Graduate degrees are many things, but they are not easy and cheap. Truly graduate school is not easy for most students-not easy to get into or easy to complete. It takes work, so much so that holding a job to help pay for it becomes tricky. To top that off, some graduate programs cost more than getting an undergraduate degree. How much do they cost exactly?

financial aid graduate degrees
Richard Vedder, director of the Center of College Affordability and Productivity and economics professor at Ohio University, states in a New York Times article that “The cost of getting a master’s degree varies a lot, depending on the school attended, the availability of financial aid, the length of the master’s program (ranging typically from one to two years), not to mention the ‘opportunity cost’ in terms of employment income lost while in school. Some master’s programs will cost a student only perhaps $10,000, while others (e.g., an expensive two-year M.B.A. program) might run over $100,000.”

Those numbers can be scary, but don’t count yourself out of graduate school just yet. Fortunately, graduate school students have a few financial aid options at their fingertips. The following are all worth looking into for financial aid for graduate school:

1. Grants

There are grants available for graduate students. Grants are funds awarded to students and there is no requirement for repayment. Grants are often awarded more on financial need than academic or performance merit, like fellowships and assistantships. There are grants affiliated with particular fields of study, such as teaching, nursing or other high-demand fields, grants for certain demographics, such as women or minorities, or for those with military experience. Some grants are specifically awarded by an individual learning institution, some distributed through the state, and others are federally-based.

One big note here: Pell Grants (easily the most popular of all grants) DO NOT apply to graduate students. They are reserved for only undergraduate degree students. Fortunately, there are other grants that may apply to your graduate degree based on career field, minority status, etc.

Because there are many grants available, seek help from your school’s financial aid office. They often have information on all kinds of grants, but don’t limit your search there. Go online and see what other kinds of grants are available, based on your field of study, your interests and need. There are many websites devoted to helping students find grants, including Grants.gov.

To get the full skinny on how grants work, you can also visit our post “Everything You Need to Know About College Grants.”

2. Fellowships

Fellowships are awarded mostly to incoming graduate school students, as the University of Central Florida (UCF)’s website so eloquently states, “in acknowledgement of their impressive past achievements and in anticipation of their future successes at UCF and beyond.”

Fellowships are, as the word denotes, to help a fellow student’s educational and scholarly endeavors, to include him or her in a scholastic fellowship. These funds are awarded without specific work requirement. The only stipulation is that the student is expected to participate fully with other students in the program, faculty, and others included in the intellectual community.

Fellowships can be awarded at a school level, department level, or from agencies or organizations that are not necessarily affiliated with the school, some on a national level. To find fellowship opportunities, if you are already accepted at a graduate school, talk to the financial aid office. If not, seeing what fellowships are available may help you make your decision regarding what school to attend. You can also talk to others you work with to see if any of them received one. If you search online, you can find other opportunities, especially if you specifically search for your field of study.

3. Assistantships

Assistantships are opportunities to work in your field of study under the supervision of a professor or other faculty member at the college. Penn State’s graduate school assistantships “may require work in the classroom or the laboratory, in research, or in other areas on campus, with the opportunity for professional development further benefiting from and enriched by the scholarly environment of the university.”

Assistantships fall into the categories of teaching assistantships, research assistantships, graduate assistantships or graduate research assistantships, but not all schools offer all of these. Teaching assistants do just that-help teach a section of the course, lead discussions or lead sections of lab requirements. Research assistants typically do research that is not necessarily related to their dissertation or thesis. It is research that would help the department or maybe an individual faculty member.

Graduate assistantship is a more general appointment and requires helping the department in whatever ways that are needed, such as preparing for a conference, etc. Graduate research assistants do research that is directly related to their thesis or dissertation that is relevant or helpful to the department.

Most assistantship appointments cover tuition and provide a monthly stipend, but the amount of stipend varies on the amount of time required and the school itself. Some schools also offer health benefits with assistantships. Assistantships, depending on the school, may or may not be limited to how many times it can be renewed.

Because assistantships are granted to students with consideration of the department chair and professors involved and in some cases through nomination, it pays to be in contact with the department chair. Start early to find out what opportunities there are and work to show your ability and potential early.

Because assistantships are like having a job, many institutions post assistantship positions available on a human resources site or job posting site.

Because opportunities to receive grants, fellowships, and assistantships are competitive, be aware of all deadlines. Prepare yourself early and have any applications completed in a timely manner so you don’t miss out on receiving funds where you were a qualified candidate because they weren’t submitted on time.

4. Loans

Loans are not as desirable of a source for funding your graduate studies, but they are a source, none the less, and most graduate-degree seekers have to rely on some kind of loan to finish filling in where other benefits didn’t. The government has loans that can be given to students or their parents. GradPLUS are federally-funded loans specifically for graduate students. Private companies offer loans to graduate students, as well, such as Chase, Discover, KeyBank, or Sallie Mae, but because interest rates are high on these loans, they should be a last resort.

Graduate school can be difficult in and of itself, without worrying about paying for it. Start early and utilize all your resources to make the most of opportunities to get funding, whether it is through grants, fellowships, assistantships, or loans.

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