How to Pay for Graduate School: 7 Ways

Written by Coursera • Updated on May 27, 2021

There are several strategies you can use to cover your graduate school costs, including foreign and domestic service, scholarships, employer tuition assistance, loans, and deferring enrollment.

Student studying for graduate school in a library

Graduate school: Costs and key information

Graduate schools refer to educational institutions that award postgraduate degrees. These commonly refer to master’s and doctoral (PhD) degrees, but can include professional degrees that prepare students for specific professions, such as law or medicine.

The average tuition for one year of graduate school in the US was $19,314 for the 2018-2019 school year, according to the National Center for Education Statistics—and that's not including rent, textbook costs, and other non-tuition expenses [1]. Graduate school can take several years to complete depending on the program. Master’s degrees generally take two years to complete, law degrees may take three, and PhDs can easily take over five. Tuition and living costs can quickly add up. Here’s a look at how to minimize and pay for expenses in graduate school.

How to pay for graduate school

Sure, there are the tried-and-true ways to pay for graduate school—the grants, loans, and scholarships—but that's not where your options stop. Deferring enrollment to work and save, considering domestic or foreign service, and employer reimbursement are also strategies to minimize your reliance on costly loans. Though the method you choose to pay for your education will depend on your personal circumstances, this guide can provide several options to consider.

In a nutshell

Seek out grad school payment options in this order. 

1. Money you don’t have to repay: A good rule of thumb is to start with money that you don’t have to return—think grants, scholarships, personal savings, or tuition reimbursement by your employer.

2. Federal and state loans: Student loans provided by the government tend to be cheaper and have more payment flexibility than private loans.

3. Private loans: Private loans should be considered after you’ve exhausted your other options.

This list was adapted from Sallie Mae [2].


1. Grants and scholarships 

There's a reason why grants and scholarships are so often cited as a good way to pay for school—it's free money. Grants and scholarships are both forms of financial aid that typically don’t have to be repaid. Though they’re often used interchangeably, grants are generally need-based awards, while scholarships tend to be merit-based awards. Dedicating some time to research grants and scholarships you're eligible for can be well worth the effort.

Federal and state funding: You may be eligible for federal or state funding depending on your needs and field of study. Federal TEACH Grants, for example, are available for students who intend to become teachers [3]. If you’re eligible, filling out your Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA), which qualifies you for state and federal funding, should be a priority consideration.

School funds: Universities and academic departments often offer scholarships and grants based on merit and need. Your school may have a separate application for financial aid; reach out to a financial aid officer to see what options are available.

Private organizations: Private organizations may offer scholarships based on any number of factors like field of study, ethnic heritage, status as a returning student, or geographic location. A financial aid officer at your school may be able to give you a list of scholarships that apply to your circumstance.

2. Get your employer to pay

Tuition reimbursement or tuition assistance is when your employer pays for a portion of your continued education costs. Employers may also be willing to help pay off student loans. According to a study conducted by the Lumina Foundation, it’s a good move for employers too—employers in the study reported up to a 144-percent ROI (that’s return on investment) on tuition assistance programs [4]. If you’re employed and believe a graduate degree will be helpful to your organization, consider asking your manager or HR department about tuition reimbursement. 

Keep in mind that an employer may require a commitment of up to several years in exchange for tuition reimbursement. 

3. Defer and work

Working for one or more years can help you save up money and give you real-world insight into the working world. Spending time in your desired field can also give you valuable experience that can make you a stronger candidate in school or scholarship applications, and help solidify your understanding of what you need from a graduate degree. 

If you’ve already been accepted into a program but want to defer, ask the admissions officer to see if you can defer your enrollment.

4. Consider foreign and domestic service

These government service programs allow you to tackle issues in the US and abroad. Completing them can give you access to scholarships that can be used towards qualifying graduate programs.

Peace Corps: Completing a stint as a Peace Corps volunteer may make you eligible to receive full or partial scholarships to over 200 programs at more than 120 universities in the US [5]. Scholarships are available in a wide range of subjects including law, public health, math, sciences, education, and more. Joining the PeaceCorps can also bring benefits for your undergraduate student loans, such as deferment, partial cancellation, or forgiveness, depending on eligibility [6].

AmeriCorps: AmeriCorps, a network of national service programs, provides program alumni with education awards that can be used to pay for qualifying student loans or graduate programs. The award amount varies depending on the number of hours spent in AmeriCorps [7].

Military: As a US veteran, you can qualify to receive educational benefits to cover graduate school expenses under the GI Bill. In the 2019-2020 school year, the GI Bill covered full tuition for public in-state schools, and over $24,000 for private or foreign schools [8].

5. Part-time work

You can enhance your educational experience and earn an income with work opportunities.

