As an undergrad, you may have been lucky enough to qualify for a Pell grant, state grants, or other forms of grant-based financial aid that you didn’t have to pay back.
Unfortunately, such grants are rarely an option now for students considering graduate study. Instead, the average graduate student is encouraged to borrow thousands of dollars more in loans than they ever did before. Often, many of these loans are unsubsidized federal loans that compound interest while students are enrolled in school.
And with the average loan debt for undergrads at $19,000, many grad students may end up with much more in debt by the time they complete a program. However, there is hope for students willing to do some searching and legwork. While not enough for everyone, there is some money available to grads that are willing to be competitive and compare graduate programs from multiple schools.
Universities across the country have used graduate assistantships for decades as a way to gain cheap labor, while offering financial assistance to those students earning their masters or doctoral degree. This form of aid is one of the most common offered by institutions to attract students to their graduate program. Typically, assistantships include a tuition and fee waiver of some sort, and a stipend to help with other living expenses. An assistantship may be in three primary areas:
Teaching Assistantship (TA): Students usually teach an undergraduate class in their major, and help take the pressure off of full-time professors. TAs are great for those students seeking a career as a college instructor or professor and that want to gain some experience in their chosen subject.
Research Assistantship (RA): RAs are usually for students majoring in the hard sciences, such as chemistry, biology, and earth sciences. Students spend their time either performing research in a specific area, or assisting a professor with their research goals. While you won’t teach, you will be spending a great deal of time with your professors and be able to network and prepare for future research opportunities.
Graduate Assistantship (GA): You may be asked to perform another type of job, such as grade papers, assist other college professionals, or direct campus activities. These jobs are great for those students that want to gain professional experience in certain areas, or don’t mind being assigned tasks that may or may not be outside their major.
While these choices are not available to all disciplines (i.e., medical and law school students), GAs can still be a source of financial aid for students who actively seek these appointments out. In addition, the stipends that come with assistantships do not always pay for every expense you may have. But you should consider them an offset of the total cost you will need to cover out of pocket with student loans.
DISSERTATION OR THESIS GRANTS
If you have a concept or idea that you may wish to study intensely as your final degree project, a thesis or dissertation grant may be available to you. Many public interest organizations, companies and schools are looking for people to take on specialized study topics. Whether it is the American Association of University Women or Cornell University, there are plenty of groups that will offer grant funding to those who study particular subjects important to those organizations.
Some grants cover tuition along with the costs of the study. Other grants simply function more like a scholarship, with the goal of creating a professional in their field of study. For example, some states have grants for those pursuing their dissertation in the sciences, in order to help them with funding during a time when they need to concentrate on finishing their degree. However, students should keep in mind that these grants only come into play towards the end of their schoolwork when their capstone projects begin.
It’s hard to defend a thesis when you’re worried about the bills. These grants help alleviate some of the headache of student life.
This is one of the last grant programs that can be carried over into your graduate school. While many students may complain that they don’t want to work a full-time job, think about this; the money you earn will offset the loans you are awarded, which allows you to reduce potential debt. In addition, while the money earned must be claimed on your tax return, financial aid lenders don’t count it against you if you apply for more aid for the following school years. However, most students often won’t see this option in their graduate financial aid package unless they ask for it first.
One of the best parts is that most work-study jobs give you time to study while on the clock at work. Take advantage of it if you can.
Keep in mind that the more demand exists for a degree, the more likely there will be financial aid offered for that major. This means that students in the hard sciences, such as math and engineering, will often find more aid available to them than someone studying philosophy. However, that doesn’t mean that students should abandon their career plans. Rather, it just shows that they should be aware of the opportunities and pitfalls of every career.
Here’s one last tip. The money you find for grad school will be determined by both grades and grit. Those who apply for help early are the ones likely to get it, so make sure you meet with a school advisor first in order to make the best decision for your own situation.
Jose Vazquez is a graduate student in higher education and college student personnel at Southern Illinois University, and has been awarded more than 30 scholarships, amassing more than $150,000 in aid to date. He is the author of the book "Free Cash For College: The Everyday Students Guide To Financial Aid," available at vazquezmedia.com. Vazquez is also a public speaker that gives seminars on financial aid and scholarship strategies for colleges and university groups, as well as student loan providers.
© 2008, Young Money Media, LLC. All rights reserved.
Resources for Graduates and Graduating Students
- Student Gateway to the U.S Government – Graduate Students
Resources on scholarships, internships, fellowships, research opportunities, graduate programs, and loan repayment programs.
- Student Aid on the Web – U.S. Department of Education
Helpful links for prospective and current graduate students on funding your graduate education.
- National Association of Graduate-Professional Students (NAGPS)
Advocacy group and clearinghouse for graduate and professional student organizations representing over two million U.S. graduate and professional students.