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Getting an advanced or professional degree can be full of challenges. One of the toughest arrives before you even take a class: figuring out how to pay for graduate school.
You can finance your education with graduate student loans. But before taking on debt, use these strategies to reduce or eliminate how much you need to borrow.
1. Earn fellowships, scholarships and grants
Fellowships, scholarships and grants are the best ways to pay for grad school because you typically don’t repay them. However, you do need to earn this financial aid — for graduate school, free money is usually based on academic merit, not financial need.
Universities may offer fellowships to get you to choose their programs, or you can apply with a private organization or the federal government for a “portable” fellowship. For example, the Department of Defense offers a three-year fellowship for selected science and engineering students that covers tuition and fees at the recipient’s school of choice.
Look for fellowships on the websites of government agencies or professional organizations, like the American Historical Association, or use a fellowship-specific search engine like ProFellow.
While fellowships are the type of free aid most closely associated with graduate school, traditional scholarships are available as well. These will likely be tied to your specific degree — for example, law school scholarships or pharmacy school scholarships.
2. Use a portion of your paycheck
When reviewing graduate financial aid, it can be easy to confuse fellowships and assistantships. Both let you earn money by working at your school, but assistantships are more like federal work-study.
Graduate assistantships are typically teaching and research jobs for which you’ll be paid a salary or stipend. Graduate teaching assistants earn an average of $36,390 annually, according to the latest data from the Bureau of Labor Statistics.
Ideally, you can use some of that money to pay for grad school. Practically, that may be difficult, especially if that stipend is your entire income. Working on the side may help cover your living expenses — just make sure you can balance that job with your other responsibilities.
3. Get help from your employer
Many graduate students don’t enroll right after getting their undergraduate degree. If you’re already working, see if your employer offers tuition assistance.
Employers can provide up to $5,250 tax-free annually to help with college costs. Some may opt to pay more. For example, global consulting firm Deloitte offers full tuition reimbursement to help pay for business school. Discounted tuition may also be available if you or an eligible family member work for a university.
If you use employer assistance to pay for grad school, ask your human resources team about any conditions associated with the funding. For example, you may have to agree to stay with the company for a set amount of time after earning your degree.
To use employer assistance, you’ll likely need to enroll part time while continuing to work. Forty-three percent of graduate students enroll part time, according to a 2017 report from Sallie Mae. Think about how an extended timeline will align with your long-term career goals.
4. Plan ahead to pay for graduate school
If you're already collecting a paycheck, put money aside for grad school as part of your overall savings plan. Prioritize long-term financial goals first, like building an emergency fund then saving for retirement before adding to your grad school fund.
If you’re still an undergraduate but know an advanced degree is in your future, find out how much you can expect to pay for graduate school.
For example, the average graduate student debt was $71,000 in 2015-16, according to the latest data from the National Center for Education Statistics. But specific professional degrees can be much more expensive — the average veterinarian debt is $183,014, for instance.
By limiting your undergraduate borrowing or other expenses, you can keep your total debt for your education manageable once you’re in repayment.
» MORE: Is a masters degree worth it?
5. Cover any remaining gaps with loans
Once you’ve exhausted the previous options, you can turn to federal or private student loans to pay for grad school. Federal student loans will be best for most students; those loans offer benefits like income-driven repayment plans and loan forgiveness programs that private options lack.
You can take out up to $20,500 annually in unsubsidized federal loans; subsidized loans for graduate school aren’t available. If that’s not enough to cover your remaining grad school costs, you can take out up to your cost of attendance (minus other aid received) in federal graduate PLUS loans or private loans.
Private loans may make sense if you won’t use federal benefits and have excellent credit — or a co-signer who does. Compare the interest rate you’d qualify for to what PLUS loans offer. Keep in mind that PLUS loans also come with an origination fee that most private lenders don’t charge.
You typically don't have to pay student loans during graduate school if you're enrolled at least half-time. But interest will accrue on all graduate student loans, increasing the amount you owe.