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5 Ways to Finish Grad School Debt-Free

Student loan debt is the second highest form of debt in the US, with mortgages in the number one spot. With so many students and so much debt, it’s no wonder that students want ways to finish their programs debt-free. Let’s take a look at 5 ways to finish grad school debt free.

Sep 6, 2023
  • Student Tips

Nearly 20 percent of students in PhD programs graduate with at least $30,000 in debt. What does that mean? About $300 per month for the next decade. And that’s average. Some are lower. Some are higher. And it doesn’t include living expenses, let alone extras.

While PhD students typically work and teach in exchange for their degree, some don’t. In fact, a lot don’t. In 2012, 18 percent of PhD students had over $30,000 in loans. Let’s talk about it. It’s an albatross around your neck. It doesn’t go away until you pay it down, or get it forgiven—two disparate beasts.

How do you finish your graduate degree debt free? Let’s take a look at five ways to minimize that debt—so that you can get on with your life.

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1. Program V. University

Pick a program that works for you. While the university is important, it’s critical that the program you choose meets your needs. Will you be able to get the job of your dreams with a degree from the program you choose? Does the program offer the flexibility that you want? Selecting a less expensive, lesser known university with a high-quality program can be just as beneficial as going for that Ivy League education. State schools often have great options—at a fraction of the price of a private institution.

That’s not to say that reputation doesn’t matter—it does, but it shouldn’t be the only deciding factor in how you select a graduate program.

Do a little digging. Contact professors and chairs of departments whose programs interest you. If you can, talk to students. Get a sense of what you need and want from your graduate program.

Weigh your options—your current and future wallet will thank you.

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2. Part-time

Earn while you learn. Rather than 2 or 3 classes per semester, take only one. Pay as you go. Yes, it will take longer, but it will also save you thousands of dollars in debt. If you’re willing to delay some gratification, keep your job, or work part-time—and get your graduate degree.

Keep in mind: a master’s degree is typically 30-36 credits. If you take one class each semester, and a class in the summer, you can finish your degree in three or four years, continue to work, and graduate from your PhD debt-free.

mini graduation cap on money

3. Scholarships

They’re out there and you should go for them. Bypass the ones for undergraduates, and look at foundations and non-profits that offer support in your chosen field. Philanthropy News Digest is worth a look, as are foundations that focus on your field.

Another place to look? Merit scholarships and fellowships. Can’t find them? Call the admissions office—they’re not always advertised.

If you’re working and going part-time (see #2), contact your human resources office, too. There are often un-advertised scholarships for employees going back to school. You don’t know unless you ask!

Concept for student graduation day

4. Graduation Date

Pick one and stick with it. Dragging out your degree is a drag on your wallet, unless you’re also working. Graduate on time. If your program has recommended amounts of time for full- and part-time students, stick with it, and rearrange your schedule so that you can make it happen. Full-time student in a two-year program? Make plans to graduate in two years. Working on a three-year part-time program? Stick to that schedule. You won’t regret it.

Young woman counting money stacking up coins

5. Budget

Watch your spending. Borrowed money isn’t your money. Make a budget—and stick with it. Learn how to cook if you don’t know how already—you don’t need to be fancy, but you should be able to feed yourself affordably. Use campus resources as often as possible, like the gym, which you’ve technically already paid for. If you subscribe to magazines and newspapers, get the student subscription rates. Limit superfluous spending—but it’s ok to treat yourself every now and then. As long you know what your budgetary limits are and you’re working within them, you’ll be fine. Need help? Contact your financial aid office. They’ll be more than happy to steer you in the right direction.

Graduating debt-free isn’t impossible, but it does take some work. Make wise, thoughtful choices, don’t be afraid to ask questions, and go get that degree.

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