9 Strategies to Pay for Graduate School
9 Strategies to Pay for Graduate School

You’ve made the decision: you’re going back to school to earn your graduate degree. Congrats! That’s a significant investment in your future that can pay dividends for decades.

Now, you just have to figure out how to pay for it.

Finding funding for graduate study is one of the more complex parts of the whole experience. There are thousands of scholarships out there and an array of other financial options that you should consider.

Here is some information that will help demystify the experience as we explore 9 strategies to pay for graduate school.

1. Understand the Whole Picture

The first thing to do is compile all the relevant information about your finances and graduate school costs. Try to write it down in one document so you fully understand the situation.

“Get a good sense for what the entire program of study will cost and contextualize that with both your current financial reality and your likely income after you find a job in your chosen field,” says Chrissie Chang, director of student services in the Department of Speech & Hearing Sciences at the University of Washington.

When you do this, remember to include non-educational expenses, such as transportation, child care or your living expenses (which could change if you have to move to attend an in-person program). If you need to work less while in school, be sure to adjust your expected income over that period as well.

2. Start Early

Not everybody knows that you can apply for scholarships even before you get into a grad program.

Aaliyah Davis, manager, UW Graduate Funding Information Service
You should start working on your funding plan at the same time as you start on your grad school applications. You can begin by looking into possible tuition reimbursement benefits offered at your work (see Tip 3) and researching scholarship opportunities online (see Tip 4).

“Not everybody knows that you can apply for scholarships even before you get into a grad program,” says Aaliyah Davis, manager of the Graduate Funding Information Service at the University of Washington. “There are funding opportunities where they’ll award you money before admission, with the stipulation that you must show proof of enrollment before they pay you.”

Another piece of advice: pay attention to deadlines. Davis notes that many funding applications are due between October and March, so keep that in mind when you start your search.

3. See If Your Employer Can Help

One of the most popular options for paying for grad school is to have your employer subsidize your degree. This is now a common benefit offered by many companies.

“At least half of the organizations in the U.S. that I’ve seen provide some form of tuition reimbursement to employees,” says Justin Sun, a compensation adviser at Expedia Group and an instructor for UW Professional & Continuing Education's Certificate in Human Resources Management.

Large companies like Boeing and Amazon offer this benefit to their full-time, salaried employees. Many governments also offer tuition assistance to their workers (such as employees of the state of Washington).

“My job is covering 100% of the cost of my degree,” says Cosmina Bartels, a Boeing employee currently enrolled in the UW Master of Supply Chain Transportation & Logistics program. “If it weren’t for that financial benefit, I wouldn’t be able to get my master’s. Working for a company that will pay for my degree has been absolutely huge for my career.”

The amount that an individual employer will contribute toward your education varies; one study estimated the most common amount is $5,000–$6,000. Be sure to check with your organization to see if they offer a tuition reimbursement program and what percentage of the total cost it might cover. Also, note that most employers will require that you stay with the company for a minimum period of time after completing your schooling.

4. Research Scholarships, Fellowships and Grants

The best kind of school funding is the kind that’s given to you (and you don’t have to pay it back). Scholarships, fellowships and grants (the terms are generally interchangeable) should be high on your list of funding targets.

This type of grad school funding can come from anywhere: governments, foundations, civic groups, individuals and from colleges and universities themselves. That’s the good news.

It can be overwhelming. If you can narrow it down — say, filter by your gender or ethnic background — and pursue scholarships that specifically apply to you, you’ll have a better chance.

Kimbo Smith, graduate academic adviser, UW Department of Civil & Environmental Engineering
The not-so-good news is that you can go online and quickly find yourself buried in different scholarship websites that return hundreds of results when you search for funding. You can’t apply to them all! The key, experts say, is to narrow down the list.

“It can be overwhelming,” says Kimbo Smith, a graduate academic adviser in the Department of Civil & Environmental Engineering at the UW. “If you can narrow it down — say, filter by your gender or ethnic background — and pursue scholarships that specifically apply to you, you’ll have a better chance.”

