Can I afford graduate school?

One of the very real stumbling blocks to attending graduate school is its cost. Unless you and your family are independently wealthy, you might well ask whether you can afford it. The question you should be asking, however, is:

Can I afford not to go to graduate school?

For the rest of your working life, graduate degrees impact your earning power, but more importantly, they give you more choices in life and career opportunities.

The purpose of financial aid is to make graduate school possible. When students think of “financial aid,” they tend to think only of the “free money” – scholarships and grants. But financial aid is any and all available support. Financial aid often comes in a “package” that includes different kinds of aid.

The first step is in finding out what graduate school will cost. You will need to plan for the total picture: after all, once you’ve paid tuition, you still have to live. Contact the financial aid office at each school you are considering to find their Cost of Living (COL) or Cost of Attendance (COA), which will include items such as

Tuition and fees
Room and board
Books and supplies (laptops, for example, are sometimes required)
Living expenses (toiletries, etc.)

In addition, you will need to calculate in your own essential expenses, such as


Options for financial aid include:

  • Fellowships, Scholarships, and Grants. This is the “free money” that usually does not have to be repaid. These opportunities rarely just appear; plan on spending considerable time researching and applying, starting six months to a year beforehand. For help in researching, contact your financial aid office, ask a reference librarian, and search online. Be sure to search on all levels: these opportunities are offered nationally, by state, sometimes by region, by individual institution, and by department. Research is free, and as a prospective graduate student, you are probably already good at that. You should never have to pay someone to find these opportunities for you!
  • Assistantships (Teaching, Research, or Graduate). Assistantships are basically paid work, usually in the form of tuition waivers but sometimes also as stipends. Assistantships are generally offered by individual departments, so be sure to ask about them and to request the department’s application. Assistantships also provide valuable experience and boost your resume for when you start applying for jobs.
  • Tuition Waivers. Many schools also provide independent tuition waivers that do not require work in exchange. At UHM, these are administered by individual departments. Again, be sure to ask what is available and to apply for everything possible.
  • Loans. While it is a good idea to be careful about the amount of debt you accrue, loans exist to make graduate school possible for those who cannot afford it outright. In general, and in the long term, graduate degrees are worth far more than they cost, even if you have to take out a loan to cover the cost. Contact the institution’s financial aid office to find out about available loans.
  • Work. Many, and in some states most undergraduates worked while attending school. That is must more difficult to do in graduate school; do not count on that being a possibility until you have discussed it with your department. Many graduate schools are not designed for part-time students, and although some allow part-time attendance, it greatly extends the amount of time required to complete the degree. Sometimes it is cheaper to take out a loan for two years than to attend part-time for four.

The first step in applying for financial aid of any kind is to submit an application to the Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA):


or to the Graduate and Professional School Financial Aid Service (GAPSFAS):

Box 2614
Princeton, NJ  08541

> Do not wait until you are accepted to a graduate program before applying to FAFSA or GAPSFAS!  Apply in early spring (January or February) just in case; you can always decline whatever aid is offered.

Finally, remember that the financial aid package offered as part of your acceptance should impact your decision about which program to attend! Partial free support for the entire degree program is generally more valuable than full free support for the first year. Schools sometimes offer incoming students a free ride in order to attract more students, but then expect them to find their own funding for the remaining years. Keep in mind that transferring between graduate programs is difficult, so make plans for however long the program requires.