Paying Your Own Way: Financial Aid for Graduate School

Writer, Senior Editor, Wintergreen Orchard House

It’s no secret that the cost of higher education is on the rise, and graduate programs are not exempt from that trend. At the same time, the job market has become increasingly competitive, so it’s more important than ever for grad students to find ways to distinguish themselves from all the other qualified applicants. Earning a graduate degree can be an excellent way to enhance your résumé and stand out from the crowd, but for many students, the cost of tuition can be disheartening and may even dissuade them from attending grad school altogether. But that shouldn’t be the case. Yes, graduate programs can be expensive, but there are numerous ways in which you can reduce or even eliminate the cost of attendance.

First things first . . .

Make sure you’re going for the right reasons

Grad school requires a substantial investment of time and money, so before you even begin the application process, ask yourself a few questions to make sure you are pursuing an advanced degree for the right reasons:

  • Why are you thinking about grad school?
  • Do you need an advanced degree for the field in which you hope to work?
  • Will the degree give you new skills that will help you in your career?
  • Will the degree help you command a higher salary?
  • Are you only contemplating grad school because you don’t know what else to do?

Think long and hard about your answers to those questions before coming to a decision. If possible, speak with a career advisor, students who are currently pursuing the degree you’re interested in, and people who work in the industry you aspire to work in: their insights will help you decide whether a graduate degree—and which one—is in your best interest. Moreover, the career services and/or continuing education offices at your undergraduate institution will likely be able to help you connect with each of these individuals, even long after you graduate.

Find a program with the most value

Once you’ve decided that grad school is a good option for your academic, professional, and personal goals, focus your efforts on finding the best possible program for the best possible price. Research the accreditation of both the school and the specific program to which you would be applying. Weigh the cost of tuition against the salary you could expect to earn upon graduation. And, if possible, visit the campus and speak with the program’s admission officials, faculty members, and current students to get a better sense of what you can expect.

Finding a program with the most “bang for your buck” means considering things like public versus private colleges and universities, your estimated cost of living, and what types of financial aid opportunities would be available to you.

Where to find financial aid

Contrary to what many think, financial aid isn’t just for undergraduates. So before you take on student loans (or add to the ones you already have) to fund your graduate education, be sure to exhaust the financial aid opportunities out there: 

Institutional scholarships

While researching programs, contact their financial aid offices and speak with graduate advisors to find out if there are any scholarships for which you may qualify. Many graduate programs offer department-specific merit-based scholarships that could cover anything from your books to the full cost of tuition.

Students are often unaware of scholarships they could easily win based on nothing more than their undergraduate GPA or GRE scores, so find out what’s available and don’t miss out on free cash.

Private scholarships

If your search for institutional scholarships comes up empty, fear not: there are literally millions of dollars in private scholarships out there for grad students. It’s just a matter of finding and going after them. There are scholarships for everything under the sun, from your academic accomplishments to the color of your eyes to who your ancestors were. It takes a fair amount of time and research, and you’ll need to pay close attention to application deadlines, but the more scholarships you can win, the less you’ll have to pay out of pocket or through loans.

Federal grants and loans

The FAFSA isn’t just for undergrads either. In fact, most colleges and universities require students to complete the FAFSA in order to be considered for institutional financial aid—even for graduate programs. Students who didn’t qualify for federal grants or loans as undergrads because of their parents’ income may be surprised to discover that they do qualify in grad school because they’re now living on their own.

Once you receive your financial aid package from the FAFSA, you should accept any grants for which you qualify, of course—but give careful consideration to how much you take out in loans. Federal loans can offer a much lower interest rate than private loans, but it’s still best to find as many scholarships and grants as possible before taking on debt to fund your education.


Find out if the programs you’re considering offer any assistantship opportunities. Graduate assistantships are positions in which grad students work closely with professors in some type of support role, such as assisting with or conducting research or grading assignments for undergraduate classes. Grad assistants are usually given a stipend, which can help with their tuition and cost of living. Assistantships are also an excellent way to supplement your graduate studies with some practical, hands-on experience and to build valuable relationships with professors, who often have industry connections and will be helpful when you’re looking for letters of recommendation.


Many graduate programs as well as external organizations offer fellowships, which are similar to merit-based scholarships and provide students with money that can cover both their cost of attendance and cost of living. There are many different types of fellowships and a wide array of obligations associated with each. Some fellowships may require nothing from a student—he or she would simply need to pursue and complete their graduate degree. But other fellowships may require the equivalent of full-time work (such as participating in research or teaching classes) in exchange for the funds.

Since there are so many fellowships available from hundreds of different sources, the best way to start looking for one is to contact the schools to which you are applying and ask a graduate advisor, or an admission or financial aid official, for guidance. Be sure to bear in mind that a fellowship may or may not cover all of your expenses, so it’s important to make sure you’ll be able to fulfill any required obligations and function financially before accepting one.

Other ways to defray the cost of grad school

Securing financial aid and other sources of funding is just one piece of the puzzle . . .

Ask your employer

If you already have a job, find out if your employer offers tuition reimbursement. Some companies will help pay for your education, especially if you’re pursuing a degree that will make you a more skilled—and therefore more valuable—employee. If your job doesn’t offer tuition reimbursement, consider speaking with your boss or an HR representative and asking them to consider helping you pay for grad school; just be sure to come prepared and be able to show them some concrete facts and figures that demonstrate how their investment in your education will end up benefitting them in the long run.

Be prudent when borrowing

If you do end up having to take out loans, arm yourself with knowledge before borrowing a single dime. The last thing anyone needs is to be saddled with debt for the better part of a lifetime.

Many, if not most, private loans have very high interest rates that make them difficult to pay off. Recent grads are often surprised to see that their balance barely changes from month to month once they begin repaying their loans because the interest is so high. Federal loans generally have much lower interest rates, so if you do need to borrow in order to pay for grad school, file the FAFSA and see what you qualify for before taking out any private loans.

If you don’t qualify for much federal aid, you might consider turning to a credit union. They sometimes offer student loans at more reasonable interest rates, and there are even some colleges and universities that have their own credit unions.

Do a little digging, compare the interest rates, and make sure you’re fully informed before taking out any loan, regardless of the lender or amount.

Take advantage of the Lifetime Learning tax credit

Uncle Sam may be able to help you save a little money while you’re in grad school. Although the American Opportunity tax credit only applies to students who are in the first four years of undergraduate classes, the Lifetime Learning credit is for anyone taking any college classes, including graduate course work, even if you only take a single class.

The Lifetime Learning tax credit is designed to help you offset the cost of your education by reducing the amount of your income tax. For the tax year, you may be able to claim a credit of up to $2,000 for education-related expenses, thereby reducing the amount of income tax you may have to pay. While this credit can’t help you directly pay for grad school, every bit of money you can save can help as you further your education.

As Benjamin Franklin said, “An investment in knowledge always pays the best interest.” The high cost of tuition certainly may pose a challenge, but you shouldn’t let money stand between you and your education. With a fair amount of research and determination, you can pursue a graduate degree without going broke or taking on a mountain of debt, and the investment in your mind is sure to pay off in spades.

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