Worker Going to Grad School? Here’s How to Pay for Your Degree

Kathryn Tuggle

November 28, 2014

NEW YORK (MainStreet) — From fellowships to scholarships, corporate stipends to loans, the ways to finance graduate school haven’t changed a lot in the past decade, but great opportunities abound if you know where to find them. If you’re thinking of furthering your education with a graduate degree, here’s a look at some of the most common ways to pay — and where to snag funding when you need it.

Corporate stipends or reimbursements

“The best way to do any kind of grad school is to have someone else pay for it,” says Susan Hanflik, certified educational planner and principal at Susan Hanflik and Associates.

These days, employers are less likely to pay in full for their employees’ secondary degrees, but tuition stipends are still relatively common and may amount to a few thousand dollars each semester, she says.

Most companies state their tuition reimbursement policies clearly in their employee handbook, says Paul Anthony Rivers, founder of college consultancy Sources for Students.

“Don’t go to work for a company assuming that they do it,” Rivers says. “Do your research. It varies widely from industry to industry and in different parts of the country. In most cases you’ll need multiple resources to cover the cost of your education.”

Companies have cut back on their full-tuition offerings not because they don’t see the value add to their workforce, but because they don’t have the money, Hanflik says. “Companies used to be very liberal with who they paid to get an MBA, but not anymore.”

With that said, teachers may be in luck — many colleges have a separate budget for “educational development,” dedicated to their staff’s continuing education.

“If you’re already working at a school and pursuing your Ph.D., it’s quite possible to get funding. Of course you’ll need to continue working for them, teaching and doing research,” Hanflik says.

If your company doesn’t offer tuition reimbursement, it may be willing to pay for corporate training or leadership programs. Although these programs won’t offer a degree, they do offer opportunities for advancement.

“Graduate school is not casual. It’s a purposeful decision. A non-degree leadership program may be able to give you the same experience without the hefty investment of time and money,” she says.

Fellowships and assistantships

Although a teaching assistantship can be incredibly demanding, you’re also developing a resume and adding to your work experience, Hanflik says.

“Yes, it’s possible to get overworked, but you’re not just going to graduate school for intellectual curiosity. Don’t turn down a teaching assistantship because you’re worried it might be too much. You should be able to balance.”

Securing a fellowship or teaching assistantship is a lot like securing a scholarship, Rivers says.

“People don’t realize it may take 100 applications before you get one ‘yes,'” he explains.

For some, a loan may sound more appealing than teaching assistantship, but Rivers recommends focusing on your life post-graduation.

“Sure, you can take out a loan and you won’t have to work while you’re in school, but once you graduate you’re going to have to work twice as hard paying it back,” he says. “It’s really a decision of whether you want to work now or later.”

Scholarships

Most working professionals headed to graduate school aren’t going to qualify for need-based financial aid, says Bev Taylor, founder of Ivy Coach, a New York-based college consulting firm. If you fall into that category, avoid stating on your application that you’re in need of financial aid.

“If you check that box, it could hurt your application,” Taylor says. “Colleges are not need-blind, they’re need-aware. If you already know you don’t qualify for financial aid, why would you put that on your application? Whenever you ask for aid, you’d better be worthy of the aid.”

Students who completed their bachelor’s degree only recently and aren’t earning a salary may qualify for graduate school financial aid, but professionals in the workforce will almost certainly make too much money to be eligible. That’s why they should try to secure merit money instead.

“If you can ace the MCAT, GRE, LSAT or GMAT, then you could get decent merit money if you’re not applying to top tier schools,” she says. “With a strong undergraduate GPA and excellent standardized test scores, it’s possible to get a full ride from a less-competitive graduate school.”

In some cases, applicants with strong academics may face a tough choice: Taking a full-ride at a lower-tier school or paying for tuition at a top-tier school.

“You’re going to pay for prestige,” Taylor says. “Some people end up asking themselves, ‘Can I afford to go where I really want to go?’ Many of my clients see the value of going to a top-tier school even when it costs more, because they want more job opportunities once they graduate.”

It’s no secret that many companies hire graduates only from the most prestigious programs.

“Companies like Goldman Sachs or McKenzie, they only hire Ivy League graduates or grads from schools like Stamford and MIT. This is what they want for their consultants’ bios. They want bragging rights just as much as mommy and daddy want bragging rights,” she says.

If you don’t qualify for need or merit-based scholarships, Hanflik recommends speaking to the admissions office at the college. They may be able to work with you to reduce costs.

“A lot of times if you’re an out-of-state student, the school will offer you a level of funding so that you’re essentially paying in-state tuition,” Hanflik says. “You don’t really see that happen for undergraduate students, but if a graduate program likes you as a candidate, that may be something they can offer.”

— By Kathryn Tuggle for MainStreet