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How to Pay for Grad School: A Practical Guide

By Brian Soika

Students in class

Determining how to pay for grad school is a challenge for any student.

While earning a master’s or doctoral degree can be great for your career, the total of tuition, fees and expenses is a major investment. And unless you have the cash on hand, you need to come up with a plan to afford it all. (For details on the cost of USC Rossier’s programs, check out our Financing Graduate School page.)

The good news is that there are resources to help you finance your studies. If you’re committed to enrolling in a graduate program, payment options are available to most students, and in some cases, financial assistance as well.

This post will explain the price of a graduate education, and will provide eight practical solutions to help you figure out how to pay for grad school.

Cost of Graduate School

The cost of graduate school depends on many factors. In addition to the variety of programs available, price varies by university, location, and program-specific fees. The tuition at public and private schools also varies. (And if you’re an international student, check with individual universities for their policies.)

The best way to figure out how much you can expect to pay is by researching individual schools and programs. (Pro tip: Not all schools make this information available on their websites. You may have to contact someone in your program of interest).

Graduate vs. Undergraduate Cost

If you’re unsure how paying for grad school may impact your finances, compare it to the cost of an undergraduate education. Using USC as an example, check out the table below:

USC Tuition and Fees: Graduate vs. Undergraduate Students*

Category Graduate Cost Undergraduate Cost
Tuition $28,628.00 $28,628.00
Per unit cost $1,928.00 $1,928.00
Application Fee $90.00 $80.00
Commitment Deposit Varies by department / school $300.00
New Student Fee $55.00 $450.00
Student Programming Fee $43.00 $64.00

*Estimated, 2019-2020

(For a complete list of fees at USC, check out the university’s Catalogue website. (Keep in mind, the total cost of graduate school includes fees such as books, parking, and room and board.)

As you can see from the table, tuition for undergraduates and graduates is the same, but some of the fees are different.

The takeaway? Based on our example, the cost of graduate school is similar to an undergraduate education when you compare tuition and specific fees.

But there’s one important caveat: time.

While PhD degrees can take four to six years to complete, most master’s programs are shorter than the typical four-year undergrad degree. As a result, you may pay less for graduate school.

But again, check with individual schools for the most accurate information.

How Much Will You Pay for Grad School out of Pocket?

The amount you pay for graduate school with your own money depends on your school, your financial situation, and your financial aid opportunities.

Wondering if you can attend graduate school for free?

Some programs offer to cover the entire cost of tuition through graduate assistantships. You may also be able to access free money for your education in the form of scholarships.

However, there are generally fewer scholarships for grad students than undergrads, and need-based grants like the Pell Grant aren’t available at the graduate level. That’s why most students use student loans and/or other resources to afford their graduate education.  

Let’s take a look at the options—free and otherwise—available to help you determine how to pay for grad school.

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Eight Ways to Pay for Grad School

  1. Find out if Your Employer Offers Assistance
  2. Research Grad School Scholarships
  3. See if you can Work While in School
  4. Consider Student Loans for Graduate School
  5. Ask About Graduate Assistantships
  6. Check Eligibility for the Lifetime Learning Tax Credit
  7. Research Loan Forgiveness
  8. Explore Veteran Benefits

1) Find Out if Your Employer Offers Assistance

Some employers have programs that help their employees pay for grad school. Typically this includes tuition assistance or tuition reimbursement, and the money you receive does not need to be repaid.

Of course, there are usually stipulations. Your graduate program has to be related to your profession, and some companies require a time commitment to the organization. For example, you may have to work for them for a year before and after your graduate program.

Why offer this benefit to employees? Companies can build loyalty with their most ambitious workers, and reap the rewards of your acquired knowledge and skills. Meanwhile, you increase your skillset and gain a competitive edge in your industry.

2) Research Grad School Scholarships

Scholarships are free money, so research them as soon as you decide to pursue your graduate degree. Not sure where to begin? Visit the U.S. Department of Labor’s scholarship search website.

As a graduate student, you are eligible to receive scholarships from a few different sources:

  • Private organizations
  • Your university
  • Your individual school or program

Private organizations can include large corporations, small businesses, nonprofits, religious groups and more. While some scholarships are awarded for merit, others are based on a variety of factors including your cultural background and personal interests.

Your university may offer scholarships for graduate students as well. These are typically awarded based on your academic performance and individual background, however keep in mind that all incoming grad students compete for the award.

