits

Federal Perkins Loan Cancellation

If you have a federal Perkins loan and teach full-time at a low-income school or in a designated subject area (e.g. math, science, bilingual education, etc.), you may be eligible for federal loan cancellation. This program includes special education teachers who handle toddlers, infants, children and youth with disabilities.

  • Up to 100% of your loan can be canceled in increments (e.g. 15% canceled per year for the first and second years; 20% for the third and fourth years; 30% for the fifth year).
  • You may also qualify for loan deferment.

One important thing to note – you must be teaching in an elementary or secondary school. You’re not eligible if you teach in a postsecondary school.

Federal Stafford Loan Forgiveness Program

You may be eligible for the Federal Stafford Loan Forgiveness for Teachers Program if you teach full-time for 5 consecutive years in certain elementary/secondary schools and educational service agencies that serve low-income families.

  • Highly qualified full-time elementary school and high school teachers may receive up to $5,000 in loan forgiveness.
  • Highly qualified full-time mathematics or science high school teachers and special education teachers may receive up to $17,500 in loan forgiveness.

This applies to direct subsidized/unsubsidized loans and subsidized/unsubsidized Stafford loans. If you only have PLUS loans, you won’t be eligible. Time spent teaching in AmeriCorps cannot be counted toward the 5 years.

Teach for America (TFA) & AmeriCorps

Teach for America is a non-profit organization that enlists recent college graduates and professionals to teach for a minimum of 2 years in low-income U.S. communities. While you’re in TFA, you may be eligible to enroll as a member of AmeriCorps (see guidelines here). Being an AmeriCorps member puts you in the running for its education benefits.

TFA is targeted at high-achieving scholars, and is difficult to get into. In 2014, the acceptance rate was 15%. Of those 5,300 new teachers:

  • 33% had graduate school or professional experience
  • 47% received Pell Grants
  • 50% identify as people of color

TFA also prioritizes the allocation of existing AmeriCorps benefits to:

  • Those who have qualified federal or state student loans
  • Those who teach in a region with the highest certification costs

TEACH Grant Program

The TEACH Grant Program is a federal grant that provides up to $4,000 per year in funds to students who wish to become teachers in high-need fields or low-income areas. Students must sign an Agreement to Serve for at least 4 academic years, within 8 years of completing their course of study.

You must be enrolled:

  • As an undergraduate, post-baccalaureate or graduate student at a university that participates in TEACH Grants
  • In a TEACH-Grant-eligible program (i.e. a program of study that prepares you to teach as a highly qualified teacher in a high-need field)

Troops to Teachers (TTT)

Established in 1994, Troops to Teachers (TTT) is a U.S. Department of Defense program that helps eligible military personnel transition to K-12 teaching in public, charter or Bureau of Indian Affairs schools. All current and former members of the U.S. Armed Forces whose last period of service is characterized as honorable are eligible to apply.

TTT provides counseling services, information on jobs, interview opportunities and financial assistance for transitioning to the classroom. Since the program is focused on first-time teachers, it’s not available to personnel who were teachers at some point prior to TTT registration. To be eligible for a bonus, you must be registered with TTT before you begin teaching.

Regional & Private Programs

TFA isn’t the only program on the block. There are hundreds of regional programs (e.g. Teach Kentucky; NYC Teaching Fellows) and private programs (e.g. Alliance for Catholic Education and Notre Dame’s ACE Teaching Fellows; Accelerate Institute and Northwestern’s Ryan Fellowship & Inner-City Teaching Corps) that can help pay for education, training and licensure.

All of these programs have eligibility requirements and many will expect you to teach in specific schools or high-need areas after graduation.

Helpful Graduate Teacher Education Resources

Paying for a Graduate Degree in Humanities/Arts

What You Should Know

Financial aid is tight in humanities departments. Unlike departments of science or technology, faculty aren’t receiving large grants from the federal government to fund research.

  • Many grad students must find money from other sources, including personal grants, fellowships, teaching assistantships (a popular option) and private savings.
  • Alternatively, they rack up loans. According to NSF statistics on Doctorate Recipients from U.S. Universities: 2013, 32.7% of humanities candidates amassed more than $30,000 in cumulative debt and 10.5% in excess of $90,000 (however, 39.9% had no debt).

Post-Graduation Prospects

Do you want to enter academia? Full-time, tenure track professorships in humanities can be scarce and are fiercely fought over. Graduates frequently transition into non-faculty jobs at the university, or take up work with the government, non-profits and private business (including self-employment).