Some scholarships also target professionals who are changing fields or returning to the workforce. Try using those keywords if this describes your situation. And, of course, be sure that any scholarships you’re considering apply to graduate study (because some are limited to undergraduate degrees).

5. Fill Out the FAFSA

Another important step, says Smith, is to make sure you fill out the Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA). Once you’ve filled it out, any accredited graduate program you apply to can use it to determine your financial need and eligibility for various kinds of financial aid.

The FAFSA is also used to determine if you’re eligible for federal grants and loans. If you want to get a quick sense of what you might be awarded in these aid categories, you can fill out the Federal Student Aid Estimator. (This is not a replacement for the FAFSA itself, however.)

6. Reach Out to the School

It seems obvious, but it’s important to emphasize: always reach out and talk to someone at the school or program you want to attend. These advisers have the most knowledge about how students pay for their programs.

“While their website is a good place to start, the best way to discover what kinds of scholarships and opportunities a program offers is to talk to someone within that department,” says Davis. “Some students don’t realize this. They shouldn’t be afraid to reach out; the programs want to hear from interested students.”

After you’ve accepted an offer of admission and registered for the program, this opens up even more resources for finding grad school funding. As the manager of the UW’s Graduate Funding Information Service, Davis meets one-on-one with enrolled students to help them navigate the grad school funding process.

“Once you’re in, you’re eligible for many more opportunities — things like departmental funding and research centers,” she says.

7. Learn About Work Opportunities

Another popular funding option for many graduate programs is work-study, often called assistantships. This means you’ll work for the department (or another part of the university) to help pay for your school.

One traditional role is a teaching assistantship (TA), where you teach in the same department where you’re enrolled. Some of these positions allow you to waive some or all of your tuition costs. Others pay an hourly wage.

Another option is a research assistantship, where you typically help a faculty member on a research project (or conduct your own, often under supervision). There are also graduate assistantships, where you work in a more administrative role for the university (it doesn’t necessarily have to be in the department where you’re studying).

“Some students come to me only looking for TA roles, and they don’t know about these other positions,” Davis says. “You’re not limited; you can apply to work in other departments or places like campus cultural centers or libraries.”

8. Consider Loans (as a Last Resort)

Once you’ve filled out your FAFSA and explored all your options for employer benefits, scholarships and work-study, you might still face a funding gap. That’s when you might need to consider taking out a loan for grad school.

A note of caution: Not all student loans are created equal! Be sure you shop around and pay careful attention to interest rates and repayment terms (including when your loan payments will start).

Perhaps your best option is a federal student loan, which offers terms and benefits that many private loans do not. These include flexible repayment plans; cancellation, discharge or forgiveness of loans under certain circumstances; and postponement options if you experience hardship (like a global pandemic).

Be sure to contact your school or program adviser if you have any questions about loans. They can often steer you in the right direction (and prevent you from taking a wrong turn).

9. Advocate for Yourself

You did it. Your dream graduate school accepted you — but the cost is a major obstacle. Chang, who has years of experience helping admitted students with funding issues, encourages you to let an adviser know about your situation.

“Admissions committees these days typically have limited funding,” she notes. “Hearing from prospective students about their enthusiasm for the program is not a guarantee of a funding offer, but it definitely doesn't hurt.”

Learn More

Want to discover more helpful content about grad school? Check out our go-to guide for applying to graduate school for links to additional articles.

For more career tips and industry trends, visit the News & Features section of our website, and subscribe to our email list. To learn more about UW Professional & Continuing Education certificates, specializations, degrees and courses, explore your options or contact us.

Author David Hirning

David Hirning

David Hirning is an accomplished writer and editor with extensive experience in both tech and higher education. He began his career in journalism, then spent over a decade as an editor at Microsoft, where he worked on Encarta Encyclopedia and related reference products.

David worked for six years as a full-time writer and content manager at UW Professional & Continuing Education. He also operated his own editorial consulting business, with stints at leading companies like Amazon and Expedia, and taught English for two years in Costa Rica.

David has served as an instructor for the UW Certificate in Editing program and as a teaching assistant for the UW Certificate in Storytelling & Content Strategy. He holds a bachelor’s degree in English from Stanford University and a Certificate in Literary Fiction from the UW.

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