There is no question that going to graduate school can be expensive.

In fact, the cost of getting a master’s degree can quickly climb into the tens of thousands of dollars, ranging on average from $30,000 to $120,000, depending on the school and program.

Such sums are more than most of us can handle on our own. That’s why we often turn to student loans, parents and family members, and if we’re lucky, our own personal savings to pay for graduate school. 

However, many of us don’t have that amount of money saved, and we’ve already taken on student loan debt to get a bachelor’s degree.  We’re loathe to pile on even more debt for graduate school—especially if we are already out working full time. 

The good news is financial aid for graduate school doesn’t necessarily have to come in the form of a loan. Many students assume they will have to borrow money through the FAFSA (Free Application for Federal Student Aid), which would have to be repaid after school. But that’s not always the case.

Financial assistance that you don’t have to repay exists. These sources of financial aid can reduce your overall debt burden, which in turn opens possibilities once you’re out of school. 

Let’s look at the options.

School-based Fellowships and Assistantships

If you’ve done well as an undergraduate, you might consider a school-based fellowship or assistantship as your primary financial aid for graduate school. These are merit-based awards given to students who have excelled in their academic discipline. Such fellowships are highly competitive and thus best for those with a high GPA.  

Most fellowships fund one year of a program. But some last longer or can be renewed after the fellowship year is over. Some schools also offer the possibility of working as a graduate resident assistant. You receive a stipend plus room and board in exchange for working part time in a campus residence hall. 

While fellowships are like scholarships and do not generally require that a graduate student work, assistantships do. 

In an assistantship, a graduate student might work 15 to 20 hours each week helping a professor with research or teaching a course in exchange for a stipend. That stipend may eliminate tuition costs and provide money for food, housing, health insurance, and other expenses. 

What’s nice about graduate fellowships and assistantships is that they can allow you a chance to get some professional experience in your field. You’ll meet experts in your discipline, and you may potentially find yourself holding significant responsibility very early on.

Check the website of the school you’re applying to or talk to a department head to find out what you’ll need to do if you’re interested in going this route.

Keep in mind that fellowships can be offered by places other than your school. Foundations, nonprofits, and government agencies can all offer fellowships. 

And remember that many fellowships have application deadlines that can fall as early as October for the following academic year. Do your research and plan accordingly.

Grants for Graduate School

A grant, like a fellowship, is financial aid that does not need to be repaid. It also comes from some organization, either public or private, willing to fund your education. 

Unlike most fellowships, however, grants tend to be need-based rather than based on academic achievement.

Grants may come through the state or federal government, nonprofits, professional organizations, corporations, or even from your school. They usually cover some part of your tuition but also room and board. 

You only need to pay back the grant if there is some change in your status while in school that makes you ineligible to keep the funds. For example, you may need to repay a grant if you withdraw from a program or change your student status from full time to part time.

Here are a few examples of some of the most common grants available.

Federal Grants

While most grants from the federal government are awarded to students getting an undergraduate degree, there are a few available to graduate students. They include:

  • Teacher Education Assistance for College and Higher Education (TEACH). If you’re pursuing a graduate degree and you’re a teacher, you can receive up to $4,000 a year toward your education if you agree to teach for at least four years in a high-need, low-income school.
    To learn more, visit the Federal Student Aid website
  • Fulbright Grants. The Fulbright program offers fellowships to graduating college seniors, graduate students, young professionals, and artists interested in research, study, or teaching English abroad for one academic year. The application period opens in the spring of each year. To qualify, you must hold a bachelor’s degree, have sufficient language skills for your destination country, and be in good health. Run by the US Department of State and the Bureau of Educational and Cultural Affairs, Fulbright Grants are meant to encourage cross-cultural exchange and are open to all academic disciplines. To learn more, visit the Fulbright U.S. Student Program website.
  • Iraq and Afghanistan Service Grants
    If your parent or guardian died in the Iraq or Afghanistan wars after September 11, 2001, you may be eligible for this military grant.  You must complete and submit the Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA®) to be eligible. Read more about this grant here.

State Grants

Most states offer grants for graduate students distributed according to need, merit, or based upon discipline. 

Typical examples include the Colorado Graduate Grant, which provides up to $5,000 for students who demonstrate financial need, or Virginia’s Tuition Assistance Grant Program, which offers aid to Virginia residents attending an accredited, private, nonprofit college or university in the state for other than religious training. 

As with federal grants, many state grants are made available once you apply through FAFSA. While some states require that you complete only the FAFSA form, others ask that you complete not only the FAFSA but a separate application, too. Still others ask for only a separate application. To find out more about what your state requires, contact your state grant agency

Scholarships for Graduate Students

Many corporations, professional organizations, and nonprofits offer both scholarships and grants to graduate students based on merit, field of study, heritage, or residency. 

For example, there are scholarships available for women, minorities, or those who work in a specialized field. The American Chemical Society provides research grants to graduate students in the chemical sciences while the Microsoft Research Graduate Women’s Scholarship supports women in the second year of their graduate studies. The Society of Women Engineers Scholarship Program aids women pursuing graduate degrees in engineering and computer science. The American Indian College Fund assists Native American graduate students.

For organization-specific scholarships and grants, start with your field’s national professional association. And check with relevant nonprofits and corporations. You’ll most likely need to apply at the organization directly.

If you’re interested in a scholarship or grant from your school, check with your department head, advisor, or your school’s office of financial aid.

Work-study During Graduate School

The Federal Work-Study Program provides part-time employment for need-based undergrad and grad students who can be either full or part-time students. About 3,400 colleges and universities participate in this program. It encourages community service work or work related to a student’s field of study.

You’ll receive hourly wages paid directly to you at least once a month. Your salary cannot be less than the federal minimum wage.  Whatever you earn cannot exceed your Federal Work-Study award. 

In most cases, students working on campus will be working for their school. But students might also work for a government agency, a nonprofit, or even a private for-profit institution.

Since participating institutions must use a portion of their funds toward community service, you may find yourself tutoring children, working in family literacy projects, or working on emergency preparedness. 

If you’re interested in work study, you must submit a FAFSA application.

Tuition Reimbursement

Are you already out in the workforce? Check to see if your employer offers a tuition reimbursement program. Such programs allow you to keep working while in grad school. 

Most large companies offer this benefit to employees seeking to advance their career through further education. While some companies limit how much they will reimburse, others don’t. 

You’ve Got Choices 

In short, don’t assume that you’ll have to take out a student loan to pay for graduate school. Between grants, fellowships, assistantships, scholarships, tuition reimbursement, and work-study programs, you’ll find that a master’s degree may be within reach without breaking the bank.