Your humanities degree may pay off – but far later than you anticipated.

The good news is, you’re probably going to do just fine in the long-term. A 2014 report from AAC&U and NCHEMS on Liberal Arts Degrees and Their Value in the Employment Market found that humanities or social science graduates with advanced degrees, on average, attain a yearly boost in earnings of nearly $20,000. In contrast, more than half of science and math majors attain a boost of $30,000.

The moral is: be comfortable with financial risk. Your humanities degree may pay off – but far later than you anticipated.

  • Try to find funding outside of student loans.
  • Make strategic choices about the program and its location.
  • Look for part-time teaching jobs within the school or community.
  • Network with future employers and build your career while you’re studying.

Helpful Graduate Humanities Resources

Paying for a Law Degree

What You Should Know

Law school can be frighteningly expensive. According to ABA law school tuition data, the average annual tuition for a public school resident student in 2013 was $23,879; that number jumped to $36,859 for non-residents. In private law schools, it was $41,985.

You’re probably going to need to cover some of these expenses with loans. That’s fine – if you know that you can pay them back. The problem is, the U.S. market is oversupplied with lawyers. Unless they attend a top tier school (e.g. Yale, Harvard, Columbia, etc.) and make the right connections, many graduates find it hard to get a job. Even alumni of Top 20 schools have found themselves in a great deal of debt.

Working part-time while studying law can be difficult.

What’s more, some programs are shifting from offering need-based aid at the beginning of law school to providing loan forgiveness/LRAPs after graduation. In other words, if you have a legal job that is below a certain income threshold, or if you commit to working in the public sector, you may receive some help in repaying part or all of your tuition debt. But, then again, public interest law may not be your dream.

So be sure you’re ready before signing on the dotted line:

  • Work as a paralegal to get a feel for the profession and save for school.
  • Start looking for law scholarships and schools with merit-based aid early.
  • Find out what current lawyers are earning and how many jobs are actually out there.
  • Triple check the job placement stats that the law school provides.
  • Talk to former graduates and lawyers.

Although it’s achievable, working part-time while studying law can be difficult. Many folks end up switching to full-time to keep up with the demands. Part-time work may also limit your options for summer internships.

You should also be careful about where you apply. Law school is one plase where reputation and rankings make a big difference. If you don’t believe us, check out the annual Forbes The Best Law Schools For Career Prospects 2015 and the National Law Journal’s stats on the law schools with unemployment and underemployment.

But it’s okay to be realistic about your options. If a good public school is offering you a free ride, and great private school is primarily loans, you may want to opt for the good school and put some extra effort into building your career network.

Post-Graduation Prospects

In addition to the market being oversupplied with graduates, there a few things currently happening in the law profession that may affect your job prospects:

  1. Outsourcing: The bread and butter of past legal work (e.g. wills, document reviews, etc.) is being taken over by technology or outsourced to paralegals, legal assistants and low-cost legal providers overseas.
  2. Shift Towards Specialization: Attorneys are increasingly concentrating on specific areas (tax, government relations, energy, financial regulation, etc.) Since law firms can’t devote non-billable time to training entry-level associates anymore, associates must come armed with the appropriate knowledge.
  3. Competition with MBAs: JD graduates are now competing with MBAs for employment in risk management, business development, compliance, etc.

On the up side, as long as modern society exists, there will always be a need for lawyers. According to the BLS, the job outlook is projected to grow a respectable 10% from 2012 to 2022. Those in finance and insurance can expect higher median annual wages ($134,940) than lawyers in local and state government.

Government & Public Interest Law

If you’re interested in a career in the government or public interest law, you’ll find a number of organizations and universities who are willing to provide financial help. In addition to looking for scholarships and fellowships, you can also investigate loan repayment assistance programs (LRAPs).

We’ve already covered LRAPs, but here are a couple of things to note about law-related programs:

  • There are limited number of university LRAPs available and schools cannot provide assistance to all applicants.
  • To encourage lawyers to take up public interest careers, LRAPs are also offered by state bar foundations, private employers and the federal and state government.

When in doubt, practice due diligence in your funding research and talk to the financial aid officers at your proposed law school.

Judicial Clerkships

A judicial clerkship is a 1-2 year paid position where recent law graduates provide assistance to a judge, researching law issues and writing opinions. Graduates don’t need to sit for the bar examination in order to be considered. A federal clerkship is considered more prestigious than a state one.

