5 Ways to Pay for Grad School Without Loans​

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Dream of going to graduate school, but have significant student loan debt from your undergraduate years? You might be hesitant to add to that pile of debt.

While you shouldn’t necessarily let your financial picture dissuade you from a lifelong career pursuit, it’s smart to have a realistic understanding of how grad school will affect your financial picture. After all, not only is grad school expensive, you may also have to give up full-time employment while you attend college.

Typically, people with graduate degrees earn more in their lifetime than peers who don’t have such degrees. Of course, this may depend on the major you select and the career path you envision. If you feel like higher education is the right step for you, there are a few ways to pursue a graduate education without taking out any student loans.

Is grad school right for you?

Before you determine how to pay for grad school, it’s important to fully consider whether attending college 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 even 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. Talking with an academic advisor or the department chair from the institution from which you received your undergrad degree (even if you graduated a while ago) could help point you in the right direction for finding specialized loans, grants and scholarships that can help minimize the financial hardship you would take on.

How to pay for grad school without loans

If you’ve decided that graduate school is the right step, it may be possible to attend without taking out student loans. Here are some of the options.

1. Work at a university

One strategy for how to pay for grad school without loans is to work at the university you attend. Various institutions offer free tuition 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, such as four months or one year, before availing of the benefit.

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 for free, she spent significant time researching schools in the Washington, D.C., area with job postings that matched her qualifications. Because of her research, she decided to accept a job at American University, a graduate school that typically came with a pretty hefty price tag. She began to work in August so that when January came around, she could start a new semester with her school totally paid for.

Of course, working and studying at the same institution isn’t easy, and paying for school this way means a multiyear commitment to the same job. In order for tuition to be reimbursed, you’re required to work full-time, and 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 for free. 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.

Assistantships are not available for every type of graduate program. For example, you cannot get an assistantship to help pay for a medical degree, since most medical schools don’t allow part-time work. However, you can get an assistantship to help pay for many kinds of Ph.D. and master’s degree programs.

An assistantship can involve a variety of jobs, but usually it’s 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. Stipends vary in amount, but they could be around $15,000 to $20,000 a year, based on experience and coursework.

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?

It’s also important to 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 people, 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. The key is knowing what they are and how to apply. For example, Michigan State University offers fellowship programs that provide financial support for grad students. Some grants may be 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 undergrad 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 grad school paths don’t have wiggle room when it comes to how many years it takes to complete the degree — think, law school or medical school. 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 grad 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.

The bottom line: Have a plan in place

While it’s important to know that you can get through grad school without taking on any student loan debt, it’s just as important to understand the effect a tuition-free path will have on your lifestyle. It’s also crucial to have realistic expectations of what a graduate degree will provide in terms of career prospects, your financial future and your personal happiness and fulfillment.

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.

Anna Davies contributed to this report.

The information in this article is accurate as of the date of publishing. 

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