Roadmap to Debt-Free Graduate School

The Wall Street Journal reported the class of 2015 has earned the disastrous distinction of being the most indebted graduates of all time, with an average student loan debt obligation of $35,000. For those wanting to continue their education, an addition of about $50,000 can easily be added to that sum, according to U.S. News & World Report.

With figures like these, it can be discouraging to prospective graduate students who believe accumulating exorbitant debt is part of achieving an advanced degree.

This roadmap to a debt-free graduate education includes strategies on how to get funds for tuition, cut day-to-day living expenses, and features a variety of alternative funding options for school.


In 2013, the New York Daily News reported on Ken Ilgunas, a Duke University graduate student who avoided loans by living in a van. By doing things like using a backpacking stove to cook his meals, showering at the campus gym, and accessing the Internet at the library, he eliminated the need to accumulate any debt — and when he graduated in 2011, he was completely debt-free.

While Ilgunas’s approach is effective, frugal living does not have to be that extreme. Those who want to save money, while still enjoying indoor plumbing, can adopt a frugal lifestyle by making smart choices about money and keeping an eye on their spending.

Sticking with a structured budget is key. It takes a great amount of discipline for students to keep their expenses low before and during graduate school. It means having to sacrifice the instant gratification of the now for the good of your future. Start the practice as soon as you can during your undergraduate years so that it’s second nature during your graduate program.

Malachi Crane, VP Enrollment and Marketing, Spring Arbor University

While it does require some discipline and creativity, frugal living enthusiasts manage to stretch the money they make so they can pay their monthly expenses, repay their debts, and even have something left over to enjoy their lives.


Wakes up, gets ready for class. Has a bowl of oatmeal that was bought in bulk.

Packs lunch to take to school.

Rides bike to class.

Uses Internet on campus.

Goes to class and takes notes for a hearing impaired student for extra money.

Goes to the grocery store on the way home. Uses coupons and looks for store sales. Stocks up on non-perishable items on sale.

Eats dinner while watching a movie borrowed from the library with roommate.

Does homework with used textbooks.

There are fellowships available at most universities that pay for part, or in some cases all, of the cost of tuition. Students should ask a lot of questions up front pertaining to what scholarship and fellowship opportunities there are at the schools they are exploring.

Malachi Crane, VP Enrollment & Marketing, Spring Arbor University


These types of financial aid can go a long way toward cutting down student loan debt — or eliminating it entirely. This section provides information on scholarships, grants, and fellowships, and where students can find them.


Taking the time to research and apply for scholarships can provide a significant amount of education funding. Students can receive scholarships based on a variety of criteria, including their racial, religious, or ethnic background; field of study; the career they want to pursue; athletic ability; or interests and skills.

Similarly, scholarships can be found from several different sources. The most common types of scholarships are offered from colleges and universities — information on these can be found at the schools’ financial aid offices. They are also available through many non-school sources, such as professional, social, and community organizations; state, local, and federal government agencies; churches, synagogues, and mosques; non-profit organizations; and corporations.


Fellowships provide graduate students with unique learning opportunities that can help them with their careers after graduation — as well as money they can use for their education. Whether they are participating in research, entering a training program related to their field, or doing work in their community, fellowships can provide money for tuition, housing, and other expenses. In addition, depending on the specific fellowship program, students may be able to receive health care coverage and assistance with student loans.


Like scholarships, grants provide funding for graduate school that does not have to be paid back. In most cases, grants are given to students based on need. These funding opportunities are awarded from government agencies, schools, and professional associations and foundations.

The following are some sites that graduate students can use in their search for financial aid:


Making the decision about whether or not to attend graduate school should not be taken lightly — especially when it comes to financial considerations. A graduate degree is not just an educational decision; it is a business decision, and as such, prospective students need to think about return on investment.

Does earning a graduate degree make sense? Not in all cases.

If a career does not require a graduate degree to gain employment, it may be better off to forego attending graduate school. Similarly, there are some careers that do require graduate degrees to get a job, but when students scratch below the surface, they find that the salaries are so low that paying back potential student loan debt is not feasible.

Sometimes it makes more sense for the student to work for a period of time before pursuing a graduate degree. The debt students incur from their education is an investment in their future, but nobody wants to see a student become saddled by an overwhelming amount of debt from their student loans.

Malachi Crane, VP Enrollment & Marketing, Spring Arbor University

In order to weigh the benefits against the costs, those considering graduate school can:

Research the cost of the degree programs they are interested in and the job prospects that will be available to them with that degree

Find out information on the salary they are likely to earn after graduation. Searching sites like and can paint a fairly accurate picture of what to expect salary-wise.

