As hordes of applicants mob the few good job openings in a recession, it takes ever more qualifications to stand out from the crowd. And, unfortunately, it takes ever more money these days to fund the graduate courses that upgrade a job seeker's skills and résumé.
It will probably only get worse. Budget cuts and endowment declines are expected to drive up tuition and reduce aid for graduate students in 2009. Deans of professional programs in areas such as business, engineering, and library science warn applicants hoping simply to boost their careers that grants and fellowships will be in short supply in 2009. In addition, as the unemployment rate rises, fewer employers feel the need to offer sweeteners such as graduate tuition assistance.
What's more, most professional grad programs are so intense that, especially in the first year, deans typically warn against trying to raise cash by working part time, a common strategy for funding undergraduate degrees.
But financing grad school is still possible, says William Gray, who persuaded his employer, PRTM Management Consultants, to subsidize his M.B.A. studies at the University of Virginia's Darden School of Business. True, it took Gray several years of hard work to find and impress such a generous employer. But, he says, "I know for a fact that more people could do this."
They could indeed, thanks to some generous new loan programs, protected funding for top students, and growing competition for students that may provide lower-cost options for study.
Thanks, also, to many long-established aid programs. The military and state and federal health agencies are expected to continue offering assistance to those willing to serve a few years in jobs that need filling. Some graduate programs will still award at least partial financial aid for students who qualify as having very low income on either FAFSA or Need Access. Top students, especially those interested in research, will get assistantships or stipends covering tuition and minimal living costs. And many schools, especially private institutions, will offer partial tuition scholarships (essentially discounts) to students who they think will bring something special.
Grad school deans say there are a few tricks to improving your chances of getting financial help in these hard times:
- Apply to wealthier schools. Public universities in states with stronger economies, and schools with endowments large enough or managed well enough to weather Wall Street's collapse, have more money to hand out. Gregory Fenves, dean of the University of Texas's engineering school, notes that his state, like several others rich in oil, has so far avoided the worst of the rest of the nation's economic troubles. As of early 2009, he expected his budget for the fall's financial aid to rise slightly, enabling him to fund just about all Ph.D. candidates, as well as master's applicants, who express an interest in research. At his school, he explains, "at the graduate level, it is all merit-based aid." Anyone who wants funding will need good grades and test scores and will have to "be clear in their statements and essays about what particular research area they are interested in, and why."
- Apply early. To lock up the best Ph.D. students, schools are making earlier offers and demanding quicker commitments, says Michael Lesk, who chairs Rutgers's Department of Library and Information Science. His department starts sending out offers by February. "We've given away all the financial aid" by late spring, he says.
- Work the competition. The growing number of professional graduate programs, especially online, is sparking price competition. About 1,000 universities now offer masters' in business, for example, up from about 700 in 2002. One, California State University-Dominguez Hills, is luring out-of-state students to its online program with comparatively low prices: Tuition for all 20 classes needed for an M.B.A. should total less than $20,000.
- Think long term. Julia Mortyakova, president of the National Association of Graduate-Professional Students, says students need to think realistically about their careers and salary prospects before investing time in or spending borrowed money on graduate degrees. Many applicants with grandiose ideas about becoming professors, for example, are likely to be disappointed, because the latest round of economic troubles has not only reduced university hiring but also discouraged older professors from retiring and creating openings.