Internships: Working as an intern in the field of your study can give you real-world experience, and can come with the flexibility to accommodate your course load. Internships can also give you the experience and connections to help you find employment after graduation.

Work study: Your financial aid package might include work study, which will allow you to work on campus to help with expenses. Reach out to your financial aid office or career center to see what options might be available.

Teaching and research assistants: Your university may be looking for teaching or research assistants. Since these positions are usually designed with students in mind, they can give you the needed flexibility to let you focus on your schoolwork as well.

Any of these options can bring in some money and in many cases can be flexible enough to accommodate a full course load. You can also enroll as a part-time or online student in order to accommodate a full-time job.

6. Borrow smartly

Borrowing money to finance your education can be daunting and is not a decision to be taken lightly. But if taken out thoughtfully, loans can provide you the cash to complete your education.

Federal loans first: Loans from the government tend to have lower interest rates than loans from private loan providers like banks. Federal loans may also have other perks, like income-based repayment programs or loan forgiveness for select professions [9]. 

Private loans: Once you’ve exhausted your federal loan options, you can look into private student loans. Compare several lenders. Keep an eye out for low interest rates, and any perks like income-based repayment options or deferment programs.

How much should I borrow?

Only borrow what you need. It’ll be useful to budget ahead of time to see how much you’ll need for tuition, fees, and living expenses. Federal student aid resources recommend that loan payments be a small percentage of your income after graduation. Researching how much your income might be after you graduate can give you an idea of how much you’d be able to comfortably pay back each month [10].


7. Look into online degrees

Online degrees may offer lower price points than in-person schools, and be easier to continue working while you’re enrolled. The Master of Computer Science from the University of Illinois offered on Coursera, for example, cost $21,440 for the full program in 2021. Compare this to the overall average tuition for one year of in-person graduate schools, which was $19,314 for the 2018-2019 school year [11]. 

Online degrees also offer other perks, like scheduling flexibility and access to programs at geographically distant schools. Online schools may also accept and offer financial aid.

Getting started

Though paying for graduate school can be daunting, the financial, academic, and personal rewards of continuing your education have the potential to change the rest of your life. Researching your options is the first step to ensure you’re as financially prepared as you can be before starting graduate school.

Look through financial aid resources on Coursera to get started.

Did you know?

Several degree programs on Coursera offer and accept scholarships for incoming students. Some also offer application fee waivers, or might not require an application at all. Dive in to learn more about what your options are.



What's the financial benefit of going to graduate school?

Graduate school has its rewards. Graduates of master's programs earned a median of $77,844 a year in the US, compared to graduates of bachelor’s programs, who earned a median of $64,896 a year, according to the US Bureau of Labor Statistics [12].

Do I need to go to graduate school?

Graduate degrees are necessary for certain careers. Becoming a nurse practitioner, physician’s assistant, or high school guidance counselor, for example, all typically require a master’s degree. Becoming a lawyer will require a law degree, and you'll need to go to medical school to be a doctor. Going to grad school can also lead to salary increases, and open doors to a new career.

You might want not want to go to graduate school if you think you can learn the skills needed to make a career switch on your own. Switching into a new career like UX design, IT, or data analysis, for example, is generally possible so long as you have the skill set required. Enrolling in online courses, or getting a professional certificate, might make more sense for you.

Article sources

1. National Center for Education Statistics. "Average and percentiles of graduate tuition," Accessed March 26, 2021.

2. Sallie Mae. "Ways to pay for graduate school," Accessed March 26, 2021.

3. Federal Student Aid. "TEACH Grants," Accessed March 26, 2021.

4. Lumina Foundation. "The Case for Talent Investment," Accessed March 26, 2021.

5. Peace Corps. "Coverdell Fellowship Partners," Accessed March 26, 2021.

6. Peace Corps. "Student Loan Information," Accessed March 26, 2021.

7. AmeriCorps. "Segal AmeriCorps Education Award," Accessed March 26, 2021.

8. US Department of Veterans Affairs. "Post-9/11 GI Bill (Chapter 33) Payment Rates for 2019 Academic Year (August 1, 2019 - July 31, 2020)," Accessed March 26, 2021.

9. Federal Student Aid. "Public Service Loan Forgiveness (PSLF)," Accessed March 26, 2021.

10. Federal Student Aid. "Loans," Accessed March 26, 2021.

11. National Center for Education Statistics. "Average and percentiles of graduate tuition," Accessed March 26, 2021.

12. US Bureau of Labor Statistics. "Learn more, earn more: Education leads to higher wages, lower unemployment," Accessed March 26, 2021.

Written by Coursera • Updated on May 27, 2021

This content has been made available for informational purposes only. Learners are advised to conduct additional research to ensure that courses and other credentials pursued meet their personal, professional, and financial goals.

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