Think about what earnings will be like without a graduate degree. If potential student loan debt would be greater than the first year of earnings after completing graduate school, the lifetime earnings for jobs that only require bachelor’s degrees may actually be a better option.

While these figures are important to look at, students who have the goal of being debt free when they finish their graduate degrees should also develop strategies for keeping costs down — as soon as possible.

By adopting the following behaviors, students can start cutting costs and saving money for graduate school long before they’ve received their program acceptance letter.

Cut down on living expenses by staying with parents or living with roommates
Use coupons when buying groceries
Consider a program at a state school
Learn to cook to cut down on eating out
Use public transportation or ride a bike instead of having a car
Take out books and movies from the library instead of buying them
Find cheap and free kinds of entertainment

A lot of institutions offer some sort of tuition discount or wavier for their employees to pursue a degree. I’ve seen students who land an entry level position at a university and then earn a graduate degree during their tenure. I would encourage students to be upfront about their desire to pursue a graduate degree during the interview process, but I believe most universities would be very supportive of that goal.

Malachi Crane, VP Enrollment and Marketing, Spring Arbor University


Many graduate students are able to complete their degree with no debt by landing assistantships, which can be for teaching or research. The benefits of these positions can vary from school to school, but generally students may be able to get their tuition discounted or defrayed entirely, receive a stipend for living expenses, and have access to health insurance.

In some cases, students who get accepted to an assistantship may have certain fees waived.

When considering schools, prospective students should contact the admissions offices in order to find out details about how many assistantships are available, what the procedure is for applying, and what benefits they offer students. This can help applicants get a clear picture of how much money they may be able to save through an assistantship—as well as influence the decision making process of what program to attend.

Assistantships can be extremely competitive, so students should not assume that just because they have been accepted into a graduate program that it will be smooth sailing. It’s best to send in an application and supporting materials as soon as possible.


While crowdfunding sites have gained popularity in recent years for helping artists fund their projects, they have also become a valuable resource for students trying to avoid accumulating debt. And it’s no wonder: In 2012 alone, crowdfunding campaigns earned almost $3 billion.

But just like applying for scholarships or even graduate school itself, creating a crowdfunding campaign that will bring in money takes time and effort. Students shouldn’t assume that if they build it, someone with a checkbook will come. Some attempts to make money in this way have yielded little or no results.

In order to be successful, students should be sure to write an interesting and engaging campaign, leverage their social networks, frequently update their campaign pages, and communicate with the people who have expressed an interest in them.

The following are some crowdfunding sites that graduate students may be able to use to get funding for their education:


In exchange for donations, users of this site agree to give supporters a percentage of their future earnings.


This site connects underprivileged students with donors who want to give back after receiving financial aid for their own education.


In addition to receiving donations, students can get mentoring services from donors.


Allows parents to set up campaigns to help fund their children’s education.


One of the most popular personal crowdfunding sites.

Anatomy of a Successful Crowdfunding Campaign

  • Tell a compelling and personal story.

  • Don’t ask for money immediately.

  • Add a video and photographs.

  • Create and maintain an accompanying blog.

  • Post links to campaign on social media sites.

  • Interact with supporters.

  • Provide updates.

  • Always show gratitude for donations.

To keep student loan debt to a minimum, choose a high quality, affordable degree program that offers a flexible academic delivery model. There may not be a need to quit your day job to earn a post-baccalaureate degree in advancement of your career opportunities.

Bob Conrad, VP Financial Aid, Western Governors University


In order to save money, many students are electing to enroll in shorter degree programs that can significantly decrease the amount of time that is spent in school. But this option isn’t for everyone.

The following are some pros and cons of these programs.


  • Reduced time spent in school

  • Reduced tuition costs

  • The reduced time in school may mean there won’t be drastic negative changes in the career market while in school

  • Students who decide they don’t like a certain program or field have not made as big of a commitment to it

  • May allow flexibility to take evening and weekend courses


  • Programs usually do not offer internships

  • Intensity of program can make it difficult for students who have jobs and/or families

  • There may not be enough time to take valuable electives

  • Shortened time in the program may not allow students to become very familiar with their professors

  • Students who are not disciplined and organized may find it too demanding

Check the HR benefits with your current employer. Many companies offer tuition reimbursement programs. Also, many schools offer payment plans to allow installment payment of tuition over a period of time. Check with the scholarship office at the school and also consider external scholarship opportunities. Beware of scholarship scams—do your research at this trusted website: Federal Student Aid.

