How Can You Pay for Graduate School Without Going Into Debt?

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It is possible to attend graduate school without taking on student loan debt.

From utilizing a 529 plan to working in a graduate assistantship program, we rounded up some of the best opportunities available to students to pay for a graduate education.

Apply for Scholarships

Similar to applying for an undergraduate education, there are many scholarships and merit scholarships available to graduate students. 

Grad students may look through websites like to search for relevant scholarships by type, academic majors and states. See which scholarships you match with and apply for financial aid to help lower tuition expenses.

Create a 529 Plan

William Gogolak, assistant teaching professor at Carnegie Mellon University – Heinz College, said students planning on attending grad school should consider creating a 529 plan for themselves.

“A 529 plan is a tax-advantaged investment account which can be used to pay for eligible education expenditures for a selected beneficiary,” said Gogolak.

Most individuals are unaware they can be a beneficiary of their own account. If you are interested in creating a 529 plan, reach out to a trusted financial advisor about the best options for you.

Check if Your Employer Offers Tuition Reimbursement

If you already work a full-time job, check in with your employer to see if they offer any tuition reimbursement programs. 

Depending on the employer benefits, employees and their family members may be eligible for tuition reimbursement or discounts which go toward grad school costs. Remember to check the conditions in your company handbook if you plan to use your employer’s reimbursement program.

Make Your Money Work for You

Jayson Matlock, assistant director of financial aid at Southern Utah University, said employees may even find some employers offer partnerships with universities that streamline your grad school experience at lower or no cost. Reach out to your employer and see which opportunities may be available to you.

Find a Program Offering Graduate Assistantships

Amy Sarow, AuD, recently graduated from graduate school with a Doctor of Audiology and without taking out any loans. While Sarow attended a grad school out of state, she was able to pay for 90% of her tuition with a graduate assistantship. This automatically qualified Sarow for in-state tuition rates and a tuition scholarship which paid for nearly all of her tuition bill each semester in addition to a monthly stipend. 

Sarow told GOBankingRates she was able to offset the rest of the cost by working a weekend job and working during the summer and semester breaks. In the end, everything paid off. Otherwise, Sarow could have ended up with six figures in student debt.

Sarow’s biggest advice when looking for grade schools is to find a program that offers graduate assistantships. Some universities may also offer research assistantships. Both positions are part-time, at 10 to 20 hours per week. These programs provide a stipend to students and pay for tuition and occasionally certain fees. If you have leftover tuition expenses or need extra money for living expenses, consider working a part-time job on the side.

Work at Your University

If there’s a job opening as an employee at the university you’re applying to for your graduate program, consider applying for it and working at the university.

Make Your Money Work for You

“Many universities offer their employees free or reduced tuition during their time in school,” said Matlock. “This is a great way to receive a salary, benefits and your education simultaneously while developing relevant experience which will translate to the workforce.”

Apply to Multiple Grad Schools

Sean Coffey, director of communications and outreach at the California Policy Lab, graduated with an MPA from UNC-Chapel Hill. Whenever Coffey speaks with coworkers who are interested in applying for grad school, he always encourages them to apply to four to six schools if possible.

Why apply to so many schools? Coffey said students may get different financial aid packages, including research assistantships and tuition waivers, at the different schools. 

Students may be able to leverage their packages and say to one school: I’d really like to come to your school, but this other school is offering me X, Y and Z. Do you all have any ability to increase the package you’re offering? Leveraging these packages may allow grad students to ultimately graduate with less debt or even no debt.

What if You Do Need Student Loans?

While grad students have a variety of accessible methods to pay for grad school without taking debt, there may be a situation where none of these options are available. 

For a situation like this, Cecil Staton — CFP, CSLP, president and wealth advisor at Arch Financial Planning — said grad students may apply for student loans. However, it is recommended they apply for federal student loans, like direct unsubsidized loans or grad PLUS loans, instead of taking out a private loan.

Make Your Money Work for You

“Federal student loans offer protections against death and disability which are not usually provided by private loans,” said Staton. “Federal loans also offer access to income-driven repayment plans, taxable loan forgiveness and public service loan forgiveness. Private loans do not.”

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