You've received financial aid packages from the graduate schools you're considering—and they might not be what you expected. Your aid awards might include grants, fellowships and assistantships, work-study opportunities, and even scholarships, but still could require you to load up on student loans.
If you feel the aid packages at your top choice schools pose too heavy a financial burden for you to carry, consider a step many students may overlook: negotiating.
"I think the problem is with most applicants, they feel so fortunate to get into these schools—and they should—[but] they feel like ... 'If I start negotiating, they'll think I'm ungrateful, and they'll pull my offer,'" explains Afam Onyema, a graduate of Stanford Law School and chief operating officer of the nonprofit GEANCO Foundation.
But, particularly at schools with low acceptance rates, "You're desired; you're wanted; and applicants just don't realize that or don't give it the weight that they should. They go in thinking that this is set by some law that can't be moved up or down."
By taking a different approach, both Onyema and his sister, Ebele, were able to secure more money from Stanford Law School and the University of Chicago School of Social Service Administration, respectively. Though additional funding is never a guarantee, following these steps might help you, too, in your quest to find more money for graduate school.
1. Take the initiative: Though it might feel uncomfortable to broach the topic of more aid, beginning a dialogue may ultimately make your top choice school more affordable.
When sociology master's student Bob Goodman received a full ride to one institution, he "mentioned" it to officials at his dream school, New Mexico State University, he says. Though Goodman's not sure if it made a difference in the funding package he was later offered at NMSU, he says he'd still recommend other students take a similar approach.
"I've noticed a lot of students are not proactive, but that's one thing I've tried to do," Goodman says. If a school isn't being forthright, "you have to kind of demand it or seek it out yourself."
2. Ask nicely: The way you frame your appeal for more financial aid from your graduate school is crucial, Stanford Law grad Onyema says. Structure the conversation as "I want this to work; how can we make this work?" he recommends, rather than "What can you do for me?"
Let your dream school know it's your top choice without taking a hard line, Onyema recommends. He leveraged larger offers from other schools to get his top choice, Stanford Law, to raise his award from $1,000 a semester to $10,000.
3. Be honest: When reaching out to a school about other offers, don't exaggerate or fabricate your packages, since your top choice might ask for proof.
An honest conversation might even lead to more financial aid than you set out to attain. When one current College of William and Mary Marshall-Wythe School of Law student, who asked not to be named, reneged on her plan to attend a master's degree program at the Pennsylvania State University—University Park, she sent the program director an E-mail explaining her decision. The director responded with an offer to cut her tuition in half.
"I was completely blown away," she says. "I kind of just assumed if they were going to offer me monetary financial aid, they would have done that from the beginning, so I never thought to ask."
4. Ask all offices: As a graduate student, you'll likely be enrolling in one department of a larger school—which means you have a second option to petition for more money.
"If you're not happy, call up and say—to both the financial aid office and the department—'I cannot afford to go to this school. I have this other school that is offering me more aid ... that I don't have to pay back. What other scholarships can I apply for?'" recommends Reyna Gobel, author of Graduation Debt: How to Manage Student Loans and Live Your Life. "There may be other scholarships that you didn't know about."
[Find out where to look for grad school scholarships.]
Reaching out to a future department may be especially beneficial for international students, says Jack Ahern, vice provost of international programs at the University of Massachusetts—Amherst. Since financial aid offices tend to deal more with federal funding options that international students can't get, grad students may get more help finding assistantships, fellowships, and scholarships by appealing directly to a department, he says.
5. Try again next year: When he didn't receive a work-study position for his first year of graduate school, Boston University School of Education student Andrew Barlow didn't get discouraged.
"I just reapplied for it, and I kept bugging them about it," he says. "I had the person who wanted to hire me already lined up, and they kept bugging [the financial aid office] as well." His efforts eventually paid off; Barlow later landed both a work-study position and another part-time job.
Waiting to secure funding might help international students, too. It's "quite common" for international grad students at the University of Massachusetts—Amherst to not receive an assistantship (which can come with a tuition waiver) until after they've arrived, vice provost Ahern says.
"It sometimes depends on the availability of funding, and opportunities may develop after they've been accepted," he says. "It may be a case where faculty want to see the students, especially international students—how well they speak English, how well they write—before they offer an assistantship."
Negotiating may not work for all who try, but, when Stanford Law grad Onyema recalls his experience, he says he "think[s] about how many other students don't have that conversation."
If he hadn't reached out to his top school for what ultimately resulted in a $20,000 annual award, "that 20K would have gone to someone else who did negotiate or did talk," he surmises. "Those who are proactive are the ones who get the money."
Trying to fund your education? Get tips and more in the U.S. News Paying for Graduate School center.