Whether you’ve recently completed your undergraduate degree, or you’ve spent time in the workforce and want to kick your career up a notch, you’ve decided that graduate or professional school is the next logical step in fulfilling your personal or professional goals.
Awesome! There are a few hurdles to address for your new adventure. Beyond preparing for your GRE, LSAT, MCAT etc., you’re probably wondering, "How am I going to pay for graduate school without going broke?" The good news is there are a lot of funding options to get you through your program.
A common misconception is that scholarships are in limited supply for graduate students. But these funding opportunities are not reserved solely for undergrads. There are myriad scholarship opportunities available for graduate and professional school students. Websites like StudentScholarshipSearch.com and Career One Stop from the US Dept. of Labor can help you track down awards that fit your academic goals. Some awards are portable (also known as "external"), while others require you to attend a specific college or university. If you’ve already settled on a school, be sure to follow-up with their financial aid office to find out about the availability of scholarships administered by the school itself. You don’t need to wait for acceptance to do this, in fact, the sooner you contact them, the better.
Grants are an excellent way to reduce the cost of graduate school. Unlike scholarships, which are often merit-based, grants are more likely to be awarded based on demonstrated financial need. Some grants are tied to certain fields of study, while others may be available only to those of a specific gender, heritage, personal or professional affiliation, etc. Like scholarships, grants may be portable or related to a particular institution. Colleges and universities often have grant money that they award to their students. Don’t procrastinate! Applying early often gives you a better shot at being awarded funds from the school itself.
Federal TEACH Grants
There are some grants available to those pursuing an advanced degree in teaching. Some like the Teacher Education Assistance for College and Higher Education (TEACH) Grant come with specific requirements attached. If your dream is to become a teacher, this program may help you achieve it.
Federal Pell Grants
Federal Pell grants are generally only available to undergraduate students. However, in some cases a student enrolled in a post-baccalaureate teacher certification program might be eligible to receive a Federal Pell Grant.
A fellowship can be a great tool in paying for graduate school. Some fellowships are portable and can be used at different colleges or universities while others are issued by a specific university for study only at that institution. (Are you noticing a trend? This is one of the things scholarships, grants, and fellowships all have in common.) Fellowships vary greatly in the amount of award, and may have several qualifications. Though most graduate students are not awarded fellowships, they are worth researching, as they often cover a large portion of tuition and fees and may provide a stipend as well.
If you served in the military and earned education assistance (GI Bill), you may be able to apply unused benefits toward a graduate degree. Likewise, if your spouse or parents have unused GI Bill benefits, they may be able to transfer these benefits to you. The rules for transfer of GI Bill benefits often have very specific requirements which the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs has outlined in greater detail on its website.
If you are currently serving in the military, you may qualify for tuition assistance to cover some or all of the costs associated with obtaining your master’s or professional degree. You may even be able to supplement the military tuition assistance program with funds from VA education benefits programs (like the GI Bill). The rules for tuition assistance vary by branch of service, so if you’re in the Air Force and your sister was in the Navy, don’t assume your benefits will be the same as hers. The education center where you are stationed is a good place to start gathering details on your specific eligibility for these programs.
You may have seen graduate students working for faculty members. What’s that all about?
Graduate assistantships are available at many colleges and universities, and function as employment opportunities for the student while providing both financial support and practical experience. Schools may offer any number of these positions: Teaching Assistant (TA), Research Assistant (RA), Graduate Assistant (GA), or Graduate Research Assistant (GRA).
While the number and type of assistantships a college or university may offer is typically limited, graduate students are often encouraged to apply. Assistantships often cover some or all of your tuition and fees and may also come with a stipend (a.k.a., get paid to go to grad school). This is a great opportunity to advance your career as well by establishing working relationships with professionals in your field of study and building your resume.
Federal Student Loans
As with undergraduate programs, you can apply for a Federal Direct Loan by completing the FAFSA (Free Application for Federal Student Aid). The good news is that graduate and professional students are always considered independent students, which makes completing the FAFSA easier in most cases ─taking fewer than 30 minutes on average.
There are two types of Direct Loans available to graduate students:
Federal Direct Unsubsidized Loans
Eligible students may borrow up to $20,500 per year, and students in certain health profession programs (like med school) may receive additional amounts each academic year. Don’t delay. File the FAFSA early, and make an appointment with the financial aid advisor at your chosen university for more specific details on the federal loan options available to you.
Direct Federal Grad PLUS Loans
If the amount you are eligible to borrow in unsubsidized loans isn’t enough, you may consider applying for a PLUS loan. Keep in mind that, unlike unsubsidized loans, PLUS loans require a credit check. All the more reason to keep your credit score healthy. (We’ve got tips for that, too!)
Federal Perkins Loan
The Federal Perkins Loan program is currently being phased out; however, if you have previously borrowed through the Perkins Loan program as a graduate or professional school student, you may still be eligible for an additional Perkins Loan. Because these loans are being phased out, it is recommended that you speak with the financial aid office at the college or university you plan to attend to find out if you are eligible to receive student aid through this program.
Once you receive any financial aid, scholarships, grants, and university funding, you may still find gaps between the funds you have available, and the funds you need. Private student loans are a great option for meeting any unmet demonstrated financial need and are available from a variety of lenders including banks, credit unions and other financial institutions.
It Is Within Your Reach
This is just a sample of some of the avenues to explore on your way to earning an advanced degree. Apply early and follow-up with the college or university’s financial-aid office. In the meantime, start your search for portable funding options, and begin comparing lenders in the event you need to take out private loans. And don’t forget to fill out the FAFSA as soon as it becomes available in October for your upcoming academic year. With a little planning, you will be able to attend graduate or professional school without going broke!