3. Work for the school: Research and teaching assistantships generally cover at least part of tuition and pay a periodic stipend in exchange for research or classroom instruction. Like scholarships, assistantships are often presented by individual departments.
Being proactive is key; once you know a specific topic you want to study, zero in on relevant programs and find faculty members in the field who might be willing to take you on as an assistant. Doctoral students typically have a better shot than master's candidates, since they're presumably considering a professorial career.
4. Borrow smart: Chances are you'll need to borrow at least part of the tab. To be eligible for federal loans, the first step is to file a Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA). Low-income students—which many grad students are once they're independent of their parents—might qualify for Perkins loans, which award up to $8,000 annually (to a maximum, including undergrad amounts, of $60,000) and have a 5 percent interest rate.
Stafford loans pay out up to $20,500 a year. The loans carry a 6.8 percent interest rate and a 1 percent fee, and a lifetime maximum of $138,500. Currently, all graduate Stafford loans are unsubsidized, so interest accrues during the entire time that borrowers are enrolled, though payments aren't required until six months after graduation.
For the rest, Graduate PLUS loans are available at 7.9 percent interest plus 4 percent in fees, but the origination fees on both Stafford and PLUS loans could rise thanks to a round of federal budget cust that went into effect on March 1.
Private loans are also an option, and lender Sallie Mae just dropped its fixed loan rates for grad students so they range from 5.75 to 8.875 percent, with no fees, from a top rate of 12.875 percent; its variable rates have dropped, too.
Potential borrowers can get a sense of the total loan tab—and perhaps size it up against an expected starting salary—using a student loan calculator, like those available at FinAid.org and StudentAid.ed.gov. Certain state, federal, and school-sponsored repayment programs also offer adjusted rates or loan forgiveness for qualifying graduates pursuing careers in the nonprofit or public interest sectors and certain in-demand fields such as teaching and primary care.
[Get more advice from the Student Loan Ranger.]
5. Take your credit: Grad students will also want to see if they qualify for the federal Lifetime Learning Tax Credit, which allows individuals to subtract up to $2,000 annually from their tax bill.
The credit applies to 20 percent of tuition and other required education expenses up to $10,000, and is available to single filers whose modified adjusted gross income is $62,000 or less, or to married people whose adjusted gross income falls at or under $124,000.
The bottom line: Students have to be creative, says Geri Rypkema, director of the Office of Graduate Student Assistantships and Fellowships at George Washington University in Washington, D.C. "Look at all possible sources," she advises, "because sometimes you have to put it together."