3. Apply early: Graduate deans typically like to lock in attractive candidates early, so there's often little aid money left for late applicants.
4. Consider unconventional upstarts: Investing your time and money in a program that doesn't provide a good education or impress employers is a waste. But those willing to take chances on new programs can find bargains. The year-old UC–Irvine School of Law that Tashlitsky is attending is offering half-tuition scholarships to all students entering in the fall of 2010. Penn State–Brandywine is charging just $16,000 for its three-year-old medical school preparation course with online lectures and bimonthly labs. (Tuition, plus room and board at a traditional, campus-based med school prep course, such as the one at Goucher College, costs about $40,000.)
6. Shop around: The University of Kansas's well-regarded graduate program in education cost Kansas residents only about $255 per credit hour last year. That's much less than similarly ranked private schools and is even significantly less than the prices in-state residents pay at other highly ranked public universities, such as Michigan State.
7. Search for in-state tuition: Some public university graduate programs make it easy for out-of-staters to pay in-state tuition. For example, residents of states belonging to an academic common market, such as the Southern Regional Education Board, can get discounts on tuition at scores of graduate programs in their regions.
8. Ask the boss: Economic troubles have reduced employers' support of graduate study. But many consulting firms, multinational companies, and government agencies still provide education benefits. And some graduate programs, such as those offered by the for-profit Capella University, offer small discounts to applicants from certain employers.
9. Search for schools with financial aid rules that match your circumstances: Most graduate programs offer scholarships based only on merit, as measured by such things as high grades and test scores. But a few dozen programs offer grants based solely on the admitted students' low incomes. Need-based scholarship programs require students to fill out not only the Free Application for Federal Student Aid but often other applications, such as the Need Access form or the College Board's Profile. In addition, many medical schools, for example, expect the parents of all students—no matter what the student's age—to contribute to tuition. Many other graduate schools, however, typically don't expect parental contributions for students who are at least 24.
10. Ask about work: The toughest and most intense professional graduate programs usually bar students from working, which means students have to fund living expenses as well as tuition. But some programs, such as the University of Nevada–Las Vegas's business school, assist students trying to balance jobs and school. "We work it out informally" with the many students who have evening jobs at casinos and the like, says Gordon McCurdy, director of UNLV's M.B.A. programs. Other graduate programs go even further and help students land campus jobs. The Georgia Institute of Technology's graduate business school, for example, offers research assistantships, which come with tuition discounts and small paychecks, to the top one third of admitted students.
Veteran graduate students say that even if a student isn't offered a job on admission, it's often possible later to find campus jobs that significantly defray the cost of tuition. Benjamin Bolger, who has worked his way through 10 master's degrees and one doctorate, said he cold-calls professors in fields he has studied before the start of a semester to see if there are any last-minute assistantship openings. He once took a tutoring job at one of Harvard's residential houses because it paid in the form of free meals. The key, says Bolger, is balance. "If you spend too much time working and skip the time you need to work on your own studies, you will be making a strategic error," he says. "You will spend a lot of time in the library, and you will spend a lot of time—perhaps more than you expect—working to support your studies. But it is all worth it."