7 Insanely Creative Ways to Pay for Graduate School

Graduate school is expensive. In fact, cost is one of the biggest limiting factors of attending. According to Peterson’s, “On average, annual tuition at public colleges and universities totals nearly $30,000 and at private schools nearly $40,000. Other costs include books, supplies, and transportation (unless you live on campus).”

Not only that, but students leave graduate school paying on an average loan amount of between roughly $45,000 and $140,000 per year, says that Washington Post. They can expect to pay 15 percent of their salary or more toward those loans for the foreseeable future. Make no mistake: The opportunity to receive student loans and attend school is a valuable one, and shouldn’t be discounted. But ideally, you can find other ways to pay for school as well.

If you want to reduce your debt load and pay for graduate school the smart way, here are seven insanely creative ideas on how to do it. Whip out that notepad and pencil, take notes and start paying for your graduate degree in style.

#1 Prep for Tests … and Prep Again

Almost all graduate schools require a college entrance exam, the equivalent of the SAT or ACT for undergraduate students. These include the LSAT for lawyers, the MCAT for doctors, and the GRE or GMAT for most other types of graduate program. In order to get into school, you will need to take and pass these before you can apply for a program.

You probably know this, but what you don’t know is how much of a difference good scores can make when it comes to scholarship money. Applicants in the highest percentiles – 90 and above – are far more likely not only to get into school, but to receive tuition breaks or even a full ride. It pays major dividends to study hard for these tests. That doesn’t just mean for a weekend or two, but rather for months. You should treat your test prep like another job in the lead-up to taking the test and applying to schools. If you don’t see a score you want, it’s worth holding off another year to study and try again … it really is.

#2 Ask Your Employer About Tuition Reimbursement

Tuition reimbursement is an increasingly popular way to pay for graduate school, even high-level degrees such as the Doctor of Philosophy (PhD). It is a simple idea: The employer pays for the employee to attend school, and typically helps them realign their schedule so as to fit coursework and class time into the work week. The student attends school, earns the degree and then stays on at the company for a certain amount of time. This is up to the employer, but usually a year or two is required. After that, the graduate can leave the company to seek other employment with their degree fully funded.

An example would be a marketing specialist at a cell phone company who has a bachelor’s degree in marketing. However, over time, she has noticed that her skills are geared more toward internal communication than external, and her company would be better served if she had a more thorough knowledge base in communications. She could ask her employer about tuition reimbursement, and if she qualifies, can attend graduate school on her employer’s dime. Then she would have to stay at her company the requisite amount of time to earn that tuition and makes sure she didn’t have to assume the debt load herself.

#3 Create a Kickstarter Campaign

You’ve probably heard of Kickstarter, but do you actually know how it works? In a nutshell, this online platform allows you to crowdsource your entrepreneurial ideas by offering some sort of project-related compensation in exchange for tiered donations. For instance, if you are a master’s student in classic literature, you might create an illustrated book of poetry. If people donate $10, they might receive a small postcard. If they donate $100, they might get a whole calendar of your illuminated work.

How does this relate to graduate school? Because if your campaign is successful, you may have extra funds leftover that you can allocate to tuition, books or debt. Keep in mind that the point of Kickstarter is to generate funds for the project itself, not to create a lot of extra income for you. However, if you’re smart about it and still give your backers excellent returns, you can kill two birds with one stone.

#4 Get to Know a Foundation Leader

Many foundations, especially the larger ones, support students in some way or another – often with grants and scholarships. Whether the organization puts its effort and resources toward conservation, human or animal rights, literacy, spirituality or any other cause, you may be able to catch its notice if you align with that cause.

Understand that it’s important you don’t try to fake your interest in anything. Instead, you need a real and measurable passion for whatever the foundation supports. If you do and can show it, go ahead and reach out to the leader or leaders of that organization. Tell them who you are and what you do. Tell them why you want to go to graduate school, and ask them how you might be able to improve your chances of landing their scholarship. If you are sincere, most will take an interest in you and try to help.

#5 Go a Nontraditional Textbook Route

Textbooks can be crazy expensive, costing a hundred dollars or more for some of the bigger tomes. Paying for texts is a huge chunk of any student’s school costs, but you can narrow that down considerably if you’re willing to give up those admittedly satisfying physical copies.

How? Buy going digital. Many books are available online as digital copies, especially the less formalized reading for more creative graduate programs – think literature or urban planning. For doctors and lawyers, you may still need to buy your encyclopedia-like physical copies, but there may be others you can get in digital form, then download onto your device for study time. Just be sure before you buy an e-version that your syllabus doesn’t specify a specific edition, in which case this strategy may not work.

#6 Allocate Previously Spoken-for Funds to School

Most students are not on the tightest possible budget. If you take a look at your own life, you probably see a few examples of how you could be savvier with your money: those monthly manicures for a treat, the nights out with classmates, the takeout meals that make more time for studying … right?

While no one’s saying you should live like a monk, consider cutting some of these costs and allocating them to education expenses. Instead of paying out, you could do your own nails, learn to cook, or host a wine-and-cheese gathering for your friends. Graduate school is a time to live frugally, and by paying careful attention to your budget, you can do this. Doesn’t sound very creative? Keep in mind that most students don’t do this, and come out of school with a massive debt load. So think outside the box about what’s “necessary,” and you’ll see the benefits right away.

#7 Be Tax Savvy

The Lifetime Learning Credit is available to all American taxpayers, and provides a tax credit up to $2,000 per year, or 20 percent of the first qualifying $10,000 of education expenses every year. You can get this credit every year you pay for school. Keep in mind, however, that this only counts for student expenses, not student debt. Loan payments are not considered an expense, and will not earn you the credit, so it’s important to take this credit while in school.

If you, like many people, aren’t too up on your tax law, it’s wise to invest a small amount of money into hiring a tax accountant. Unfortunately, many online tax software is rife with issues that can trip you up unknowingly. While it might have been an honest mistake, the IRS does not care and will ding you accordingly, so make sure you’re doing everything correctly by getting qualified help.

These aren’t the only ways to pay for graduate school, naturally. Don’t discount the importance of applying to every scholarship you can get your hands on, and researching all grants available at your school, in your department and for your unique career plans. Before you head down those roads, however, take a creative approach and try all of these tips. You might just be surprised at what you can do … and what you can save.

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