Bob Collins, VP Financial Aid, Western Governors University


Organizations are always looking for highly educated and skilled workers to bring onboard. In some cases, they look for employees who have advanced degrees, and in other cases, they make them.

Recognizing the benefits of having workers with master’s or doctoral degrees, many companies offer tuition assistance programs to employees who enroll in degree programs that are relevant to their industry. Not only does this ensure that employees are armed with the skills and knowledge that companies need, it also can be a powerful recruitment and retention tool that helps build a stronger workforce.

In return for funding their education, employers often have certain requirements that they expect from their workers. For example, employees who take advantage of these programs may be required to:

Maintain a minimum grade point average

Complete a degree program within a certain amount of time

Continue working at the company for a certain amount of time after graduation

Earn an online degree

For more information about the specifics of a tuition assistance program at their company, students should consult with the human resources department.


Just as private organizations may give tuition benefits to their employees, the country rewards those who bravely serve in the armed forces with the opportunity to continue their education. Active duty military personnel and veterans, as well as their families, are eligible to receive education benefits that are paid for by the government.

The following outlines some of these benefits.

Type of Funding Eligibility How to Apply
Post-9/11 GI Bill®: Provides tuition and fees up to the highest in-state tuition amount for the state where the student attends school. Also provides money for living expenses, books, and supplies. Reserve and Guard member who was activated for more than three months after the September 11 terrorist attacks. Eligible veterans can transfer their benefits to their spouse or children. Applications are submitted to the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs. Students can go to or visit their regional VA office.
Yellow Ribbon Program: As part of the Post-9/11 GI Bill®, participating schools provide additional funding to eligible students. Same as Post-9/11 GI Bill. Students can find out what schools are participating through the VA. They can get information on how to get benefits from the VA or their school’s financial aid office.
College Fund Programs: Each of the forces has a version of this program, which provides additional funding for those who receive Post-9/11 GI Bill benefits. Students must have a high school diploma. Each branch of the military may have its own additional requirements. Students can get information from a recruiter.
Loan Repayment Programs: The Army, Navy, and Air Force offer loan repayment programs to enlisted students who have accumulated college loans prior to their military service. Requirements depend on which branch of the military students serve in. Generally, they should be full-time active duty personnel. Students can get information from a recruiter in their specific part of the military.

* GI Bill® is a registered trademark of the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs (VA). More information about education benefits offered by VA is available at the official U.S. government website at

In addition to receiving funding from the military, many organizations and companies also honor the work and sacrifices of the military community by offering scholarships. The following are websites that allow students to search for these opportunities:

Q&A with Bob Collins, Vice President of Financial Aid

How can students keep student loan debt to a minimum?

If you do borrow money, borrow only what you need to cover your unmet direct costs. Because federal student loans are unsubsidized, at least pay the accrued interest while you are enrolled. If you capitalize the interest (defer payments) while enrolled, your loan balance will increase every month with interest accrual.

Essentially, you will be paying interest on interest — we highly recommend you pay as you go to avoid higher costs.

What are some unique ways that students can fund their graduate education?

Students may maintain employment or find employment while attending graduate school to continue paying personal expenses. Also, research grants and scholarship opportunities before applying for loans. Depending on your credit history, private student loans may have lower interest rates than federal student loans.

Carefully weigh the risks and benefits before selecting a lender (private or federal). If you plan to enter a teaching profession, the federal government and several state education programs offer a Teach Grant or scholarship — essentially a loan forgiveness program if you teach for a defined period of time in certain elementary or secondary school districts.

How can graduate students keep their personal expenses low before and during grad school?

Live within your means. Do not borrow more than needed. You were paying for meals and housing before you decided to go back to school. If you have to borrow money, only borrow enough to cover your unmet direct (tuition and fees) costs.

If you have outstanding federal student loans from your undergraduate study, you can defer payment on those loans while you are enrolled at least half-time in graduate school. Consider paying down your undergraduate loans even during your in-school deferment. Every payment you make toward federal subsidized student loans will go toward your outstanding principal balance. Remember, unsubsidized federal student loans continue to accrue monthly interest, regardless of enrollment status.

What advice would you give to students trying to pay off student loans?

The sooner you pay your loans in full, the less interest you will pay. Federal student loans offer generous deferment, forbearance, and forgiveness programs, as well as numerous income-based repayment options.

Check out Federal Student Aid for more information on Public Service Loan Forgiveness programs and federal student loan repayment options.

Cost Analysis: Graduate School Breakdown

Prospective graduate students understand an advanced degree can be costly especially when you factor in fees and books in addition to tuition. For example, the full tuition for a public graduate school can range between $29,000 to more than $33,000 per year, while private schools can run between $39,000 to about $54,000.

