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How to Pay for Grad School Without Loans

Getting a graduate degree is expensive, but is it possible to pay for it without student loans?

Justin Cupler

Contributing Writer at Tally

July 5, 2022

Student loan debt is a hot topic, and with master’s degree graduates carrying an average of $71,287 in student loans and doctorate borrowers carrying $159,625 in debt, it’s clear that graduate school is adding to the problem. While a graduate degree may help you become a higher earner earlier in life, that added debt may not always make it worthwhile. But is there a way to pay for grad school without loans?

Fortunately, some programs can help you get through graduate programs with little to no student debt. Here’s how to pay for grad school without student loans.

How to pay for grad school without debt: 8 options

Avoiding debt while getting your education will help set you up for financial freedom earlier in life. Here’s how to pay for grad school without taking on a ton of debt. 

1. Find grants

Grants are similar to student loans in that they’re awarded based on financial need, but the big difference is you usually won’t have to repay a grant. This effectively makes a grant free money, as long as you meet all the grant’s requirements.

The TEACH Grant, for example, gives graduate students $4,000 per year if they agree to teach a highly needed subject, such as mathematics, science or special education, while also meeting other specific qualifications in school and in their career.

You may be able to get a grant from various sources, including the federal government, your state government, your college or a non-profit organization.

To learn more about grants you may be eligible for, speak with your school’s financial aid office.

2. Apply for fellowships

Fellowships are scholarships based on merit given to students for a range of reasons, one being to attend graduate school. Fellowships are highly competitive, based on future potential instead of past achievements and often require an on-campus interview to win.

Fellowships often focus on specific groups of people or areas of study. For example, the Beinecke Scholarship is for graduate students planning to study the arts, humanities or social sciences.

Fellowships come from a wide range of sources, including schools, professional associations and non-profit associations.

3. Earn graduate scholarships

Graduate scholarships are similar to fellowships in that they’re merit-based student aid that generally doesn’t require repayment. However, they differ because they’re usually based on your past academic or professional achievements.

Graduate scholarships can come from schools, professional associations, non-profit associations and more. In some cases, an organization offering fellowships may also offer scholarships.

Your school’s financial aid office can help you find potential scholarships and other aid options.

4. Choose a field of study with federal student loan forgiveness

In many cases, taking a student loan to cover your master’s degree or doctorate is unavoidable. However, if you study in certain areas, you may qualify for loan forgiveness from the federal government, wiping your loan balance clean if you meet specific requirements.

Here are some examples of loan forgiveness programs grad students may qualify for. Keep in mind, these forgiveness programs do not apply to private student loans and other private lenders.

Public Service Loan Forgiveness (PSLF)

The PSLF Program is the broadest-reaching loan forgiveness program the federal government offers, as it doesn’t cover just one specific industry. Instead, it focuses on the type of organization you work for.

The requirements are: 

  • You work full time for the federal government, a state or tribal government, or a non-profit organization.

  • You have Direct Student Loans.

  • You are repaying using an income-driven repayment plan. 

  • You’ve made 120 qualifying payments on your federal student loan.

Teacher Loan Forgiveness

If you’re attending grad school to become a teacher, you may be able to qualify for the Teacher Loan Forgiveness Program. This program is for borrowers of Direct Student Loans and the Federal Family Education Loans (FFEL) Program.

To qualify, you must be a full-time, highly qualified teacher for five straight academic years at a school or educational services agency that serves low-income students. If you qualify, the federal government will forgive up to $17,500 or $5,000 of any remaining loan balance, depending on the subject you teach.

To receive the maximum $17,500 forgiveness, you must teach mathematics or science at the secondary-school level or special education at the elementary or secondary level.

5. Become a graduate school assistant

A graduate school assistantship is yet another way to pay for school without taking out a student loan. Assistantships are salaried roles with the school you’re attending. You’ll work a set number of hours per week and receive a salary in tuition waivers and living expense stipends.

There is a wide range of assistantship positions available at graduate schools, including graduate teaching assistants and graduate research assistants.

Beyond helping you pay for grad school, graduate assistantships can also help with your career by giving you valuable experience and contacts in the professional world.

6. Enter the Federal Work-Study program

Another great way to get solid working experience and funds to pay for grad school is the Federal Work-Study program, which is available through the U.S. Department of Education. Eligibility is determined when you complete your Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA).

You can work part-time and earn at least minimum wage in this program. In some cases, you may even work in jobs related to your major, gaining great experience in the process. You’ll earn a normal paycheck like any other worker — the funds are not given as waivers or paid directly to the school — but you will be exempt from the Federal Insurance Contributions Act (FICA), meaning you won’t pay Social Security or Medicare taxes.

You can then apply your paychecks toward your tuition, lowering the number of loans you need to take out.


7. See what programs the state offers

The federal government isn’t the only governmental body that can help you pay for grad school without loans. State governments can also help out.

Some states will offer tuition reimbursement programs to workers in high-demand, low-staffed careers. The state will, of course, expect you to fulfill specific duties — including working within the state in that field for a specified period — to obtain forgiveness.

For example, the Tennessee Graduate Nursing Loan Forgiveness Program will forgive student loans for a nursing graduate. In exchange, the graduate must complete four years of full-time employment in a faculty or administrative role at a Tennessee college or university’s nursing education program.

Contact your state’s department of education to find out if it offers such a program and how to enter it.

8. Talk to the HR department at work

Your employer may be another great avenue to paying for grad school without financial aid. Some employers strive to train and retain top-level employees by paying for a portion of their schooling. Check with your human resources department to see if tuition assistance is a benefit your company offers.

For example, The Home Depot has a tuition reimbursement program for all employees working toward their associate, bachelor’s, master’s, doctoral or technical degree programs. Every calendar year, employees can get 50% of the cost of attendance and other school costs reimbursed through the company. Reimbursements are capped at $5,000 for salaried employees, $3,000 for full-time hourly associates and $1,500 for part-time hourly associates.

Get a debt-free education

Getting an education is a solid foundation for building a financially stable life, but starting out with mountains of student loan debt makes things harder. You can get your graduate degree with little to no debt by finding various programs to pay for, reimburse or forgive your graduate school tuition. By following the above tips, you’ll know exactly how to pay for grad school with little to no student loans looming at graduation.

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