When you secure a student loan, the money is all but gift-wrapped. It’s delivered to your school, and it might entirely cover your next tuition bill.
You can even put off worrying about how to repay the loan for a handful of years.
But some bad news might arrive when you finally receive your advanced degree. You might’ve gone to school in hopes of securing a six-figure salary at graduation but ended up with a six-figure debt hanging over your head. That debt could eat into your future earnings.
Fortunately, there are ways to pay for your degree without mortgaging your future.
Whether you’re looking for the most affordable medical schools or law schools that feature lower costs, you don’t want to graduate with more debt than you can manage. After all, one Student Loan Hero study found that medical school students graduate an average $164,800 in the red.
No matter the graduate or professional degree you’re seeking, it’s possible to pursue a big postgraduate salary without taking on a lot of debt. Here are four steps to get you started.
Before completing your undergraduate degree, you might’ve researched states where community colleges save you the most money. Or maybe you looked at the states with the most affordable four-year schools. You could follow the same strategy for your advanced degree.
But finding a program that will help you land your dream career without a lot of debt is easier said than done. The average public university graduate program costs nearly $30,000 per year, according to Peterson’s*. The average private program costs nearly $40,000.
If you haven’t zeroed in on a specific school, prioritize affordability when building your list of preferred programs. That’s actually easier than it sounds.
Say you’re applying to medical schools. You can filter out schools with tuition and fees beyond your reach using a search tool like the Princeton Review’s.
Also, review statistics about current students. You might compare schools based on how much financial aid they offer the average student. If you’re unable to find this information online, contact the financial aid office for each of your prospective schools.
No matter your degree type and target schools, you’ll need to complete the FAFSA to be eligible for financial aid from the federal government, your school and elsewhere.
The difference in completing the FAFSA as a graduate student is that you’ll be categorized as an independent student. Without having to report your parents’ income, your FAFSA might spit out a lower Expected Family Contribution. That could give you a leg up when it comes to securing need-based gift aid that doesn’t need to be repaid.
Once you receive aid packages from your selected schools, you might check in with their financial aid offices. A representative there might help you find ways to secure any of these three types of gift aid:
While you’re at it, think about other ways to get free money for schooling. You might have an employer with a tuition reimbursement program, for example. Or you could start a crowdfunding campaign online.
In the award packages offered by graduate and professional schools, you might see a federal work-study opportunity. Short of a part- or full-time job landing in your lap, however, you’ll have to go out and find one.
Your prospective school’s financial aid office will again come in handy. Depending on your undergraduate degree and level of professional experience, you might qualify for an on-campus job.
You could also explore teacher’s assistant openings within your desired degree program. Sometimes called assistantships, these part-time paid opportunities revolve around research or teaching in the classroom. These opportunities could help you network with faculty working at your school.
If you come up empty on steady work to help finance your degree, you might consider entrepreneurship. The subject matter of your degree, your outside interests or existing expertise could lead to a side hustle.
If you’re an aspiring veterinarian, for example, you might start a pet-sitting business. Or if you’re working on your master’s degree to become a teacher, you could market yourself as a tutor for kids.
The key to filling out the FAFSA as a graduate student is that it will make you eligible for federal loans — if you have to resort to them.
Federal loan options at your disposal include:
Federal loans come with greater protections than private loans. These include the ability to change repayment plans and apply for deferment or forbearance to pause your payments.
But federal loans might not be your best option if you (or your loan cosigner) have the financial chops to secure a lower interest rate from a private lender. A strong credit score, debt-to-income ratio and steady employment could entice lenders to beat the federal government’s interest rates.
As you shop around, look for private lenders that offer interest rate discounts for:
No matter the rate you secure, only borrow what you absolutely need.
If the cost of the advanced degree you want is making you think twice about seeking extra schooling, it should. Graduate and professional degrees are expensive. But don’t assume that you have to pay for yours with student loans.
The four steps above could help at least minimize your dependency on loans.
The money might not come in all at once the way it does with loans. Gift aid is not gift-wrapped for every applicant. And your job search or side business might get off to a slow start.
But put in the time and effort. The sacrifices you make now might pay off when your six-figure salary kicks in later.