The Shriver Report – How to Pay for Grad School

Special Edition

How to Pay for Grad School


By Katharine Paljug

Grad schools that offer financial aid aren’t doing it to be nice and help you out. Any university you might apply to wants to make itself look good, and they want to bring in students that will better the school’s image; offering financial aid is one way they attract desirable students.

So getting an offer of financial aid is a competition. You probably already know to highlight the things schools are looking for: if you have anything published, have already done your own research, have international experience, already have a name in your field. All of these things make you desirable.

But what other tricks are there to making a graduate degree more affordable? What’s the difference between paying for a master’s and a PhD? How does that differ from going to law school?

If paying for school is leaving you confused and panicked, read on.

Use the Competition to Pay for Grad School  

The number one thing most grad school applicants forget is that schools compete with each other. Regardless of the type of degree you are applying for, if you know how to use that competition, you’ll increase your financial aid offers.

Don’t apply to just one school – and if you do, never let the school know that. If they know they’re your one shot, they don’t need to persuade you to pick them: you already have.

If you get a financial aid offer from one school, don’t be afraid to take that to another on your list and say “School A offered me X, what can you offer me?” Far from making you look bad, knowing that another school wants you will make you seem like a more desirable candidate, and they’ll likely increase their offer.

Paying for a PhD  

Getting a PhD is a little different from getting a master’s degree. While many master’s students expect to take out loans or cover part of the cost of the degree themselves, most PhD candidates are not paying for their degree. In fact, common wisdom when applying for PhD programs is to hold out for full funding.

Because a PhD is a terminal degree and takes longer to achieve, and most PhD candidates publish while they are still students, PhD programs see a quicker return on their investment and are more willing to pay for their students to study with them. Generally, a PhD candidate will receive tuition remission in the form of TA-ing, teaching, or tutoring, as well as a small living stipend. The catch to receiving this level of support is that you are contractually forbidden from working outside the school, so you don’t have the option of earning money on the side.

By contrast, when paying for a master’s or JD, you have to get a little more creative.

Public Service for Loan Forgiveness  

Many law schools offer a Loan Repayment Assistance Program (or LRAP). If you register for this program and go straight from school into public or government law, or practice with any sort of registered non-profit, your school will pay off the interest on your loans for ten years.

This can also be combined with government loan forgiveness programs. Similar to how military scholarships work, if you register for these and work in the government or non-profit sectors for ten years, then the federal government will forgive your loans. For a law degree, when combined with LRAP, this amounts to a free JD. For a master’s degree, you may still have to pay the interest, but the principle of your debt is forgiven.

Reduce Tuition Through Work  

Many grad schools offer work-study programs or TA-ships, which allow students to work for the school in exchange for some or all of their tuition being remitted. If these are available, be sure to apply for them; they usually increase your workload by less than 20 hours per week, and are required to leave you time for your studies.

If you are trying to get a degree other than a PhD, another option is to find a job with a school you want to go to and then apply to their graduate program. Even part-time employees are automatically offered free or reduced tuition at most schools, and oftentimes they are guaranteed enrollment. Twenty hours a week at the admissions office may reduce the bill for your degree by more than half and take away a lot of the stress of applying.

How the JD is Different  

For many master’s programs, it is possible to file the Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA) and receive need-based financial assistance. In most law schools, however, financial aid is completely merit-based and dependent on your LSAT score.

How much assistance is offered varies from school to school; at some less well-known law programs, any student above a certain LSAT score is automatically offered a full ride. Many law schools also offer tuition remission if you maintain above a certain GPA, generally around a 3.5. A word of caution on accepting these offers, though: unlike undergrad programs, law schools almost always grade on a forced curve, so it is much more difficult to maintain this high GPA than at previous levels of education.

Applying to a graduate program is always a difficult endeavor, and finishing your degree with minimal debt can sometimes seem impossible. In addition to trying the strategies above, be sure to talk with the school’s financial aid office, as well as current and former students. They will be able to help you develop school-specific strategies for successfully managing both your degree and the damage to your bank account.


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Paljug_Katharine GGF HSKatharine Paljug is a freelance lifestyle and health writer who specializes in online copy. She received her B.A. magna cum laude from the College of William & Mary. When not working, Katharine can be found dancing onstage, curled up with a good book, or writing about balanced living at her website,