Paying for Graduate School
College is a huge expense, and heaping an extra two to four (or significantly more) years of education on top of the cost of your bachelor’s degree may not be that appealing. Add in the fact that graduate students typically are solidly into adulthood and may even already have careers and real incomes, and the cost of grad school becomes a big deal. However, if you’re convinced that the career opportunities that an advanced degree offers are worth the sacrifice, there are ways to pay for graduate school.
Graduate fellowships are the holy grail of graduate student financial aid. Typically, fellowships involve a tuition waiver and a stipend, with the possibility of other perks as well. If you are awarded a fellowship, you are basically getting paid to be a grad student, and you’re freed of financial concerns that might otherwise interfere with your work. Fellowship recipients are largely free to take classes and conduct research that they find interesting and worthwhile, often without additional commitments like teaching.
Fellowships are offered both by universities and by external agencies, such as scholarship foundations or government programs. Some external fellowships may require a service commitment or a partial repayment, or may make other stipulations as to how the award can be used. Similarly, some university fellowships may have specific research obligations that the recipient will need to fulfill, though awards with substantial teaching or research requirements are usually termed assistantships.
The majority of graduate programs, especially those at large state colleges and universities, will offer teaching or research assistantships to graduate students. These placements typically come with a full or partial tuition waiver and a stipend. In exchange, recipients are asked to assist a faculty member with research or with teaching a class. Some grad teaching assistants are given their own classes to teach or put in charge of lab sections of large lecture classes. The work load can vary for a teaching or research assistantship, but is usually considerably lighter than a full-time faculty workload.
Some colleges also offer additional assistantships beyond teaching or research. The most common of these is the graduate service assistantship, where a grad student works with faculty or staff, usually in some sort of administrative capacity. Service assistants usually work in one of several student services offices on campus, assisting students either directly or indirectly. Assistantships in general are a great source of grad school funding and also provide useful job experience. The workload can feel stressful, especially at first, and the demands of your assistantship may limit the number of classes you are able to take in a given semester. However, a free ride is nothing to scoff at.
Graduate students are eligible for a variety of scholarship opportunities, so if you’re worried that undergraduates get all of that award money, research graduate scholarships to prove yourself wrong. If you’re returning to school to further your career, there’s a possibility your employer may also provide some sort of assistance for you to attend graduate school. (Scholarships money from your employer may come with a promise from you that you return to that business or organization once you’ve completed your graduate degree, however.) You can also do a scholarship search to find aid opportunities that are open to graduate students or are specifically tailored for graduate school.
Federal student financial aid is also available to graduate students. Graduate students are considered independent on the FAFSA, so they do not need their parents’ financial information to apply for aid. While students in the vast majority of graduate programs no longer qualify for Pell Grants, they can still receive Stafford Loans and Federal Work-Study. Graduate Stafford Loan limits are more generous than their undergraduate counterparts, and actually come close to being able to cover the costs associated with a graduate education. Graduate students can also borrow PLUS Loans, but unlike undergraduates, they take out the loans for themselves, rather than having to ask their parents to borrow the money.
Other Income Sources
Even with assistance, many grad students can’t afford to pay for school and pay their bills. There are some sources of off-campus income that students may want to consider. Look for teaching opportunities at nearby community colleges. Many will hire graduate students, especially grad students with teaching experience, for in-demand courses for freshmen. Many grad students cobble together an almost comfortable income, and an impressive teaching portfolio, by serving as adjuncts off-campus. Working as a research assistant or freelance writer outside your department could also be an option—after all, most grad students have demonstrated skills in these areas. Tutoring and scoring placement exams or essay sections of standardized tests are also perennial favorites.