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How to Pay for Grad School: 6 Things to Consider

September 22, 2021
Creighton Students walking on Alliance campus interior

Whether you plan to study full time or part time, figuring out how to pay for grad school is one of the biggest concerns for those considering an advanced degree. Each individual’s circumstances are different and deciding what’s best for you is a personal decision.

While the typical graduate-school cost is certainly significant, so is the return on investment. As you start on the path to financing your graduate degree, we worked with Dr. Elizabeth Churchich, director of graduate and adult recruitment at Creighton University, to compile some tips and resources on how to pay for grad school.

Important considerations about paying for grad school

It’s easy to experience sticker shock when seeing a program price in one lump sum. But there are several options for easing that concern. Some schools, like Creighton University, allow grad students to take — and pay for — one class at a time, which helps break up the cost over time.

“There are a lot of funding avenues to explore, and students are often surprised at all the pieces that end up coming together,” Dr. Churchich explains. “Don’t assume that you’ll have to pay for everything out of pocket as you get started.”

Consider the following elements when determining how to pay for grad school.

1. Start by filling out the FAFSA

To qualify for federal aid of any kind, you must complete the Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA) with the U.S. Department of Education. You’ll want to submit your FAFSA form as early as possible because waiting until the last minute could put you at a disadvantage. As a graduate student, you are considered an independent applicant for FAFSA purposes, so you won't need to provide parental information.

2. Understand the different types of loans

One of the most common financing options for paying for grad school is through the use of loans, which you may be familiar with from your undergraduate degree. You can borrow as much or as little as you need to help with the cost of attendance. The federal loan cap for graduate students is $138,500. This does not include any loans you may have taken out during undergrad.

Types of graduate school loans:

  • Direct unsubsidized loans are NOT based on financial need. In this type of loan, interest is charged while the student is in school as well as during grace and deferment periods. Interest accrued during these periods will be added onto the principal amount borrowed when the student drops below half-time enrollment. When students complete the Master Promissory Note (MPN), they are given the option of making interest payments during the in-school period.
  • grad PLUS loan is available for credit-worthy graduate and professional students. Students can borrow up to the full cost of attendance, unless other financial aid is received. Interest is charged during all periods, just like the unsubsidized loan. Students are eligible for an in-school deferment while enrolled in school on at least a half-time basis.
  • Private loans for grad school are provided by commercial lenders and offer different loan options based on program of study. Terms and conditions will vary depending on the private lender and the borrower's credit. Generally, students can borrow up to the cost of attendance minus other aid. Repayment plans are determined by the lending institution. All alternative loans require students to complete a separate application every year.

If you haven’t taken out loans previously, completing an online Loan Entrance Counseling session will help you gather more specific information on interest rates and repayment options.

3. Ask your employer about tuition benefits

It’s becoming increasingly common for employers to have corporate tuition remission or corporate partnership discount programs to help employees finance their higher education. Universities often have partnerships with local hospitals, schools and businesses. This allows them to offer discounts for employees of those partnership organizations.

“Always ask your HR representative about tuition benefits,” Dr. Churchich advises. “Many major corporations contribute $5,250 per year towards their employee’s education, and some even more.” She adds that Creighton also has a unique policy that makes it possible for grad students to take classes and defer payment until 30 days after their class completes, in time for many companies to distribute tuition reimbursements.

4. Consider pursuing a fellowship

Fellowships are unique opportunities for grad students to finance their education. Typically, a fellowship is a merit-based monetary award given to support a student’s academic growth in their field of study, while also supporting their financial needs. It should be noted that fellowship opportunities are often slim and can be quite competitive, though that shouldn’t keep you from applying. A fellowship can truly be a life-changing opportunity.

Fellowships differ across universities. As one example, Creighton fellowship scholars are required to provide 20 hours of service per week. Work is assigned by a program director during the nine-month academic year. Fellowships may include a stipend, plus the remission of tuition and laboratory fees. All general university fees, however, must be paid by the fellows.

For more information about Creighton’s fellowship opportunities, visit the Graduate Fellowships page.

5. Research and apply to grants and scholarships

Grants and scholarships are highly sought-after forms of financial aid as they are monetary gifts that do not need to be repaid. They can significantly reduce your overall graduate school cost or even cover it entirely. Scholarships are often offered by colleges or universities and are given to applicants by merit of their background, skills or interests.

“It’s no secret that getting external funding sources for grad school is harder than undergrad,” Dr. Churchich admits. “You’ll have much better luck by searching for opportunities that are very specific to your field or career goals. For example, there very well may be a scholarship just for women in business analytics or teachers in underserved communities.”

Finding grants and scholarships will take some research on your part, but the reward can be well worth the effort. Start local by looking at organizations in your career field, as well as local churches, nonprofits and businesses. You can also use the following databases to aid in your search:

  • If you’re not yet a member of a professional organization, try searching through the JobStars website for associations in your field.
  • Fastweb is a well-known and robust database of college advice and financial aid opportunities. Upon creating an account, you’ll be prompted to enter details like your major, interests, hobbies and GPA to help match you with relevant opportunities. You can also browse through thousands of scholarships for students of all backgrounds.
  • GoGrad is another financial aid database that has a lot of unique scholarships, such as options geared specifically towards women, veterans, LGBTQ+ students and more.

Browse the list of Creighton University graduate scholarships.

6. Be intentional about setting and sticking to a budget

While this last point may seem obvious, it is worth including. As you evaluate your personal financial situation before committing to grad school, make sure to sit down and evaluate your current expenditures and living costs. Not only will this help you budget long term, but you might also be able to see opportunities for cutting down on expenses.

Consider using a smartphone budgeting app to get started on the right track. Here are a handful of highly rated options:

  • Mint links directly to your bank accounts, debit card and credit cards to provide a full picture of your finances. It automatically updates your expenses and categorizes them, so it can be used as a tracker and bill planner. You can also set up budgets for specific goals or priorities, whether that’s a vacation, concert tickets or a semester of textbooks.
  • Pluto Money was made specifically for college students. It has interactive games and challenges to help users learn how to budget in a fun way.
  • Splitwise is a great app for managing shared expenses with a roommate or significant other, making it easy to see who paid for what at a glance. Note that payments can’t be sent or received through the app — that will have to be done in person or through a payment app, like Venmo or PayPal.

Invest in a premium education at a reasonable price

Paying for grad school can seem like a daunting task, but these tips and tricks can help you plan ways to keep costs down and find opportunities for financial help. Higher education takes a lot of time, resources and effort, so it’s wise to ensure you’re getting your money’s worth. Creighton University is proud to be consistently recognized as a “Best Value” university, among several other rankings and awards.

“It’s no surprise to me that Creighton was named a ‘Best Value’ institution because it’s always top of mind for us,” Dr. Churchich says. “We know that students are making a significant investment up front, and the return on that has to be real and tangible.”

For personal support and guidance on how to pay for grad school and other important questions, schedule an appointment with an enrollment specialist today!