Hitting the Books Again? Here’s How to Financially Prepare for Grad School
Earning an advanced degree as a working professional can be a challenge—unless you have a good financial plan.
Deia Schlosberg had been working as an environmental educator, teaching students about issues concerning conservation and sustainability. While she loved teaching, she wanted to reach people on a larger scale about the importance of protecting the environment. So she decided to follow her dream of becoming a filmmaker—a dream that would require her to return to school for a graduate degree. She had no idea at the time that it would lead to becoming an award-winning documentarian.
While Schlosberg’s choice may have paid off, learning how to pay for grad school as a working adult can be a challenge. There are various benefits to getting an advanced degree: You can learn more, you can earn more, you can further advance in your current job or prepare for a career change. However, you might also find yourself stressed by the expense and resulting debt of it all, especially if you have kids, a home or other financial commitments. So a big question on your mind could be, “How much should I save for grad school?”
Below are some lessons on how to financially prepare for grad school to help you determine if and when you should go back to school. If you haven’t yet decided if graduate school is right for you, see section 1 for tips on how to decide. If you already know you want to go back to school, skip to section 2.
1. Decide if going back to school is right for you
Getting an advanced degree may seem like a ticket to success, but depending on your chosen area of study, the outcome may vary. For Schlosberg, it was a bit of a risk. It can be difficult to get a break in the film industry, and going to grad school could mean carrying around debt for a long time. Is this the type of outcome you would be willing to accept?
According to Emma Johnson, best-selling author, career consultant and founder of Wealthysinglemommy.com, there are a few things you can do to help you decide whether or not going back to school is right for you:
Do your homework. When considering how to pay for grad school as a working adult, research your degree options and the jobs to which they might lead. Compare cost and compatibility—for instance, will classes for the program align with your work schedule? Once you’ve determined what kind of occupation you may pursue after grad school, search online for information about that occupation’s average earnings.
Solidify your goals. You may find clarity in writing out your goals for going back to school. Some benefits are tangible, like earning more money, building a professional network and gaining skills. Others might be less tangible, such as finding personal fulfillment. Once you know your goals, it will be easier to determine if a graduate degree makes personal and professional sense.
“Your savings should not only depend on tuition but also what the degree is—i.e., how easy it will be to repay once you are working in the desired field.”
Give your degree program a test run. Consider taking classes that relate to the degree you are interested in getting in grad school. These classes can give you a taste of the subject matter you’ll be studying and help you meet people involved in the field. Also, if prerequisites are required for your advanced degree, they often cost less online or at a community college, which is important to remember when thinking about how to prepare your finances before grad school. Make sure the course credits will be accepted at the graduate school you plan to attend.
Take a hands-on approach. To level up in your existing career or find out what it’s like in a new field before making the change, get some work-related experience first. For instance, to learn more about moving up in your own field, get out and meet those higher level professionals by attending conferences and networking events. The same tactic applies if you want to change careers.
2. Know how much you need to save
How to pay for grad school as a working adult can be complicated, but you’ve decided you’re ready for it. Plus, hitting the books at a time when saving for retirement or your child’s education could be at the forefront makes the task of how to prepare your finances before grad school even more critical.
Figuring out how much to save for grad school begins with determining the cost of attendance. Here are a couple ways to do that, according to Johnson:
Do the research. Once you have found a school and degree that you like, visit the school’s web site. Some schools may provide the cost of tuition, fees and estimated costs for books, supplies and transportation. Costs can vary tremendously, depending on various factors: whether you attend full or part time, whether you attend a public or private school, whether you are an in-state or out-of-state resident and the time it takes to get your degree.
Determine your budget. Once you have a handle on the school-related costs, build a spreadsheet that accounts for these costs and projects monthly income and living expenses. Working through a savings plan beforehand can help you financially prepare for grad school by showing just how much you’ll need to budget for monthly on tuition plus living expenses. Once you determine these factors, you’ll get a better idea of what you need to save up.
Create a savings buffer. After you determine your monthly costs, pad that number. “Your savings should not only depend on tuition but also what the degree is—i.e., how easy it will be to repay once you are working in the desired field,” Schlosberg says. She saved a little more than she estimated, giving herself an extra cushion to cover some of the potential risk to her finances.
“You may have to downscale your career and current lifestyle to go back to school, which may be a worthwhile investment of time and resources.”
3. Allow yourself a flexible timeline
One key factor in planning the timeline for earning your graduate degree: Don’t be in a rush. If you need to, create the time to save. It may not be necessary to go back to school full time or finish on a particular schedule, Johnson says. She mentions these possible paths to earning your degree when planning how to pay for grad school as a working adult:
Consider a side hustle. One option is to go to school full time and take on a side hustle. You may not make as much as you did as a full-time employee, but the income can complement your savings. It may also allow you to concentrate more on your degree and finish faster.
Attend part time. Go to school part time (nights and weekends) while working. It will take longer, but it will also minimize your debt, which could be better in the long run.
Take it slowly. Only sign up for a class or two—whatever you can afford—and continue to work. This part-time “lite” approach may take even longer, but could help you avoid overextending yourself financially or sliding into debt.
Take online classes. Consider online programs that could lower the cost of tuition and allow you to continue working full time.
4. Take advantage of potential cost-saving benefits
So you’ve done your research on how much you need to save while determining how to prepare your finances before grad school. But there are ways to potentially cut or eliminate some of those costs. What comes next are some solutions that may help pay your grad school bills:
Consider loans, financial aid and scholarships. “I took out some student loans for living expenses, but I tried to pay off my tuition as I went by working through school,” Schlosberg says. Graduate students may also be eligible for different types of scholarships and grants, which is aid that does not need to be paid back. Depending on your area of study, scholarships and grants can also be obtained through federal and state organizations, private foundations, public companies and professional organizations.
Ask your employer to pay the tuition. One way to financially prepare for grad school is to talk to your manager or human resources representative to find out if your current employer would help pay for, or fully fund, your degree through tuition reimbursement. This is most likely if you plan to move up the ladder and use your new skills on behalf of the company.
Take advantage of in-state tuition. Some people move to the same state as their desired school to try to get a break on tuition. “I moved to Montana and worked a couple jobs for a year before applying so I could get in-state tuition,” says Schlosberg. Whether you are already a resident or you move to a new state, be sure to determine how long you need to be a resident to qualify for in-state tuition at your desired university.
Cut back on discretionary expenses. Seemingly small things like adjusting your lifestyle to lower your monthly costs, which could mean fewer lattes and dinners out, might go a long way in resolving how to prepare your finances before grad school. “You may have to downscale your career and current lifestyle to go back to school, which may be a worthwhile investment of time and resources,” Johnson says.
Financially prepare for grad school and get a new start
Answering the question of how to pay for grad school as a working adult requires significant research and preparation, but some say it’s worth it, including Schlosberg. It not only gave her a whole new start, but a wealth of knowledge going forward to nurture her future endeavors. “Getting a graduate degree gave me the confidence to jump into a new career. I met an amazing network of people,” Schlosberg says.
But an advanced degree may not be a necessity. While it could look impressive on a resume, for many employers, a master’s degree is not a requirement. “Whatever you do, don’t go back to school just for the sake of getting a degree,” Johnson says. When thinking about how to financially prepare for graduate school, make sure it fits into your financial picture and that you’re able to “weigh your sacrifices against future gains,” she says.