  • Federal Courts: Budding applicants should visit the Online System of Application and Review (OSCAR) for job boards and applications.
  • State Courts: Applications vary widely from state to state. You may wish to contact the chambers of the judges and ask about the timing of applications and materials.

Clerkships are highly competitive and tend to go to top law school graduates from elite schools. But there are ways to improve your chances before you apply:

  • Intern or extern with a judge during law school.
  • Participate in a moot court.
  • Publish work in a law journal.

Clerkships may not pay well, but they look great on your résumé. Plus, during a temporary period of low income, such as a clerkship, you may be able adjust your repayment plan or obtain temporary forbearance on your loans.

Helpful Law School Resources

Paying for a Medical Degree

What You Should Know

You don’t have to be told that becoming a doctor is pricey. In October 2014, the AAMC reported that the median 4-year cost of attendance (COA) for the class of 2015 was $226,447 for public school and $298,538 for private schools.

To cover tuition, many medical students take out loans, often from the federal government. In its AAMC 2014 GQ questionnaire, 83% of respondents reported an average medical school debt of $167,466. Factor in your interest on loans and the costs of completing your residency and/or fellowship, and you may not break even for 10-20 years.

Many medical students take out loans, often from the federal government.

But it’s not all doom and gloom. More than 17% of those same GQ respondents reported absolutely no medical school debt – the largest percentage in over 10 years. Because medicine is considered one of the most socially useful professions, there now exist a large number of:

  • Grants and scholarships from the government, military and individual medical schools – especially for doctors committed to working in underserved areas or disciplines (e.g. primary care)
  • Merit-based and need-based scholarships from independent organizations (e.g. AMA Physicians of Tomorrow) and the school itself (Mayo School of Graduate Education Diversity Scholarships)
  • Loan repayment or forgiveness schemes in exchange for a service commitment
  • Tuition reimbursement plans for doctors who serve in rural or underserved areas

Take a look at some of the opportunities and resources we cover below and do as much research as you possibly can. You don’t have to be shackled to your loans forever.

Post-Graduation Prospects

Your starting salary and job outlook are going to depend heavily on your specialty, geographic location and position (e.g. public hospital vs. private practice).

According to physician pay data from the BLS:

  • Anesthesiologists and surgeons tend to earn the big bucks ($431,977 and $367,885 respectively).
  • Pediatricians and family practitioners have a much lower median annual compensation ($216,069 and $207,117 respectively).

Unsurprisingly, median starting salaries for first year post residency tend to be much lower. Jobs are projected to grow 18 percent from 2012 to 2022, but a few factors (e.g. technology developments) may hinder growth.

Medical Research Options

Research/academic medicine degrees (e.g. PhD or combined MD-PhD or DO/PhD) and medical practice degrees (e.g. MD) are different beasts. Remember that research degrees take longer to complete. You may lose four “salary-earning” years while you’re working on your PhD.

Fortunately, there are plenty of public and private programs that can help pay for all or a portion of your tuition, including:

  • NIH Medical Scientist Training Program: An integrated program of graduate training in the biomedical sciences and clinical training offered through medical schools. 43 participating programs with a total of 932 trainees.
  • HHMI Medical Fellows Program: Allows medical, dental, and veterinary students to conduct full-time research for one full year.
  • Fogarty Programs: The Fogarty International Center offers a wide range of research and research training programs, as well as fellowships and scholarships.
  • NIH Research-Related Loan Repayment Programs: Encourages promising researchers and scientists to pursue research careers by repaying up to $35,000 of their qualified student loan debt each year.

Military Health Professions Scholarship Program (HPSP)

Health Professions Scholarship Programs (HPSPs) are available from the United States Army, Navy and Air Force. They provide training for a range of medical jobs, including physicians, dentists and nurse practitioners.

HPSPs typically cover the full tuition of medical school, supplies and fees, and provide students with a monthly stipend. In return, graduates are expected to serve as a medical professional in the military (often 1 year of service for every service-paid year of schooling).

For more details on each programs, please visit:

Note: The Marine Corps receives its medical service from the Navy, so it does not offer a separate HPSP.

Peace Corps

The Peace Corps has a variety of initiatives to encourage new doctors to participate in public service, including the Global Health Service Partnership (GHSP).

