How to Pay for Grad School: 5 Strategies for Students

When paying for grad school, take advantage of money you don’t have to repay before turning to loans.
Trea Branch
Ryan Lane
By Ryan Lane and  Trea Branch 
Edited by Des Toups
How to Pay for Grad School: 5 Strategies for Students

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If you're considering going back to school, you’re already a step ahead in understanding the cost and figuring out how to pay for graduate school.

The average cost of tuition and fees for grad students at public and private institutions is $12,394 and $26,621, respectively, according to data from the National Center for Education Statistics for the 2020-2021 academic year. But the cost of graduate school can vary by school and by the type of degree. 

For example, a master’s of education at the University of Michigan will cost a resident $13,362 in tuition and fees each year. A master’s of business administration at Harvard Business School will cost a resident $81, 374 in tuition and fees each year.

Given the sheer cost of grad school, you may need to finance your education with graduate student loans. But before taking on debt, use these strategies to reduce how much you borrow.

1. Apply for scholarships, fellowships and other grants

Many schools and mission-based organizations offer scholarships and fellowships that cover a portion of graduate education costs. This is money you typically don’t have to pay back, so it should be top of your list when figuring out how to pay for grad school.

Scholarships are usually awarded based on merit or achievement. For example:

  • Southern Illinois University offers a graduate scholarship program that waives one-third of tuition for admitted students who show outstanding academic achievement.

  • Prospanica, an association of Hispanic MBAs and business professionals, provides graduate scholarships for members with entrepreneurial prowess and a desire to uplift the Hispanic community.

Fellowships are similar to scholarships in that money is awarded to applicants with exemplary achievements. Unlike scholarships, fellowships can require research in return for the reward. For example, the Cosmos Club Foundation, an organization aiming to advance science, literature and the arts and humanities, offers up to $5,000 to cover research expenses for graduate students at Washington D.C.-area universities.

There are also need-based grants offered to students demonstrating financial hardship or pursuing careers in designated high-need fields. The federal government offers the TEACH grant, for example, awarding up to $4,000 for applicants who agree to teach low-income students or in a high-need subject area for at least four years after graduating, among other requirements.

To apply for scholarships, fellowships and need-based grants, start with the Free Application for Federal Student Aid, or FAFSA. You can also check a school’s website to see what they offer. Don’t forget to explore the websites of mission-based organizations that serve your community or align with your values.

2. Keep working while you study 

Graduate assistantships and the federal work-study program offer two opportunities to work part-time while you obtain your grad degree. Though there is the added challenge of balancing work with your academic responsibilities, these programs are a debt-free way to offset grad school costs.

Assistantships are typically on-campus and involve some level of teaching or research. A work-study can be on- or off-campus, involving work related to your degree, when possible. You’ll be paid a salary or a stipend. The median annual wage of a teaching assistant in 2021 was $38,040, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics. 

Similarly, you can elect to enroll in a part-time or online graduate program while you work full-time. It will take longer to complete your degree, but you will have consistent income that can cover some of your education expenses.

3. Get help from your employer

If you’re open to working while you earn your degree, 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, but without the tax benefits. For example, global consulting firm Deloitte offers full tuition reimbursement to help some employees pay for business school if they spend at least two years working for the firm after graduation. 

Though it is less likely to find a company that will completely cover your graduate education, 47% of employers offer some kind of undergraduate or graduate tuition assistance, according to a 2020 survey by the Society for Human Resource Management.

Before you take advantage of employer education benefits, be sure to ask your HR department about any stipulations that come with the funding.

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4. Delay enrollment and save

After considering the cost of grad school, you may decide that now is not the time to enroll, and that’s okay. Giving yourself time to save beforehand can significantly reduce the amount that’s covered by student loans.

If you plan to save before you go back to school, try not to put this goal before other priorities like an emergency fund and retirement savings.

Here’s where spending guides can help. Following a common rule of thumb like the 50/30/20 rule can serve as the foundation for your budget. Looking at your take-home pay, see what it looks like to designate 50% to needs, 30% to wants and 20% to savings or debt goals. 

For example, an individual living in Columbus, Ohio earning $65,000/year, would have roughly $3,665/month after taxes.This could look like $1,832 for monthly necessities, $1,099 for monthly wants and $733 for monthly savings or debt goals. 

View these numbers more as a starting point than a hard and fast rule. Do you need to increase the budget for necessities? Decrease the budget for wants? The idea is to arrive at a plan that you can follow consistently.

It may not be realistic for you to save up your entire grad school tuition beforehand, but depending on how much you’re able to put away and how many years you save, you can really make a dent in your education expenses. 

5. Cover any remaining gaps with loans

Taking out student loans for grad school is best when used as a last resort. If after exploring the options above, you still need to cover costs, turn to federal student loans first. These loans offer benefits like income-driven repayment plans and loan forgiveness programs that private loans 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.

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