It’s nothing new to hear that the student loan debt in this country is astronomical. The Federal Reserve now reports that Americans owe over $1.6 trillion in student loan debt. Graduate school debt is reported to account for over half of that figure. Nonetheless, tuition and fees have increased at universities nationwide, as has the cost of living, and students are having to make financial choices that impact not only education but also their livelihoods. These choices are compounded when a student has a family to consider.
I’m a grad student, but I’ve also worked in a graduate studies office for a number of years in a recruiting/admissions capacity. I have been privy to many conversations and concerns from students that have helped to shape my beliefs about paying for school. I’ve heard some encouraging things, like when a student tells me that their employer is offering reimbursement for tuition, and I’ve heard some disturbing things, like when a student told me that a financial aid counselor suggested that she “go shopping” with her loan refund. I’ve been privileged, I suppose, to be able to afford most of my grad classes out of pocket. But privilege is a matter of perception. It’s privileged if you don’t mind things like driving a 19-year-old car, delaying major life milestones such as children and having a wardrobe built from thrift shop finds. It's also privileged if you don’t mind “burning your candle at both ends,” juggling and attempting to excel at both a full-time job and grad school.
These things considered, here are my thoughts and suggestions about responsibly affording graduate school.
Be realistic. “Brand-name” universities, like brand-name clothing, come with a higher price tag. The benefits of attending such institutions, of course, include widespread name recognition and often a reputation for academic excellence. With a degree from such an institution, you can also take advantage of alumni connections. However, if you’re on a budget, consider in-state, public schools. Not only is the price tag usually much lower, but many of the programs and opportunities that you experience as a student are supported to some extent by tax dollars, even though those funds have been reduced in many states in recent years.
Take only what you need. What does grad school actually cost? Have you looked at your bill closely? If you’re taking a loan, do you know about the interest rate, terms and conditions? If not, I recommend doing so before you sign the student loan note. Unsubsidized student loans begin to accrue interest right away and that seemingly small rate can rack up accrued interest relatively quickly. Accepting extra money that you plan to use on frivolous or unnecessary things (I knew someone who once used a student loan refund to buy a horse) is setting yourself up for financial anguish down the road. If you’re using student loans to help fund your cost of living and/or housing, be considerate of the long-term implications of that choice.
Do you have a budget? When I was working on my master’s, I was so determined to pay my tuition out of pocket that I (at least once) had to scavenge coins out of the crevices of my car to buy gas. I had so little money. (Before starting grad school, however, I read a book called The Millionaire Next Door, and it impacted my personal philosophy about debt.) Even though I had little left over after paying tuition and bills, I knew where it was going because I had a budget. Sometimes when you have such limited resources you can wonder, why bother? You might get off track here and there, but if you stick with it, you’ll have developed a great habit. Financial trackers available on websites such as Mint.com can help you create a budget and stick to it. I built a simple budget in Excel, but here’s another example of what you can find online to help you get started.
Explore your options. Some institutions offer financial advising or informational sessions where you can learn about your options to afford grad school. Student loans are not the only way to get by. For example, I’ve attended several universities up to this point, and all of them have offered payment plans. Payment plans split your bill into chunks, which is helpful if you’re paying out of pocket and budgeting, or if loans and tuition don’t cover your entire bill. Also, have you completed your scholarship application? Universities such as the one where I work often have trouble awarding scholarships to grad students because they fail to complete the application. Do yourself a favor and fill out your scholarship application by the deadline each school year.
Sometimes borrowing money to pay for school is unavoidable. I certainly acknowledge that the opportunity to receive assistance in paying for school has allowed many people in this country to attain an education that perhaps otherwise would not have been possible. I hope, nonetheless, to encourage you to educate yourself, borrow responsibly, think about the future and explore your options. Spend some time calculating your costs, debt, income and expenses and developing good financial habits. You’ll thank yourself down the road.
Elizabeth Dunn is a Ph.D. student in information science at the University of North Texas. She also works as the marketing and communications manager for the College of Graduate Studies at Tarleton State University in Stephenville, Tex.