Sherri L. Ter Molen, PhD has a bachelor's degree, a master's degree, and a doctorate. What she doesn't have is student loan debt.
Wealth of Knowledge, or Hand Over Your Wealth for Knowledge?
The costs of attending American colleges and universities are skyrocketing out of control. Higher education is now so expensive that most graduate students leave their programs owing Sallie Mae and her cronies thousands upon thousands of dollars, and all too often, these debts bleed into six figures.
Yet, earning a master’s and/or a doctorate should not mean economic demise because there is money for grad school. I earned a PhD in communication from Wayne State University in 2018 and an MA in organizational and multicultural communication from DePaul University in 2009. Together, these two degrees cost most than $150,000. Nevertheless, today—a mere two years later—I am 100% student loan debt free. How did I do it? Here are five ways I paid for grad school.
You Can Find Dollars for Degrees!
Greenbacks for Grades
"My company reimbursed half of my tuition bills."
Sometimes you just don’t know how good you have it.
After graduating with my BA in interdisciplinary communications from Olivet College in 1994, I landed my first professional job at a television station. The pay was heart-wrenchingly low at only $7 an hour, but, as an employee benefit, the company provided free tuition at a small liberal arts college. Foolishly, I didn’t take advantage of this generous offer, and so I missed out on earning an MBA—the only graduate degree offered—for free.
Years later, I worked for a small, family-owned advertising agency that included tuition reimbursement in its employee benefits package. Of course, the degree had to be related to my job and beneficial to the company, but as long as I earned a B- or higher, the company reimbursed 50% of each class. I wasn’t going to pass up the chance to get a discounted graduate degree again. In two years while working full time, I earned my master’s, and my company reimbursed half of my tuition bills.
Programs vary, but it's estimated that the majority of companies now offer some sort of tuition assistance. If you’re currently employed, find out if your company offers this benefit. If you're looking for work, look at companies’ career sites because they often list their benefits, and look at sites like Glassdoor because they compile lists of employers that will pay for education as well.
The math says that I was still responsible for 50% of my master’s tuition. Not quite.
I took out a student loan for the portion I owed the first year, but for the second year, I applied for a tuition waiver, which I received in the form of a scholarship directly from my master’s program. It waived 50% of my 2008-2009 tuition. Then, my company’s tuition reimbursement program reimbursed me for 50% of the amount I paid. This means I was only responsible for 25% of my tuition that year!
To pay the 50% I owed for my first year and the 25% I owed for my second year, I took out student loans. I deferred them while I was in my doctoral program, which meant that I didn't have to make payments and that interest didn't accrue until I left school. (Spoiler alert: I paid off my loans the month after I graduated with my PhD.)
Do your homework. There are a plethora of blog posts about the different types of graduate school scholarships, but there are also other types of funding that you shouldn’t overlook either.
Hard Work and Hard Cash Pay Off!
In fact, someone once told me that no one should pay for a PhD. Why? Doctoral students should be funded.
For the first three years of my PhD program, I had a graduate assistantship, which provided me with free full-time tuition along with the opportunities to purchase the university’s health insurance, dental insurance, and vision insurance plans. It also paid me a small stipend of around $15,000 per year. In exchange, I had a couple of on-campus jobs; I served as a teaching assistant to two full-time instructors, and I taught a couple of classes on my own.
Before applying to graduate programs, ask about assistantships. In my case, I applied for the annual assistantship at the same time I applied to the program. I had to reapply each year, but it was understood that the graduate assistantship would be renewed for up to three years as long as I maintained good grades and fulfilled my work obligations. I have heard of graduate students who get much larger stipends with fewer teaching responsibilities, so consider assistantships as you would job offers when deciding between graduate programs.
What's greater than a graduate assistantship? A fellowship.
Once my three-year assistantship expired, I applied for and received a fourth year fellowship, which provided me with all of the same benefits that I received as a graduate assistant. What made the fellowship superior to the graduate assistantship was that it did not require me to work on campus; my sole responsibility was to make progress on dissertation.
Assistantships and fellowships are not exclusive to PhD programs; some master’s programs offer these types of funding opportunities. Unlike students who receive scholarships, students who receive assistantships and fellowships from their colleges and universities are often considered employees and are entitled to select employee benefits. Especially if you plan to go to graduate school full time without working elsewhere full time, make sure you have funding that includes access to health insurance at the very least.
Money Is Mandatory!
Cash (with a Boost from a Loyalty Program)
Every penny counts tenfold during graduate school.
I returned to my master’s institution—where I had been teaching one class each summer—to teach part time during the regular school year once my funding options dried up. At that point, I only had to pay for dissertation continuation credits, so my husband and I were able to cash flow these relatively small tuition bills.
Almost as soon as I graduated however, I was notified that my student loan repayment schedule was about to begin since I had used my six-month grace period after I graduated with my master's. I made the first payment as required, but, when I logged in to my account, I was horrified to find that interest was compounding daily.
I had some money in my savings account; I had some U.S. savings bonds that my grandparents had given me, and I had a tiny bit of money I had earned through Upromise, a loyalty program that awards cash back on select purchases for educational savings. Between these three sources, I paid off my student loans—squelching my horror—the month after I graduated with my doctorate.
Contracts limit how much students can work outside of their assistantships/fellowships, so you’ll need to scrutinize these contracts closely. If allowed, teach at nearby colleges or universities. Work as a barista. Do anything you can—including cashing in on loyalty programs—because the chances are that you'll need some cash to pay for tuition or to pay off student loans.
My Graduate School Funding Sources
Employer reimbursed 50% of each class for which I earned a B- or higher.
University waived 50% of tuition during that academic year.
In exchange for labor, university waived 100% of tuition, paid a stipend, and offered select university benefits.
With only being required to make dissertation progress, University waived 100% of tuition, paid a stipend, and offered select university benefits.
I adjuncted elsewhere, relied on savings, and cashed in on a loyalty program.
Trust me. I speak from experience.
I paid off my undergraduate student loans and my credit cards before I took on graduate school tuition. Piecing together tuition reimbursement, a scholarship, a graduate assistantship, a fellowship, and cash for graduate school took planning.
This is why I urge you to increase your savings, reduce your debt, scour the Internet for scholarships, and find out what kind of funding opportunities are offered by your desired graduate program. Take advantage of every credible loyalty program out there. If you must take out student loans, take out as few as possible, and pay them off as soon as you can. You can come through graduate school financially unscathed, but it will take some maneuvering. It really is possible to earn a master’s degree and a PhD and still be student loan debt free.
Friedman, Z. (2020, February 3). Student loan debt statistics in 2020: A record $1.6 trillion. Forbes. https://www.forbes.com/sites/zackfriedman/2020/02/03/student-loan-debt-statistics/#1cd168cc281f
Glassdoor Team. (2020, March 13). 16 companies offering tuition assistance to employees. Glassdoor. https://www.glassdoor.com/blog/tuition-assistance-companies/
Harris, D. (2019, July 1). College costs are skyrocketing. Here’s how to decide if that high price tag is worth it. CNBC. https://www.cnbc.com/2019/06/28/how-to-decide-if-that-high-priced-college-education-is-worth-it.html
Idealist. (n.d.). Finding the best grad school scholarship options. https://www.idealist.org/grad-schools/blog/best-grad-school-scholarship-options