graduate students

If you’re like most college graduates, you’re buried in student loans. The thought of incurring even more debt to go to graduate school makes you want to forget that idea right from the start. But before you abandon your dreams to move up in your current job, change to a new career or qualify to teach at the college level, look into the numerous ways for someone else to foot the bill.

Here are 10 of the many avenues to investigate in order to go to graduate school spending very little or no money:

Talk to Financial Aid Officers

1.  Fill out the Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA) form. You might think this is a complete waste of time as all they ever gave you was loans. But if you’ve been out working for a few years and aren’t making a lot of money, you’re going to qualify for a lot more aid than when you were considered a dependent under your parents’ taxes. The IRS defines a dependent as someone under 19 years old or a student younger than 24 years old as of the end of a calendar year. You should also talk to financial aid officers at the schools you are considering as there may be many additional funding sources available to pay for tuition.

2. Contact grad school professors directly. Reach out to those in your field and ask if they have any funded research projects or if any of their colleagues do. Or better yet, look up the professors on the school’s website and see if there are any recent projects and grants they just got. Then write and tell them it’s been your dream to work on that exact project. Engineering, medical and computer science programs usually have lots of well-funded projects from industry or the government as it can be cheaper to outsource some research to students and professors. Meanwhile apply to a variety of public and private graduate schools for a graduate teaching assistant position, a university graduate research associate position or a university fellowship.

Work Your Prospective Degree

Scott Driscoll of Atlanta, Georgia was able to get not one but two master’s degrees in engineering from Georgia Tech. “These days it’s a lot easier to get a free ride if you’re a Ph.D. candidate rather than a Master’s degree student,” he tells MyBankTracker, “but the possibilities are out there. When I first started it was a bit of a race to find a professor with a project that was open, with work remotely close to what you wanted to study. I got really lucky and found a project funded by Siemens that paid a full two years’ tuition, plus a $13,000 stipend. I got lucky again with my second Master’s, building a robotic drummer and traveling around the world with it. This was a brand new program, and the professor got some cash from the school to pay for a few students.”

Check Scholarships in Areas of Interest

3. Take the time to do an online search for graduate school scholarships. You’d be surprised how many scholarships go unused every year because people think it’s not worth the time and effort to apply. “Just having to write a short essay is enough to turn off a lot of potential applicants,” says a financial aid officer in Ohio. Check out sites such as Peterson’s and that offer extensive lists categorized by your area of interest. Start well in advance of the time you plan to begin graduate school.

4. Research professional associations. Many professional associations ranging from the National Shoe Retailers Association to the Garden Club of America to the American Marketing Association offer scholarships for graduate study. Most offer student memberships so joining may increase your chances.

5. Apply to fraternity and sorority associations. If you were a member of a fraternity or sorority as an undergrad, contact the national headquarters to find out about graduate scholarship opportunities. Or contact the North American Interfraternal Foundation for information on scholarships they offer.

6. Work full time for the university you want to attend. Even if you work as a low paid administrator or maintenance technician, the benefits of getting free tuition might be worth it for a few years. First find out what the tuition benefits are and how long you need to work there in order to qualify. It might take you longer to complete your degree going part time in the evening, but the price will be right.

7. Let your employer pay. Before you take any job, one of the first questions you should ask is whether they pay for graduate school tuition. More common in the business and technology fields, many companies want to encourage your advancement and offer this as a benefit. You might have to pay some money upfront and be reimbursed, and again it will take you longer, but it’s a great way to get your tuition paid for. You’ll also want to find out if you have to stay with the company a certain period of time after you get your degree.

Know Your Reimbursement Option

Virginia Stanton of Boston took advantage of her company’s tuition reimbursement program to get an MBA from Babson College, and actually enjoyed going to school after work. “It was a great way to meet people working in a variety of careers, and the professors who taught in the evening often brought real world (vs. ivory tower) experience to the class since they had day jobs too. The downside was they often wanted us to work in teams on a particular project that required getting together on weekends, as we were all working full time. But since I was more a marketing person, it was great to work with a finance major, for example, to complete our case studies. Each semester I put the tuition on a credit card that gave points for travel, and then paid it off when I got reimbursed from my company. It took me over five years to finish my degree, but it was well worth the effort.”

Don’t Forget About the Military

8. Consider the Reserve Officers’ Training Corps (ROTC). You can have 100 percent of your graduate school tuition paid for plus book allowances and stipends if you contract with the Army or National Guard at the beginning of your first year. The catch is you have to serve in the Army for three years of active duty or in the National Guard for six years after you graduate.

9. If you’re a veteran, use your GI Bill benefits. If you entered active duty for any branch of the military after July 1, 1985 you can have graduate school tuition paid for. If your service period was less than three years then you must have served 24 continuous months. You also must have an honorable discharge.

10. Lastly, if you’re still an undergraduate, now’s the time to plan ahead. Take advantage of any opportunity to do research, publish a paper or present at a conference. Work closely with a professor well known in his or her field who will be a great source for a reference and leads when you go to apply for a graduate school teaching assistant or research associate position.

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