Your best odds may be with the scholarships offered by your specific school or program. These are tailored to your general field of study and have the smallest pool of competition.

3) Ask About Graduate Assistantships and Fellowships

A graduate assistantship is a job related to your academic program. For example, if you’re pursuing a master’s degree in educational counseling, your assistantship might be a position in academic advising or at a multicultural resource center.

Assistantships are a great opportunity for students as they allow you to gain experience while compensating you for your time. You are usually paid through an hourly wage, but some employers offer tuition remission, room and board, and even meal plans.

Fellowships, on the other hand, are awarded by private organizations. You must apply for them based on certain criteria related to you and your field of study. They do not need to be paid back.

Remember, only select programs offer assistantships and fellowships. And while you probably shouldn’t count on them to cover the total price of graduate school, they can help ease your financial burden.

4) See if You Can Work While in School

Working professionals can’t always take a few years off to attend graduate school. A full-time master’s or doctoral program might be difficult to navigate with a busy career, so find out if your program offers a part-time track. You’ll be in school longer, but on the other hand, you don’t have to stress about stretching your income.

Just keep in mind that if you drop below a certain number of units, you may become ineligible for some student loans. Check with your university to find out the unit limit.

Another option is an online program. E-learning can give you more flexibility in your schedule. You may be able to maintain your work hours while virtually attending classes, from wherever it’s most convenient for you.

5) Consider Student Loans for Graduate School

Solving the challenge of how to pay for grad school usually requires student loans. With student loans, you borrow money to fund your school-related expenses, and pay it back once you graduate.

There are two types of student loans:

Federal Student Loans

Federal student loans (aka, loans from the United States government) are popular as they have low interest rates and don’t require a credit check. As a graduate student, you’ll want to apply for a Stafford or Graduate PLUS loan. You may also want to explore income-driven repayment options, which seek to give borrowers a reasonable monthly payment plan.

Private Student Loans

Private student loans for graduate students may also be an option. You can apply for them from your bank or financial institution, but they are typically more expensive than federal loans and require a credit check. Plus, you might not have as many flexible repayment options.

If you’re not sure where to start, explore federal student loans first. You’ll likely save more money on your education.

6) Research Loan Forgiveness

Did you know that the government may forgive part of your student loan? Under the Public Service Loan Forgiveness Program (PSLF), you can have the remaining balance of your loans cancelled after you reach a certain point in your repayment schedule (if you qualify). Under the PSLF, you must:

  • Make 120 qualifying monthly payments
  • Have a qualifying repayment plan
  • Work full-time for the government or qualifying not-for-profit organization

Considering a Master of Arts in Teaching? Teachers can have their loans forgiven under the Teacher Loan Forgiveness Program. You must teach for five consecutive years in a low-income school or educational service agency to be eligible for forgiveness of up to $17,500, depending on your type of loan.

7) Check Eligibility for the Lifetime Learning Tax Credit

To help pay for career-related education on a limited income, the government created the Lifetime Learning Tax Credit.

Here’s how it works: You can claim up to $2,000 on your federal taxes if you, your spouse or a dependent can show qualified education expenses for higher education. The intent of your coursework should be to improve your job skills.

There is a catch, however. As of 2018, your Modified Adjusted Gross Income (MAGI) can’t be more than $67,000 or $134,000 if you file a joint return.

While $2,000 is probably a fraction of your costs, it’s not insignificant. If you qualify, don’t forget to claim your education expenses and receive some money back.

8) Explore Veteran Benefits

If you’re ROTC or a U.S. military veteran, you may be eligible for special types of financial aid. In addition to your G.I. education benefits, some universities participate in the Yellow Ribbon Program. If you qualify for this program, the U.S. Department of Veterans’ Affairs will match money awarded to you by your college.

Final Thoughts on How to Pay for Grad School

There is no one-size-fits-all solution for how to pay for grad school. It’s a personal decision that ultimately depends on your career aspirations and financial circumstances.

Make sure you research your options in detail, find out how a master’s or doctoral degree might help your job prospects, and if you apply for student loans, calculate the timeline and amount of your future payments.

You might also want to review The U.S. Department of Education’s guide to financial aid for graduate students.

USC Rossier Resources

For more details on the cost USC Rossier’s programs, check out our Financing Graduate School and Scholarships pages.

Want additional guidance? USC Rossier can provide information tailored to your specific circumstances.

Learn more