5 Ways to Pay for Grad School Without Loans

 December 10, 2020
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If you want to earn an advanced degree without taking on a bunch of student debt, it’s important to consider how to pay for grad school without loans. Although graduate school can be expensive, there are ways to fund your degree that don’t involve taking on debt.

How to pay for grad school without loans

If you’ve decided that furthering your education is the right step, here are some options for paying for graduate school without loans:

1. Work at a university
2. Try a graduate assistantship
3. Find a job with tuition reimbursement
4. Apply for specialized programs and grants
5. Look for “accelerated” programs or certificate programs
Plus: Is grad school right for you?

1. Work at a university

One strategy for paying for graduate school without loans is to get a job at a university. Once you’re employed, you may get tuition at no cost at that university as an employment benefit.

Stipulations vary across universities. Some require that the person be employed full-time, while others require an individual to have worked for a specific time frame.

In a viral post a few years ago, the popular financial blogger known by her pseudonym, “Mrs. Frugalwoods,” shared how she attended graduate school without taking on any loans. The key, she said, was plenty of research.

Knowing that people who work at many universities can attend graduate school at virtually no cost, Mrs. Frugalwoods spent significant time researching schools in the Washington, D.C., area with job postings that matched her qualifications.

She got a job at American University, a private school that typically came with a hefty price tag for graduate students. She began to work in August so that when January came around, she could start a new semester with her program totally paid for.

Of course, working and studying at the same institution isn’t easy, and paying for school this way means a multi-year commitment to the same job. In order for tuition to be reimbursed, you’ll likely be required to work full-time. Plus, your admission to the graduate program may not necessarily be guaranteed just because you work at the school.

There may also be tax implications. Depending on the nature of the program and agreement, you may need to pay taxes on the value of the degree, even if you’re getting the degree at virtually no cost. Understanding the fine print can help you fully grasp what the tuition remission benefit means for your circumstances.

2. Try a graduate assistantship

A graduate assistantship is basically a part-time job at the university where you will be enrolling for your graduate degree. Unlike the example above, your priority with a graduate assistantship is your schoolwork, and the assistantship serves to help gain you experience in your chosen field.

An assistantship can involve a variety of jobs, but it’s usually research- or teaching-based. It may include teaching undergrads, grading papers or helping professors with their research.

Some assistantships waive tuition entirely while providing a stipend as well. Of course, it can be tough to make a stipend stretch far enough to cover expenses such as housing, food and school-related costs, especially if you live in an area with a high cost of living.

But the advantages of an assistantship are you’ll be fully immersed in your field of study and have access to networking and professional development opportunities.

3. Find a job with tuition reimbursement

In order to encourage employees to continue their education and learn new skills, some companies offer tuition reimbursement. Some examples include large corporations like Starbucks, Best Buy and Home Depot.

Each company has different policies. For example, Starbucks offers 100% tuition reimbursement toward an online degree at Arizona State University. Home Depot offers reimbursement at eligible institutions of up to $5,000 per year, while Best Buy offers up to $3,500 for undergraduate and up to $5,250 for graduate-level work.

If you already have a job, ask your HR department about tuition reimbursement. Some companies may offer it on a case-by-case basis, especially if the field of study is directly related to your current job.

Once you find companies that offer tuition reimbursement as a perk, network and contact their current employees to find out how well they managed going to school while working. Find out as much as you can about the program and the agreement before committing.

It’s also important to understand your employer’s expectations. Could you work flexible hours during certain semesters? Once your employer agrees to reimburse you for graduate school, do you have to commit to working at the same place for a certain number of years?

Assess how working full time and going to school will affect your lifestyle, and make sure it’s a commitment you can take on. For some, the dual obligations to school and an employer can be stressful.

4. Apply for specialized programs and grants

Many universities offer specialized programs, fellowships, scholarships and grants that can provide financial aid for grad school. For example, Michigan State University offers fellowship programs that provide financial support for grad students.

Some grants are sponsored on the state level. The Ohio Department of Natural Resources, for example, offers a grant to Ohio-based grad students focused on researching the state’s geology.

Your undergraduate advisor may have suggestions, and the office of financial aid at the graduate schools you’re interested in may also have resources. Some grants and scholarships may depend on faculty recommendation, so getting to know professors in the department in which you wish to study can be a good way to get information on programs and potential recommendations for grants.

5. Look for ‘accelerated’ programs or certificate programs

Some graduate school paths don’t have wiggle room when it comes to how many years it takes to complete the degree. But other programs may be able to be accelerated, which can lower the price tag. For example, it’s not uncommon for universities to offer five-year dual BA/MA programs that allow a student to graduate with both degrees.

It also may be good to consider whether you need graduate school at all, or whether a specialized certificate program may be a better fit for your career needs. For example, part-time courses in specialized areas, like UX design, could give you a leg up in your career and may be a cheaper way to see whether advanced study is right for you.

Is grad school right for you?

Before you determine how to pay for grad school without loans, it’s important to fully consider whether attending is the right decision for you. The first question is whether you need grad school to achieve your career goals. For some professions, like law or medicine, the answer is obvious — it’s essential to have a specialized degree.

But for other fields, the answer may not be as clear-cut. Speaking to mentors, reaching out to alumni of the graduate programs you’re interested in, talking to recruiters and networking within your field can give you a chance to assess just how crucial grad school is to your professional development and financial future.

Perhaps, your primary motivation for going to grad school isn’t adding another line on your resume, but a passion for the subject or an eye toward a Ph.D. academic track. In these cases, there may be fellowships available for scholars in your field.

Talk with others who have taken the path about the highs and the lows, and what they wish they would have known or done differently. Having an understanding of what the next few years of your life might look like can help you choose the best plan for you — and your bank account.

If you decide to take on a small amount of loans to cover a gap in funding, here are the best student loan options for graduate students.

Rebecca Safier and Anna Davies contributed to this report.

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