How to Pay for Graduate School: 8 Ways

Written by Coursera • Updated on

There are several strategies you can use to cover your graduate school costs, including foreign and domestic service, scholarships, employer tuition assistance, loans, and deferring enrollment.

[Featured image] Two grad school students review an assignment on a tablet.

Graduate schools award postgraduate degrees, such as master’s and doctorates (PhD), as well as professional degrees that prepare students for specific professions, like law or medicine.

The average tuition for one year of graduate school in the US was $19,314 for the 2018-2019 school year, according to the National Center for Education Statistics—and that's not including rent, textbook costs, and other non-tuition expenses [1]. 

Depending on the program, graduate school can take several years to complete: master’s degrees generally take two years to complete, law degrees may take three, and PhDs can easily take over five. That means tuition and living costs can quickly add up. 

Here’s a look at how to minimize and pay for expenses in graduate school.

How to pay for graduate school

1. Apply for grants and scholarships. 

There's a reason why grants and scholarships are often cited as a good way to pay for school—it's free money. Grants and scholarships are both forms of financial aid that typically don’t have to be repaid. Though they’re often used interchangeably, grants are generally need-based awards, while scholarships tend to be merit-based awards. Dedicating some time to researching eligible grants and scholarships can be well worth the effort.

Federal and state funding: You may be eligible for federal or state funding depending on your needs and field of study. Federal TEACH Grants, for example, are available for students who intend to become teachers [2]. If you’re eligible, filling out your Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA), which qualifies you for state and federal funding, should be a priority consideration.

School funds: Universities and academic departments often offer scholarships and grants based on merit and need. Your school may have a separate application for financial aid; reach out to a financial aid officer to see what options are available.

Private organizations: Private organizations may offer scholarships based on any number of factors, like field of study, ethnic heritage, status as a returning student, or geographic location. A financial aid officer at your school may be able to give you a list of scholarships that apply to your circumstance.

2. Turn to your savings.

If you’ve been able to save before starting grad school, consider allocating a portion of that money to your schooling needs. You shouldn’t dip into an emergency fund, or money that you’ve set aside to help in case of an unexpected problem, but using money you've already set aside—and therefore don’t have to repay—is preferable before turning to student loans. 

3. See whether your employer will pay.

Some employers offer tuition reimbursement or tuition assistance, meaning they cover a portion of your continued education costs. Employers may also be willing to help pay off student loans. According to a study conducted by the Lumina Foundation, it’s a good move for employers too—employers in the study reported up to a 144-percent ROI (that’s return on investment) on tuition assistance programs [3]. 

If you’re employed and believe a graduate degree will be helpful to your organization, consider asking your manager or HR department about tuition reimbursement. Keep in mind that an employer may require a commitment of up to several years in exchange for tuition reimbursement. 

Also, many universities offer full-time employees tuition remission—or the opportunity to take classes part-time for free. Consider applying for relevant roles at the university of your choice, and working until you’re eligible to begin on a graduate degree program. Just keep in mind that you’ll have to remain employed full-time during the length of your program in order to qualify.

4. Defer, work, and save.

Working for one or more years can help you save money and give you real-world insight into the working world. Spending time in your desired field may also give you valuable experience that can make you a stronger candidate in school or scholarship applications, and help solidify your understanding of what you need from a graduate degree. 

If you’ve already been accepted into a program but want to defer your enrollment, ask the admissions officer. Deferment is typically available for a one-year period.

Alternatively, consider enrolling as a part-time or online student in order to accommodate your full-time job, and using a portion of your paycheck to cover expenses. It will take longer to complete your degree, but if you graduate with fewer loans or none at all, you may ultimately be in a better financial position. 

5. Work part-time during school.

Similar to working full-time while attending school part-time, you can enhance your full-time educational experience by earning an income with part-time work opportunities.

Internships: Working as an intern in the field of your study can give you real-world experience, and can come with the flexibility to accommodate your course load. Internships can also give you the experience and connections to help you find employment after graduation.

Work study: Your financial aid package might include work study, which will allow you to work on campus to help with expenses. Reach out to your financial aid office or career center to see what options might be available.

Teaching and research assistants: Your university may be looking for teaching or research assistants. Since these positions are usually designed with students in mind, they can give you the needed flexibility to let you focus on your schoolwork as well.