Launched in 2012, GHSP is a collaboration between the Peace Corps, the U.S. President’s Emergency Plan for AIDS Relief (PEPFAR), and Seed Global Health. Volunteers in the program:

  • Serve one-year assignments in training institutions through Peace Corps Response (training institutions are currently in Africa)
  • Function as physician or nursing educators and also participate in direct clinical care as appropriate to their teaching roles
  • Have their living and housing expenses paid
  • May be eligible to participate in a privately funded program offering loan and debt repayment of up to $30,000

If you volunteer for the Corps after graduation, you may also be eligible to have part of your Perkins loan forgiven – up to 70% if you volunteer for 4 years. However, you cannot consolidate the Perkins loan with a non-Perkins loan.

National Health Service Corps

The National Health Service Corps is a federal program run by the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. It aims to encourage doctors to provide primary care services in high-need, underserved communities in rural and urban areas.

  • Loan Repayment: Medical, dental and mental/behavioral health clinicians can receive up to $50,000 to repay their student loans in exchange for 2 years of primary care service at an approved NHSC site. This payment is tax-free and is made at the beginning of service.
  • Students to Service Loan Repayment Program: Medical students (MD and DO) in their final year of school can receive up to $120,000 in return for 3 years of full-time primary care service or 6 years of half-time service at an approved NHSC site.
  • Scholarship Opportunities: Open to medical students who are committed to primary care and have been accepted to – or are enrolled in – an accredited U.S. school. The scholarship covers tuition, fees and education costs, and provides a living stipend. For each year of financial support (up to 4 years), the student agrees to serve 1 year (minimum 2 years) at an approved NHSC site. Graduates are paid a salary while they complete their service.

Other Incentives for Primary Care Doctors

In addition to the NHSC, states and universities are also investing in efforts to support doctors interested in less “lucrative” disciplines. For example:

Opportunities are available everywhere if you look hard enough!

Helpful Medical School Resources

AAMC Resources

Military Scholarship Programs

Paying for a Graduate Degree in the Sciences

What You Should Know

Science offers the best financial incentives to graduate students.

The general rule of thumb is that science offers the best financial incentives to graduate students. IT and STEM research tends to attract big government grants. That means universities are in a position to offer generous fellowships and assistantships.

These awards may be able to cover all of your living expenses and tuition. In its report on Doctorate Recipients from U.S. Universities: 2013, the NSF reported that 64.3% of physical sciences candidates and 65.6% of engineering candidates had absolutely no cumulative debt.

Post-Graduation Prospects

Don’t look to university jobs for high salaries after graduation. Postdoctoral fellowship positions are notoriously low-paying and don’t guarantee an academic position. As tenured positions decline, you may find more lucrative opportunities working for the private sector or start-ups.

Keep in mind, too, that in some fields you might be better off gaining real-world experience than attending graduate school. Before you commit to years of intense study, talk to your mentors and peers about your choices.

In the long-term, you’re in excellent shape with an advanced degree. Pay and demand for most science graduates is typically strong over the long-term. According to Forbes list of Best and Worst Master’s Degrees for Jobs in 2014, a master’s degree in:

  • Computer science results in mid-career median pay of $117,000
  • Civil engineering results in mid-career median pay of $102,000

And although Forbes rated chemical engineering #5, industrial engineering #8 and mechanical engineering #10 for worst master’s degrees (i.e. slow job growth), all of these jobs gave graduates a mid-career median pay over $100,000.

Assistantships

Research and teaching assistantships are a large source of funding for graduate students in engineering and physical sciences. Some will pay your full tuition and provide you with a stipend.

According PayScale, the median salary for a graduate research assistant in 2015 was $25,670. Overall, wages ranged from $18,657 – $41,900 per year. Just remember that your pay depends on the institution, the department, how many hours you work and the nature of the job.

You may also find that there are more research assistantships available in experimental science than theoretical science. Graduates focused on theory could be more involved with teaching.

Helpful Graduate Science Resources

Should I Even go to Grad School? And Which One?

Should I Get a Graduate Degree?

Before you opt for grad school, ask yourself the hard question: “Is it necessary?”

Look for schools with great reputations in your specific field.

2 years of solid job experience may be more important in certain fields (e.g. journalism, teaching, etc.) than an advanced degree. In a full-time program, you take yourself out of the workforce. This could be a real problem if you’re in a fast-moving field.

We’re not saying “don’t go” – we’re just reminding you to:

  • Know what your job prospects will be
  • Estimate your future earnings (try using LearnVest’s Grad School Calculator)
  • Research employment opportunities for each degree/specialization
  • Ask each grad school for job placement stats and double-check their data

If you have the focus and dedication, by all means, do it now. If not, consider whether you could apply for work leave or a sabbatical further down the track.

