Thinking of going back to school? Maybe you're ready for a career change, or you feel like you need a new skillset to advance in your current career. Whatever the reason, going back to school can be both exciting and daunting at the same time.
Sure, it may seem easier to handle the financial load now that you're a money-making adult, but that comes with a catch. While you may have more cash in the bank, you also have more responsibilities and more people depending on you, so taking on a grad program can require some serious thought and consideration. You may have also become accustomed to the lifestyle that comes with an adult salary.
If you're settled into a career but considering a return to school, here are some options to help you reduce the cost. With a little bit of planning, it might not be as expensive as you think.
1. Apply for financial aid
Financial aid isn't just for undergraduates, and you should absolutely think of taking advantage of it. You'll have to fill out a FAFSA, which determines whether or not you qualify for any grants or loans. Schools will also use results from a FAFSA to establish your eligibility for other forms of financial aid, such as work-study. Most university departments have financial aid officers who deal with financing for graduate students if you have questions.
Ask the financial aid office about scholarships and search online directories like FastWeb, GoodCall, and Scholly for private scholarships. The financial aid office might also be able to tell you how to apply for work-study or get a teaching assistant position, which can pay a small stipend.
2. Ask your job about tuition assistance
Some employers offer tuition assistance and reimbursement programs. Before you apply for grad school, ask your company's HR department about any benefits you may be eligible for. If there's no formal tuition reimbursement program, consider putting in a personal request with your boss.
Outline how a degree could help you become a better employee and how it will lead to increased productivity or profit. Don't forget to mention that organizations can deduct tuition reimbursement on their taxes.
"In today's competitive landscape, more employers are willing to fund your education or pay off your student loans as a way to hire or retain top talent," says Lee Huffman, who got his MBA while working on the side.
Tuition reimbursement could save you up to $5,250 a year. So, if your current gig can't or won't pay you to go to school, and you're serious about getting another degree, you might want to consider looking for a new job that is more willing to help you in this endeavor.
3. Defer your loans
Going back to grad school often means living on a tight budget. Whether you're going to work and study at the same time or try to focus solely on your classes, money will surely be tight. Cutting expenses is one of the keys to finishing grad school without running up a credit card balance or taking out more in loans than you originally planned.
If you already have undergraduate federal student loans, you can defer them while you go back to school. Interest will accrue on any unsubsidized loans, but not on subsidized loans. Deferring your payments could make it easier to survive financially while you complete your degree.
You have to be at least a part-time student to qualify for deferment for federal student loans, and many private lenders won't allow you to defer your loans. Contact your loan providers before you enroll to see what your options are.
4. Work and go to school
If you're truly worried about sustaining yourself through grad school, you should continue working full time while attending school at the same time. You might take longer to finish your degree, but you could also save thousands in interest if you take out fewer student loans.
This is a great option for the right kind of person, but make sure you're prepared for the workload. You don't want to ruin both your professional and academic careers because you took on more than you could handle and flamed out.
"It was not an easy schedule to maintain, but it paid off well," says Eric Rosenberg, who went back to school for an MBA while continuing to work as a financial analyst and later an accountant. "I was able to pay for part of my school as I went."
5. Compare annual salaries
Not every job requires a graduate degree, and not every degree will pay for itself. Before deciding on grad school, research how much more you might earn with an advanced education. If the difference is small, consider whether or not you really need to attend grad school.
"I graduated with $40,000 in student loans from a program with an estimated $90,000 cost of attendance," Rosenberg says. "Because I knew an MBA in finance would pay off well, I was not worried about the loans hanging around too long and knew the degree would pay for itself."
You can still go to grad school if you decide a degree doesn't make financial sense. Knowledge for the sake of knowledge is a worthy goal, and sometimes it's worth a few thousand dollars in student loans for an added sense of personal fulfillment. The choice is all yours — just make sure it's an educated one.