6. Consider foreign or domestic service.

Certain government service programs allow you to tackle issues in the US and abroad. Completing them can give you access to scholarships that can be used toward qualifying graduate programs.

Peace Corps: Completing a stint as a Peace Corps volunteer may make you eligible to receive full or partial scholarships to over 200 programs at more than 120 universities in the US [4]. Scholarships are available in a wide range of subjects including law, public health, math, sciences, education, and more. Joining the PeaceCorps can also bring benefits for your undergraduate student loans, such as deferment, partial cancellation, or forgiveness, depending on eligibility [5].

AmeriCorps: AmeriCorps, a network of national service programs, provides program alumni with education awards that can be used to pay for qualifying student loans or graduate programs. The award amount varies depending on the number of hours spent in AmeriCorps [6].

Military: As a US veteran, you can qualify to receive educational benefits to cover graduate school expenses under the GI Bill. In the 2020-2021 school year, the GI Bill covered full tuition for public in-state schools, and more than $25,000 for private or foreign schools [7].

7. Borrow smartly.

Borrowing money to finance your education is not a decision to be taken lightly. But if taken out thoughtfully, loans can provide you with the financial resources needed to complete your education.

Federal loans first: Loans from the government tend to have lower interest rates than loans from private loan providers like banks. Federal loans may also have other perks, like income-based repayment programs or loan forgiveness for select professions [8]. 

Private loans: Once you’ve exhausted your federal loan options, you can look into private student loans. Compare several lenders. While private lenders tend not to offer perks like income-based repayment options, many do provide deferment programs for periods of hardship.

8. Look into online degrees.

Online degrees may have lower price points than in-person schools, though they're often offered by the same institution. And earning your degree online can make it easier to continue working while enrolled.

The Master of Computer Science from the University of Illinois offered on Coursera, for example, costs $21,440 for the full program in 2021. Compare this to the overall average tuition for one year of in-person graduate schools, which was $19,314 for the 2018-2019 school year [10]. 

Online degrees also offer other perks, like scheduling flexibility and access to programs at geographically distant schools. Online schools may also accept and offer financial aid.

As you consider your options and figure out what makes the most sense for you, remember to seek out grad school payment options in this order: 

1. Money you don’t have to repay: A good rule of thumb is to start with money that you don’t have to return—think grants, scholarships, personal savings, a portion of your salary, or tuition reimbursement by your employer.

2. Federal and state loans: Student loans provided by the government tend to have a lower interest rate and more flexible repayment plans than private loans.

3. Private loans: Private loans should only be considered after you’ve exhausted your other options.

This list was adapted from Sallie Mae.


Getting started

The financial, academic, and personal rewards of continuing your education have the potential to change the rest of your life. Paying for graduate school can be daunting, but researching the many options available to you is the first step to ensure you’re as financially prepared as you can be before starting graduate school.

Look through financial aid resources on Coursera to get started.

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Frequently asked questions (FAQs)

Article sources

1. National Center for Education Statistics. "Average and percentiles of graduate tuition," Accessed October 18, 2021.

2. Federal Student Aid. "TEACH Grants," Accessed October 18, 2021.

3. Lumina Foundation. "The Case for Talent Investment," Accessed October 18, 2021.

4. Peace Corps. "Coverdell Fellowship Partners," Accessed October 18, 2021.

5. Peace Corps. "Student Loan Information," Accessed October 18, 2021.

6. AmeriCorps. "Segal AmeriCorps Education Award," Accessed March 26, 2021.

7. US Department of Veterans Affairs. "Post-9/11 GI Bill (Chapter 33) Payment Rates for 2020 Academic Year (August 1, 2020 - July 31, 2021)," Accessed October 18, 2021.

8. Federal Student Aid. "Public Service Loan Forgiveness (PSLF)," Accessed October 18, 2021.

9. Federal Student Aid. "Loans," Accessed March 26, 2021.

10. National Center for Education Statistics. "Average and percentiles of graduate tuition," Accessed March 26, 2021.

11. US Bureau of Labor Statistics. "Education pays, 2020," Accessed October 18, 2021.

12. Education Data Initiative. "Average Graduate Student Loan Debt," Accessed October 18, 2021.

Written by Coursera • Updated on

This content has been made available for informational purposes only. Learners are advised to conduct additional research to ensure that courses and other credentials pursued meet their personal, professional, and financial goals.

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