Here’s How to Pay for Graduate School in 5 Simple Steps

Laura Leavitt picture
Laura Leavitt
Updated June 21, 2021

If you’re considering getting a master’s or doctorate degree, one of your first thoughts is how you’ll pay for graduate school. The available scholarships and loans are different at the graduate level, so many people are getting more creative when it comes to funding graduate school. As you begin to plan, you’ll want to consider the full cost of your program, how long the program lasts, and any financial deadlines or payment due dates. 

Paying for graduate school doesn’t have to be done only with loans—many students pay for graduate school by working while taking coursework. There are also grants, teaching opportunities, and on-campus jobs that can offset your program’s costs. In this guide, we help you determine the options available to help you pay for graduate school.

5 Ways to Pay for Graduate School

While most graduate students don’t qualify for financial aid, which is quite common at the undergraduate level, there are plenty of other ways to offset the costs of your master’s or doctorate degree. Here are some ways to pay for graduate school using a combination of grants, work, and loans.

1. Research federal, state, and university aid programs

A variety of industries need more people to enter the field with a graduate degree. For instance, some states offer programs specifically to help more K-12 teachers get a Master’s in Education degree, and the National Health Service Corps assists healthcare clinicians with scholarships and loan repayment in exchange for working in areas with too few clinicians. 

Organizations like the American Bar Association (ABA) offer scholarships to promising law students as well. Check the websites for professional organizations in your field to find scholarship programs.

Starting with these programs in your field of interest gives you the best chances for grants and scholarships, which you don’t usually have to pay back over time. To qualify for loans, a good place to start is through the FAFSA, which will help you see what kinds of loans a graduate student qualifies for and the terms of those loans. Be aware that, because they are usually unsubsidized, you may also want to see what kinds of private loans you qualify for through a credit union or bank.

You’ll also want to visit your university’s financial aid page specifically for graduate education. Your program could have endowed scholarships, work-study arrangements, or other forms of aid specific to your program. 

2. Ask your employer for tuition reimbursement 

The International Foundation of Employee Benefits Plans found that 92% of employers offer some kind of education benefits, though it is a smaller percentage that will reimburse you for tuition to get a particular master’s or doctorate degree. 

If your company doesn’t already specify a policy for assisting you with attending graduate school, you can make the case that they pay some portion of your graduate tuition by pointing out how your degree will help you do better work for the company, will allow you to offer better service to your company’s clients, or will grow the prestige of your company. 

3. Apply for specialized grants your school offers 

Many schools have specialized grants or programs they use to attract students to their school. If a particularly well-known alumnus of the university received a graduate education there, they may endow a special grant in engineering or history or another field that is specifically designated for a master’s or doctoral student. 

Some universities create competitive fellowships that help graduate students make time for research during the thesis or dissertation writing process. Faculty who have research grants and need assistance may also use their funds to bring on research team members. While the amount of grants available varies and is often higher for doctoral students, Ohio State University, reports that 55% of their graduate students receive some form of funding.

4. Work for your graduate school 

Some colleges and universities offer either full tuition assistance or reimbursement for one or two classes a semester to full-time employees. Your degree and your department often don’t have to be connected: a financial aid counselor could take part-time graduate classes in art history if the tuition assistance program allows it. 

There are also graduate assistantships, which are jobs specifically designed to be done part-time while taking classes full-time. Many colleges have their Master’s in English or English Ph.D. students teach first-year English to undergraduates in exchange for discounted or free tuition. Some students also receive a living stipend that, while smaller than many salaries, is enough to cover basic living expenses.

5. Consider an accelerated or certificate program

Many schools have created either one-year or 18-month accelerated versions of master’s degrees. In many cases, these programs reduce the overall cost of your degree and the amount of time you have to take away from working. 

Certificate programs often include graduate coursework but aren’t quite as long or detailed as a master’s or doctoral program. In many cases, though, universities design certificate programs for a particular career change or kind of career growth, making it a less expensive way to gain many of the advantages of graduate school.

6. Don’t forget about online degree options 

Residential, in-person degree programs often create additional costs, including parking, commute time, and even moving expenses. Online degrees are structured to be convenient for those who work a typical job and do schoolwork during nights and weekends. 

Online scholarships and competitive pricing tend to keep these degrees more affordable, and if you have the time to push yourself, you may be able to enroll in more classes and finish earlier than expected.

What Does It Cost to Attend Grad School?

While graduate school costs vary greatly between public and private schools, the National Center for Education Statistics estimates average graduate school tuition and fees per year to be $18,947 in the 2017-2018 school year. This number is likely to be higher if you are at a private institution or are enrolled in a professional school, such as law school or business school.

Proposed plans from the Biden administration, however, make some student loan forgiveness seem possible, and the options for inexpensive or free four-year bachelor’s degrees could help students enter graduate school with less debt, helping to finance their graduate school goals.

Here are some types of graduate programs and their average costs.

Type of ProgramAverage Yearly Tuition and Fees
Public Institution Graduate Program$11,926
Private, Nonprofit Graduate Program$27,350
Private, For-Profit Graduate Program$14,303
Average Cost for Ranked Law School$40,244

Sources: US News law school data, National Center for Education Statistics

Is Grad School Worth It?

Graduate school becomes worthwhile when you can chart a sustainable path for how to pay for graduate school now while also increasing your marketability as a job seeker down the road. You’ll want to explore how other people in your field have seen pay increases, growth in responsibility, or an easier time getting a job because of their graduate studies. 

Talk to others about the experience, especially those who have graduated from a similar program or your actual desired school. These people will know what kind of impact the degree has had for other cohort members.
To get started, if you’re interested in pursuing a master’s degree, it’s wise to explore the rankings for best graduate programs.

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