“Graduate students should consider the direct costs (tuition and fees) for the entire program of study, as well as their projected time-to-degree completion. Keep in mind that federal student loans for graduate study are not subsidized by the government. In other words, interest will accrue on those loans when the funds are disbursed.”

Bob Collins, VP Financial Aid, Western Governors College

The breakdown of specific charges can vary from school to school. For example, the per-credit charge for graduate school can be as low as $100 to well over $1,000. Also, schools may charge numerous fees to graduate students, including technology, transcript, laboratory, and exam proctoring charges.

The following tables compile data from different schools to provide a view of what these fee breakdowns can look like.

Charge Cost (Per Semester)
Tuition $23,795
Transcript Fee $40 (one-time fee)
Health Fee $376
Health Insurance $2,400
Activity Fee $17
Graduate Student Services Fee $10
Recreation Fee $130
Books and Supplies $620
Room $3,740
Board $2,028
Local Transportation $760
Personal and Miscellaneous $1,520
Source: Master’s students, Graduate School of Duke University
Charge Cost (Per Semester)
Registration Per Credit $264.00
Tech Fee Per Credit $7.00
Academic Success Graduate Fee $5.00
Counseling Services Fee $50.00
Health Center Fee $93.00
Health Insurance $1153.33
Performing Arts Fee $5.00
Student Union Graduate Fee $97.00
Graduate New Student Fee $35.00 (one-time fee)
Graduation Fee $75.00 (one-time fee)
Source: Resident graduate student, University of Nevada, Reno
Charge Cost (Per Semester)
Per Credit (MS in Criminal Justice) $385
Technology Fee $295.00
Nonrefundable Deposit $25.00 (one-time fee)
Course Assessment $100.00 (per assessment)
Official Transcript $10.00 (per copy)
Criminal Background Check (for Master of Science in Human Services or a criminal justice, fire science, or psychology program) $49.00 (one-time fee)
Source: Online tuition and fees, Kaplan University

Online Grad School Versus Campus Programs

With the growing popularity of online degree programs, prospective graduate students have another important decision to make—whether to enroll in an online degree program or a traditional one. Much like the other choices that graduate students make about their education, the brick-and-mortar versus online decision should not be taken lightly. This section will discuss how to choose the right online degree program, as well as what to look for in a traditional graduate school.

How to Find Online Graduate Programs

When online schools first started gaining popularity, many students were skeptical. And rightfully so: Diploma mills sprang up online to take advantage of technology and potential students, accepting money for degrees that were literally just a piece of paper or classes that were of such low-quality that they had no educative benefits.

As time went on, legitimate colleges and universities all over the world began to leverage the Internet in order to provide a convenient, and quality, education to their students. Nonetheless, students should still evaluate online degree programs just as they would their brick-and-mortar equivalents. The following are some considerations students should think about when looking for online schools.


The fallout of online diploma mill scams has made it extremely important for students to look for information about the accreditation of the schools that they consider. Accreditation ensures that schools are meeting high educational standards and providing students with the information they need to know to be knowledgeable and competent in their field of study.

Support services

Although students are not attending courses on campus, they can still benefit from having access to some of the same services that traditional students do. Prospective graduate students can consider if a school provides them with library services, academic support, or career development. Also, they should look at the kind of technical support that schools offer, and whether or not it’s available during the times they’re likely to be doing their coursework.

Test drives

Some schools allow students to take one course in order to determine if online education, and a specific program, is right for them. Students may lean more favorably toward schools that allow them to try out a program before completely diving in. This will let them make a more informed decision about an online graduate program, as well as get a head start on coursework since the credits will be applied to the degree requirements after enrollment.

Course delivery style

Some online schools have courses that are asynchronous, meaning that students can access lectures and complete coursework when it fits into their schedule. On the other hand, some courses are synchronous, which reduces flexibility because students must attend lectures on a certain day and time, just like traditional students do. Students can use this information to determine which degree program is right for them based on their other responsibilities.

On-campus requirements

Similarly, some schools offer degree programs that are hybrid in nature, meaning that students complete some elements of the course online and other elements on campus. Also, some programs have coursework that is completed entirely online, but requires that students also participate in an internship. Students should make their program choice based on how these factors will impact their schedule.

Tips for Choosing Campus Programs

Even if students plan to enroll in a traditional graduate program, they should tread carefully when making their decision. Not all graduate schools are created equally, so students should really find out what each program they’re interested in has to offer before making a choice. The following are some factors that students should look at when choosing a graduate degree program.

