How to Stay Debt Free through Grad School


You want a bachelor’s degree because a bachelor’s degree is the new high school diploma. It used to be that you could get into most well-paying jobs by just having a high school diploma.

But today this is not the case. For many jobs having a bachelor’s degree has become the new minimum educational requirement for employers who are hiring.

You want to go to grad school because a bachelor’s degree is no longer sufficient enough to set you apart from the rest of an employer’s hiring candidates. As educational requirements for jobs have risen, so has the average number of people who get bachelor’s degrees. The United States Census Bureau found that last year 48,235 of Americans 25 years and older had bachelor’s degrees.

There are so many people getting higher levels of education now that it can be difficult to stand out from the competition. But you can stand out from the 48,235 others by going to grad school on top of your bachelor’s degree.

While getting an advanced degree can pay big dividends in the end, there are some serious up-front costs, including tuition and living expenses. Below are 5 ways that you can be smart about this life investment and avoid going into serious debt:

Make a Strict Budget

You may have been able to get away with a few impulse purchases when you were out of school and had a decent job, but that won’t get you far in grad school. You need to stick to a strict budget if you are hoping to make it out with minimal debt. Everything from the groceries you buy to the gas you use should be accounted for so you know exactly where your money is going.

Make an Emergency Fund

Throughout all of your life it is always wise to have a healthy emergency fund tucked away. Life often happens unexpectedly and when it does you want to be prepared so you don’t get stuck in a financial emergency as well. It is advised that you put away enough money to cover the next three months. You can follow the equation below to help you calculate how much your ideal emergency fund should be:


Having an emergency fund prepared is an important thing to always have in your budget. But if you are going through grad school there’s a chance you won’t be getting a regular income, or in the very least, as much income as you would be if you weren’t busy with school. Because of this you are more financially vulnerable while you are in school, so having a safety net in your budget is even more important while in grad school.

You can start saving for your emergency fund today by budgeting to set aside a set amount each month. When saving up for grad school, don’t forget to save enough for a decent emergency fund too.

Get into a Niche Program

Because so many people are going into popular fields like sociology or law, you won’t find as much funding there and there will be intense competition to secure the funding that is available. Once you graduate from a popular, more generalized program, you’ll also be faced with steeper competition in the job market. That is why it is important to find a program that is specialized enough so you can leverage your expertise to your advantage once you start interviewing for jobs. You’ll also be much more likely to secure funding in a specialized field. You will be one of the few students in your specialized program, and you may find that there are more scholarships and fellowships available in that department simply because of the limited number of students.

What is a niche?

For our literary people a niche is a genre within a genre. A niche program would describe a specialized program. So instead of going into accounting you go into a specific area of accounting like forensic accounting. Every field of study has these kinds of sub-fields, often called specializations, that you can go into.

Look at the Return on Investment (ROI)

Sure, you may want to run off to some big-name school because it sounds good on paper, but what if it doesn’t pay off in the end? Not all grad schools are created equal, and there are vast differences in prestige among programs even within individual universities.

What is ROI?

The term ROI stands for Return on Investment. Your return on an investment is how much profit you gain from an investment you’ve made. Going to grad school is an investment not only on your pocket but on your time. Calculating the ROI will help you calculate the overall benefits versus the overall costs of each school and program. A good ROI would mean that in the end you profited from that investment choice. A bad ROI would mean that you instead lost money in the end because of that investment. You can determine what your ROI for grad school will be by following the equation below:


You should look at your graduate education as an investment. Don’t go into this investment without crunching the numbers. You will want to know the salary you can expect to get after graduation, because this will be the primary return on your grad school investment. You’ll also want to know whether getting an advanced degree in your field is necessary, or whether it will make a difference in the salary and positions you can attain. Then you’ll want to ask yourself if the price of attending grad school justifies the expected bump in earnings. Ask yourself these questions and more to determine whether grad school will bring you a positive return on investment. This makes it much easier to find a school that will match your financial needs and whether you even need to go to grad school.

Get Assistantships, Fellowships, and Scholarships

If you are looking to get great experience while helping pay for school, then getting an assistantship could be for you. An assistantship is a program funded by your department to do research, teaching, or another hands-on task. You basically become a university employee and in return they offer you tuition assistance as well as a basic monthly stipend. These positions can also be much more flexible than regular jobs since they are run by the school and are typically on-campus.

Assistantship vs Fellowships and Scholarships

Fellowships and scholarships are awards given to grad students based on their merit and their meeting certain requirements. These awards are funding that goes directly to their graduate studies. One common requirement for scholarships and fellowships is to maintain certain grade levels.

Assistantships are not based on merit, but rather are positions or jobs where you can get hired to do certain assistant work on campus, usually in your area of study. In this way an assistantship is similar to an internship, it provides experience, learning, and funding, but with an assistantship the funding you receive generally goes straight toward your graduate studies. Also, internships are not always paid, and are available to part-time students, while an assistantship sometimes is only offered to full-time students. You will have to talk to your university advisor, or research on your university’s website to check the specific assistantship requirements and options for your school.


Before you set out to obtain that advanced degree, make sure you have a plan for funding it. There are millions of students out there who wind up in serious debt because they didn’t plan things out before attending a grad school program. Look over these tips and start applying them when you get into grad school. You will be glad you did when you still have cash in your pocket come graduation day!

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