Do Grad School Rankings Matter?

Despite what lower ranked schools will say, you can’t get away from the fact that a top school has great cachet. If you stick Harvard or MIT on your résumé, folks will sit up and take notice. Unfortunately, top ranked schools usually come with high price tags.

Having said all that:

  • Attending a top ranked school is considered important in some fields (e.g. law, MBA) and not nearly as important in others.
  • The quality of your individual program may be more critical to your job prospects than the rank of the university.
  • You may be limited to lower ranked schools by grades, geography and/or finances.

So how do you decide whether rank is important? The key is doing your research. Talk to your employer. Ask your colleagues for their recommendations. See where your mentors and career heroes earned their degrees. Above all, look for schools with great reputations in your specific field.

Public Universities vs. Private Universities

New graduate programs often create financial incentives to attract students.

Overall, graduate programs in private universities are generally more expensive (e.g. $30,000-$50,000 per year) than programs in public universities (e.g. $10,000-$25,000 per year).

But – and this is why it’s important to talk to the right people – financial aid packages are different for each school and field of study. A chemistry department or College of Business in a private university may be swimming in grants and merit-based funding. New graduate programs often create financial incentives to attract students.

When in doubt, check what’s available in your area of interest, compare the program’s rankings and talk to your mentors.

Master’s Degree or PhD?

To go for the PhD or not to go for the PhD – that is the question. And the answer depends a great deal on your career goals. You may need a PhD to become a tenured professor, participate in high-level research or qualify for top executive jobs. But you may only need an MBA or an MEd to get ahead in your field.

Whatever your choice, just remember that:

  • Master’s programs take 1-2 full-time years, but often include a part-time option to accommodate working professionals.
  • Many doctoral programs take 4-7 years and will only admit full-time students. Some schools may also limit or prohibit students from working outside the university.

Take it from one who’s been there, a PhD can put a serious crimp in your wage-earning years.

If you’re still intent on a doctoral degree, there are few ways you can save money:

  • Look for shorter programs that combine the PhD with a master’s degree.
  • Expand your degree choices – PhD funding may be more plentiful in related fields.
  • Consider earning your doctorate overseas – European PhD programs are often only 4 years long.

Online vs. Brick & Mortar

Online graduate programs can be a real lifesaver for those on a budget. They usually:

  • Include a range of part-time, evening and weekend programs so you can continue to work
  • Help you save significantly on costs (e.g. commuting, childcare, food, on-campus accommodation, etc.)
  • Are eligible for federal financial aid (programs must be offered by an accredited Title IV-eligible institution)

Companies are coming around to the idea that an online program from a respected school can be just as rigorous as a conventional degree.

Sounds fabulous, doesn’t it? But these benefits come with a few caveats. If you earn an online graduate degree from a crappy diploma mill, no employer will talk to you. To make sure your program will be respected in the workforce:

  • Look for regional accreditation for the school and any important accreditations for the program (e.g. NCATE for teaching).
  • Avoid schools with high attrition rates, over-inflated graduate numbers, poor instructors and mixed reputations. Google is your friend!
  • Consider what hidden costs you might be responsible for (e.g. technology upgrades, required campus visits, residency components, etc.).

When in doubt, you can always ask your peers, mentors and employer for their opinions. Companies are coming around to the idea that an online program from a respected school can be just as rigorous as a conventional degree.

Study Abroad

Interested in cheap graduate programs for fields such as global business, international relations or IT? You may want to start thinking past U.S. borders. A foreign degree, complete with immersion in a language such as Chinese or Spanish, can give you a lot of leverage in certain job markets.

Plus:

  • Tuition fees for overseas school may be significantly lower than the U.S. (e.g. medical school in Israel).
  • Provided that your school meets eligibility requirements, federal loans can be used abroad.
  • Many student visas allow part-time employment during term-time and full-time employment over the summer.
  • Overseas master’s programs may only last 1 year, and doctorate programs 3-4 years.

That’s not to say it’s all free and easy. You’ll have to factor in:

  • Higher living expenses
  • Significant travel costs
  • Absence from U.S.-based professional networks and job recruiters

Companies and institutions don’t usually have a bias against foreign degrees, but they may want to know why you chose to go overseas. So have your ducks in a row and contact potential employers ahead of time to see if your program will be accepted as a valid qualification.

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