Paying for Graduate School: How to Finance Higher Education

Here are some ways to pay for grad school -- from loans to scholarships to working part time.

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If you're thinking about going to graduate school, you'll need to figure out how to pay for it. With tuition alone costing thousands of dollars, you should explore every avenue for financing your education. Start planning early, research schools and programs, and consider loans, scholarships, and working part time, among other possibilities.

Start Early

The earlier you set your sights on going to graduate school, the earlier you can start planning how to pay for it.

Consider whether your study relates to your current job. Your employer may offer a continuing education or tuition reimbursement program, or be willing to consider starting one. Or, you may want to think about changing jobs if a competitor has such a program. In the long term, having an employer contribute to your education will save you money and will probably provide better career development opportunities.

Prepare your application and resume. Think about how your current job, volunteer activities, or educational experience has prepared you for your chosen field. Then take the time to fill in any gaps. Having a well-rounded resume will make you competitive for financial aid like scholarships or fellowships.

Get ready for any standardized tests. Most graduate programs require that you take a standardized test, such as the Graduate Records Examination (GRE) or Medical College admission Test (MCAT). Schools look at these scores to decide whether to admit you and how much aid to offer. Investing in a preparation course or program is worthwhile if it boosts your score.

Fill out your FAFSA. You may already be familiar with the Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA). It's usually due at the end of June. Don't miss the deadline, or you're apt to miss out on some federal and private funding. Find out more at www.fafsa.ed.gov.

Make sure you've settled on what you really want to study. As many as 40% to 50%  of graduate students drop out of their programs before completing them. If you're not truly interested (you choose law school solely because your dad is a lawyer, for example), you're less likely to finish. Better to do some soul searching now to be sure you're studying something that you enjoy. Part-time jobs or internships offer good test runs in a chosen field.

Research Schools and Programs

Once you've calculated the costs you're going to incur, think about the schools you'll apply to. Here are some of the financial considerations to help you make that choice.

Research post-graduation employment rates. While this won't help you pay for school, it will help you figure out how likely it is that you'll be employed after graduation (and how much you can expect to make), which will be important if you're planning on paying off student loans (discussed further below).

Choose a Ph.D. over a Master's degree. Often, Ph.D. programs come with stipends or teaching or research assistant positions. The end result? They usually cost very little, or you may make enough to cover your expenses during the academic year.

Consider location. Your expenses will be dictated in large part by where you live, so going to a school in a big city generally will be more expensive than going to school in a small town. On the other hand, it may be easier to network and find a job if you already live in the city, if that's where you plan to be in the long term.

Look for Free Aid

There never seem to be enough sources of free aid. Here are some suggestions for where to look.

Scholarships. Scholarships are available based on many different criteria: financial need, merit, and chosen field, for example. You can find many scholarships online; start with at an aggregating site like www.fastweb.com. But also investigate school-specific scholarships for the institutions you're considering attending.

Find out whether scholarships continue during the duration of your education, only cover the first year of schooling, or are capped at a certain amount. Some academic institutions offer generous scholarships upfront, but you must reapply each year or maintain very high academic performance to qualify the next.

Fellowships. Fellowships are another way to finance your education and academic research. Like many scholarships, they are usually based on a combination of need and merit, and may be tied to a particular academic institution or program. In addition to looking for opportunities on campus, check out the database of fellowships created by Cornell University (available at www.gradschool.cornell.edu).

Grants. Grants are funded by federal and state governments, as well as schools. Though usually based on need, many grants require minimum levels of academic performance.

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by: Alayna Schroeder

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