Explore Graduate School Funding Options Early

Consider reducing your debt load and whether you’ll be able to work before starting grad school.

Decide how much debt you’re willing to incur before you start grad school and plan accordingly.
Decide how much debt you’re willing to incur before you start grad school and plan accordingly.

As you prepare for graduate school, one of the major questions you will encounter is how you will finance your education.

As a dean of students at both the University of Chicago Booth School of Business and Columbia University's Teachers College, I held weekly open office hours for students. One of the top reasons they came in to see me was money problems.

In some cases, students had to withdraw because funds had run out. Sometimes this was through no fault of their own, but in many cases, they had not taken time to adequately prepare to meet their financial obligations. Here are some important tips for funding your graduate school education.

[Learn about loan options for graduate students.]

1. Ask yourself a few personal questions:

• If I already have some debt, how comfortable am I taking on more? If I have no outstanding debt, how much am I comfortable taking on?

• Should I consider reducing my debt load for another year or two, giving me more time to prepare for grad school and to really check out all of my options?

• Should I go full- or part-time?

• Have I considered the implications of pursuing a career in an area that does not pay as much, like nonprofit work?

Just answering these few questions could make the difference between the ability to focus on getting the most out of your graduate school experience, and major stress and pressure related to finances.

[Learn about Graduate PLUS loans.]

2. Be sure you have a good credit score: Many students do not take the few minutes needed to check this out. If there is a problem with your credit score, you could end up not being able to secure the loans that are available to you through the financial aid office.

3. Look for other sources of scholarships or grants: Check out your local, state, and federal departments of education for scholarships and grants. For example, if you visit the U.S. Department of Education website and do a search for "grad school grants" or "grad school scholarships," you will find a wealth of information. You can do a similar search on your state department of education website.

Or, if you have an affiliation with a civic organization (such as the chamber of commerce, Elks, or Lions), or a religious organization, find out if they offer any type of financial assistance for members and/or their relatives.

[Explore more scholarships for graduate students.]

4. Consider working at the institution you attend: This is the route I took. During the second year of my master's program, I worked as an admissions counselor in the graduate admissions office.

Doing so paid for all of my tuition during my second year, leaving me the opportunity to start paying off the loans I had taken out for my first year. By the time I graduated, I owed less than $5,000.

Similarly, after two years of doctoral study at Northwestern University, I was hired as director of graduate admissions and financial aid at the Medill School of Journalism. As a result, the final four years of my program were funded, and I graduated with less than $10,000 in debt.

Working and going to school makes for a full plate, but it is a definite plus when it comes to funding your education. Many institutions hire their graduate students, because of the variety of professional backgrounds and expertise they bring to the table.