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6 Hopeful and 4 Scary Trends for Grad School Grants

Rebounding economy holds hope for more graduate student financial aid.

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The good news for students, however, is that the drop in outside funding and leveling of enrollments are starting to spark some universities and employers to find new ways to make graduate study more affordable. Here are six positive trends in 2011 and 2012:

1. Alumni discounts: A handful of universities have started offering discounts on graduate tuition to their undergraduate alumni. Wayne State University, for example, offers a discount of up to 50 percent on graduate tuition for many programs for unemployed alumni and their spouses. Worcester Polytechnic Institute offers up to 50 percent off tuition at some grad programs for recent alumni.

2. Employee discounts: Some employers are negotiating discounts on graduate school tuition. Students should be aware, however, that in many cases the discounts only apply to online for-profit colleges, some of which have faced recent allegations about poor quality. Home improvement store Lowe's, for example, says it has negotiated discounts with Capella University, Kaplan University and Strayer University.

3. Some targeted increases in government aid: While most governmental agencies are cutting back, a few are aiming to increase spending on graduate students. University of Georgia president Michael Adams in January proposed spending an extra $1 million to recruit and fund 40 extra graduate students, for example.

4. Faster or more practical graduate programs: Colleges are cutting back on traditional full-time Ph.D. programs but are launching more practical and professional master's programs. And many are trying to recruit students to the new programs by making them faster and more convenient.

For instance, Sacred Heart University, in Fairfield, Conn., is launching a new master's in communication in the fall of 2011 that can be completed in just 12 months. James Castonguay, director of graduate programs in SHU's Department of Communications, said his staff checked out other nearby colleges' masters' costs and requirements before designing a program in which each course only lasts eight weeks. That allows students to start whenever is convenient for them, instead of waiting until the fall. The total tuition cost of $26,730 may sound high, Castoguay concedes, but that's a little below the annual tuition charged by some similarly ranked private colleges. And by shortening the program to one year, students save an entire year's tuition. "That is a deal," he says.

[Learn the 11 steps to relief from federal student loans.]

5. Economic rebound: Incipient economic growth and rebounding investment markets are raising the prospect of easier graduate funding. Donations to colleges rose slightly in 2010, allowing some, such as Columbia, to raise graduate student stipends. A few major employers, including Ford and General Motors, have reinstated tuition reimbursement programs in recent months. Ph.D.s in recently moribund humanities fields say they are starting to see an uptick in hiring. Though it is nowhere near the level of a decade ago, "academic employment has rebounded" from 2009's dismal lows, says Jim Grossman, director of the American Historical Association.

6. Continuing demand for undergraduate degrees: Undergraduate enrollment has grown strongly throughout the recession. Though colleges are experimenting with teaching software for undergraduates, there's increasing demand for writing-intensive courses, which require human graders, signaling long-term demand for college instructors with advanced degrees.

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