Of all the challenges graduate students face, paying for grad school is right up there. When I served as a Dean of Enrollment and Dean of Students, many of the issues students brought to me during my weekly open office hours centered on their grad school finances. Many had simply not taken time to think through the financial responsibilities they were assuming in pursuing graduate education. While graduate school is expensive, it can be made affordable by taking time to plan, conduct research, and think outside the box. Here are a few tips for grad school financial aid tips and best practices that have been extremely helpful to students over the years.
Ask yourself the right questions about your finances
Before you even start your grad school search, you need to ask yourself a few critical questions about the financial implications:
- If you already have some debt, how comfortable are you taking on more? If you have no outstanding debt, how much are you comfortable borrowing?
- Should you spend another year or two paying down your debt and/or saving money for grad school—and giving yourself more time to prepare for grad school and really check out all of your graduate school options?
- Have you researched the potential ROI of your graduate degree, including the job prospects and estimated salaries for your intended post-grad career?
- Have you considered the financial consequences of going to grad school in their totality, including both the estimated costs of the program and the potential loss of income if you need to take any time off from work?
Research your grad school’s financial aid options—ASAP
When researching graduate school, spend as much time looking at the financial aid each program offers as you do any other facet of the school. Don't wait until you are admitted to find this information. Why? Because some institutions offer scholarships or fellowships you apply for when you submit your application for admission. If you wait to research graduate financial aid until you are admitted, you have lost out on the opportunity to be considered for these scholarships and fellowships—not to mention impaired your ability to make more informed application decisions.
Check your credit score
Much like with other big-ticket purchases, like a house or car, your credit score can have a serious impact on your ability to pay for grad school. Check your credit score before submitting your grad school applications and try to amend any issues. Problems with your financial record might delay your ability to receive graduate financial aid and/or qualify for student loans if needed. And by the time things are resolved, it could be too late.
Explore job opportunities at your grad school
Consider working full- or part-time at your graduate school, if at all possible. You could even work with/for a faculty member in your department. (I did this for both my master’s and doctoral programs, and the experience, not to mention the financial help, was invaluable.) Working for your grad school, you can help defray the costs with your earnings, improve your employability by adding relevant work to your résumé, or, depending on the position, perhaps even take advantage of an employee tuition discount. Another tip for you: grad schools love to hire their students!
Don’t stop after you enroll
Keep asking for financial assistance and searching for graduate grants and scholarships after you enroll. There could be additional sources of financial aid that become available once you are there. Toward the end of each term, stop by the graduate financial aid office and ask if there are any new scholarships available; if so, ask what you can do to apply for them and be a competitive applicant.
There is a major myth that graduate school is always too expensive and, therefore, impossible to attain. This is usually not the case. With adequate planning ahead of time and a dedicated pursuit of funding opportunities once admitted and enrolled, it is possible to finance your graduate education.