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Graduate certificates require less time and financial commitment than degrees, but obtaining financial aid for them can be difficult.

Consider Graduate Certificates to Save Time, Money

Check if employers or government programs offer funding when weighing graduate certificate programs.

Graduate certificates require less time and financial commitment than degrees, but obtaining financial aid for them can be difficult.

Graduate certificates require less time and financial commitment than degrees, but obtaining financial aid for them can be difficult.

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Students who don't have time or the funds for a full graduate degree — or who want to add a specialization to their current degree — can follow a trend that has grown over the last half decade and earn a graduate certificate. The number of graduate certificates awarded increased an average of nearly 19 percent per year between the 2005-2006 and 2010-2011 school years, according to a 2012 survey by the Council of Graduate Schools.

The one problem: The federal government doesn't always let students borrow for non-degree seeking programs. There are three things students interested in pursuing a graduate certificate should know about paying for it.

[Get tips on applying to graduate programs.]

1. There are some similarities to full graduate degrees. Students still have to apply to the program and often take graduate admissions exams. Currently, the GRE costs $185. Students can use money saved in 529 plans, tax-advantaged college investment accounts, to help pay for certificates as well as degree programs, and may be eligible for education tax credits.

As with a full degree program, employers may reimburse education costs. A company might "fully fund an employee's professional development. Certificate students can often receive full reimbursement for fees, books, etc.," says Stan Weisner, director of the post-baccalaureate program for counseling and psychology professions at the University of California—Berkeley Extension.

[Discover how to get your employer to pay for school.]

2. Financial aid may be more complicated. "It is somewhat more difficult for a non-full time, non-degree student to qualify for financial aid, but then the cost and investment in time/resources are far less than a degree program and can have immediate financial benefits," Weisner says.

University of Oregon Director of Student Financial Aid and Scholarships James Brooks says some graduate certificate program students do qualify for student loans. The problem is that a school must get U.S. Department of Education approval for each of its certificate programs individually for a program's students to be eligible, says Brooks.

The school must then show the credential would lead to gainful employment in order for students to qualify for student loans. Students who are in programs to update skills for a present job would not be eligible.

There are other government options that may pay for graduate certificates. "In the case of several programs, the State Department of Vocational Rehabilitation in California funds up to 10-15 percent of my Alcohol and Drug Studies Certificate students," says Weisner. U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs "benefits can sometimes also cover students enrolled in certificate programs."

[Explore online graduate programs.]

3. Tuition costs can be cheaper, but vary. Students can generally earn a graduate certificate by taking four to six courses in a variety of fields, says Deirdre Mageean, dean-in-residence at the Council of Graduate Schools. A traditional master's degree would likely take 12 classes.

East Carolina University offers 58 different graduate certificates in fields such as health sciences, business and education. Without any extra fees for specific programs, such as the additional $100 per credit hour charged for the MBA program, a course load of nine or more credit hours costs North Carolina residents more than $3,000 for the spring 2013 semester. Non-residents would pay nearly $9,000. A certificate program would eliminate the cost of at least one semester, maybe two.

Jeff Wheeler, a creative writing certificate student at Berkeley, already had a master's and didn't want the pressure of working while pursuing while pursuing another master's degree.

"As with most professionals, I'm busy. I don't think I'd be able to keep up on my writing without structure. The certificate programs offer evening classes that are easy to fit into my schedule and the deadlines keep my writing practice honest," he says.

Trying to fund your education? Get tips and more in the U.S. News Paying for Graduate School center.