Future career

When choosing a graduate school program, prospective students should first and foremost consider what career gains they’ll receive for their efforts. Is the degree to advance in an existing career? To get a foothold in a new one? Can these goals be met without a graduate degree? Does the specific program provide the preparation needed to meet career goals? Anyone considering signing up for such an enormous undertaking must keep these questions in mind.


Some students research the school’s they’re interested in, but not the faculty at those institutions. But it’s important to know the backgrounds of the people who will be teaching them. Looking at things like research interests and professional experience of the professors in each program will let applicants know where they will get the most bang for their education bucks. The faculty members experience and interests should be aligned with the goals that students are trying to accomplish in their careers.


All schools have resources, but some are much better than others. Students should look into whether each school’s library is stacked with the resources they need for their area of study, if the lab has the most state-of-the-art equipment, and if the technologies are cutting edge. This is particularly important for students who need to become familiar with a certain type of technology or process in order to do their jobs. For example, a nursing student should pay special attention to the medical equipment that the program uses before making a decision.


Future graduate students should look at the requirements for each of the degree programs that they’re interested in. The demands of graduate school differ from program to program, and people should think about how they can meet those demands as they deal with the other responsibilities in their lives.


The culture of a department is an important consideration when choosing a graduate school. Things like how much access students have to professors, whether the learning environment is collaborative or competitive, and the size of the program matters depending on what students’ preferences are.

Financial Aid Resources

Tax tips for grad students

Find graduate school tax information.

Tax Help for Students

Tips for how students can handle their taxes.

FinAid Calculators

This site has custom financial aid calculators that help students get an idea of college costs, how much they need to save, and loan repayment.

Frugal Living

Tips, calculators, and even recipes for people who want to live a frugal lifestyle.

Financial Snapshot: Frugal Living

This personal finance blog provides frugal living tips, including ways to invest, reduce debt, and save money.

The Ultimate Frugal Living Guide

Tips for people looking for strategies to stretch their money.

Graduate Scholarships

Find information on various types of graduate school funding.

6 Steps to Getting Free Money for Grad School

Explore tips and ideas for getting scholarships.

Graduate Scholarship Search

This tool allows students to search for graduate school scholarships by keywords.

Top 10 Crowdfunding Sites for Fundraising

Review the specifics and benefits of crowdfunding sites.

Crowdfunding Tips for Students

Information for how students can take advantage of crowdfunding sites.

Is Grad School Worth It? How to Avoid the Most Common Graduate School Money Mistakes

Find information on the financial ramifications of going to graduate school.

EXPERT SPOTLIGHT: Malachi Crane, VP Enrollment & Marketing, Spring Arbor University

What strategies can students use to keep student loan debt to a minimum?

One of the biggest things students and parents overlook is the difference between subsidized and unsubsidized loans.

If a loan is unsubsidized, it means it will build interest during the full life of the loan, including when the student is taking classes. The simple step of paying the interest fee rather than letting it build can mean the difference of hundreds or thousands of dollars over the course of the full lifespan of the loan.

How can students fund their graduate education without going into debt at all?

Some corporations offer a tuition program for their employees to pursue a graduate degree. Students should examine what employment opportunities are available for their field and if there are tuition reimbursement programs available at their potential employers before making a decision to go straight into graduate school as a full-time student.

It also pays to study for the GRE or LSAT exam as an undergraduate student. Scoring high on these tests can mean the difference of tens of thousands of dollars in potential scholarships. We had a student at Spring Arbor University who studied for a couple of years on weekends for his LSAT exam and treated his preparation like he was working a job. His approach paid huge dividends when he scored in the 95th percentile and earned a full tuition scholarship to a top-tier law school.

What advice would you give to students trying to pay off student loans?

My advice to students trying to pay off student loans is to game plan how you will stick with a budget and stick with it. I would also recommend paying off the loans with the lowest dollar amount owed first to build some wins and momentum.

Common sense would say to pay the most on the ones with the highest interest rate, which may make the most sense for some, but unless there is a significant difference in interest rates, I would recommend starting with the one you owe the least amount of money on and get that paid off and then move onto the next one.

Pay the minimum amount on everything else and focus on paying as much as you can afford to on the loan you owe the least amount on and then snowball the momentum. Bestselling author and speaker, Dave Ramsey, is the biggest proponent of this method and I’ve seen it work firsthand. It’s easy to get discouraged if you keep paying on a loan and don’t see it completed as opposed to seeing loans be paid in full and narrowing down the ones you have outstanding.