Can You Afford Graduate School?

Illustration by Richard Chance.
In the months before I graduated from college nearly 10 years ago (!), members of the senior class seemed to develop a work version of FMK that went: job, grad school, Teach For America. The prevailing thought was if you didn't have a job lined up or weren't sure what you wanted to do, you picked one of the latter two (which theoretically allowed you to bide your time without being unemployed).
These days, much farther out from the Great Recession, I'd like to think graduates approach these options, or others, with a bit more confidence in their choices — especially if it involves taking on more student loans.
There is a tremendous amount of hand-wringing over the worth of a graduate degree, and with good reason. Shifts the modern workforce, technology, and the economy mean it's a very good idea to approach an advanced degree with careful consideration. Is it a credential that will truly reap rewards? Or is the impact superficial for what you want to do? (Or even predatory — see Liberty University?) Are you considering grad school simply because you don't know what else to do, or is the degree you're seeking a necessity for your career goal or personal development?
These answers will vary by person, and sometimes where someone is at in their life. But if you're trying to determine if and how you can can afford an advanced degree, here are some things to keep in mind.

Can You Go For Free?

Getting a full ride to undergrad requires a student to meet a sometimes complex set of parameters, but it isn't completely rare. However, Miranda Marquit, a financial advisor at Student Loan Hero, says full scholarships are much harder to come by in graduate school. It isn't uncommon to receive partial funding to your program, depending on the program and your school, she says, but "it's increasingly rare to find a fully-funded program, much the way it's getting harder to find tenured positions on the professor route."
Instead, she explains, it is far more common for a student to be assigned opportunities to earn money that helps pay for their education — fellowship positions or teaching assistant positions.
"If you're more humanities-based, a lot of the time, you'll have an assistantship where you're teaching others as you do research," Marquit explains. "If you're in more of a hard science or an engineering type program, you'll have more of a chance to work on research projects that come with grants that can help pay for some of your schooling."
These routes aren't without controversy: the amount of work required from TAs varies by school and by program. In recent years, thousands of grad students have fought to unionize in order to bargain for higher pay and benefits because of the tremendous amount of work some universities have asked for (which can make actually completing their degree an afterthought). Research the potential workload you would have to take on if you went this route, and how much it would benefit you financially.
Websites like Pro Fellow have vast databases where you can search for fellowship and grant opportunities to support your ambitions, loan free — provided you meet certain criteria.

Isn't More School Always Better?

Paying for the things you want is usually necessary, but this calculation isn't always about money. Sometimes, you may want a degree for a personal "sense of accomplishment and prestige," as Marquit puts it. Other times, society's conditioning that more education is always worth it feels like gospel, she adds.
She advises that prospective master's candidates take a step back and ask why they "want this increased sense of prestige and status."
In her case, getting a master's degree in journalism was an expensive choice (as many people told her), but one that paid off, as she was able to command higher rates online.
"Because I had this journalism degree and this credential, people were willing to pay a premium for that kind of training," Marquit says. "The contacts I made [in school] also helped me find higher paying gigs later." It's no secret that grad school can give some people a robust network they'd otherwise be shut out from.

Will It Pay Off To Take On More Loans?

Graduate students can borrow more money in federal loans than undergrad scholars can, but the interest rates are also higher. You can borrow up to $20,500 a year for grad school from the government (or roughly twice as much, for med students) at a 6% interest rate — but do you really need to?
"If you look at something like a lot of engineering degrees, you can get a good job and advance fairly well with a bachelor's degree," Marquit admits. "Every degree is different and every job has requirements, so try to work backwards and ask: What is my ultimate goal in my career and my job, and what do I need to do to accomplish that? If I got a little extra training a got a certificate in a special area, would that be good enough to get me to the next level in my job?"
Reverse engineer your approach to graduate school and start with what you want to do, how much you might want to make, and then work your way backwards to see if paying for an advanced degree makes sense.
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