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I was a grad student who made costly mistakes and racked up big debt. Here's how to avoid what I did.

4 minute read

I never should’ve gone to grad school. It’s a pit of debt I didn’t need for my line of work.

But at least I got off easy. I took out nearly $17,000 in student loans. The typical debt for college grads (from associates to Ph.D.s) is $57,600. All told, American student loan debt tops $1.2 trillion.

Here’s the crazy part: Graduate school student loan debt is a disproportionate chunk. Only about 17 percent of college students pursue something beyond a bachelor’s degree. But they account for about 40 percent of student loan debt, according to a recent report from the nonpartisan nonprofit New America Foundation.

It’s easy to see why.

At public universities in Florida, for instance, a graduate course costs two or three times what an undergrad course costs — even if it’s for the same amount of instruction time and taught by the same professor. And grad students don’t get all the help undergrads do. As the NAF report puts it…

Our system of higher education aims to underwrite much of the cost and risk that students take on when they pay for an education. It exists to target benefits to students from families with fewer means, and it shields students from the multitude of uncertainties that they face when they begin their educations and as they repay their loans.

That is not the case when it comes to graduate and professional degrees. Students pursuing these degrees already have an undergraduate degree, and they should be far more informed consumers.

Should is the operative word. Here’s what I learned the hard way from my time as a grad student…

1. Search hard for scholarships

I made it through my bachelor’s degree without any debt. A state-funded scholarship based on my high school grades covered 75 percent of the bill. My parents paid for the 25 percent during my freshman year, and after that, I covered the rest by working full-time every summer. I graduated in 2008 with a double bachelor’s in English and public communication — and then decided to keep going.

I still didn’t know what I wanted to do with my life. Maybe write, maybe teach. The economy was tanking, and I was worried there wouldn’t be many job opportunities. I figured I could boost my earning potential and buy more time by toughing out a few more years.

Of course, I found there weren’t nearly as many scholarship options for grad students, so it was more competitive. And the eligibility criteria were more specific, often favoring practical research in science, technology, engineering, and mathematics — or people going onto doctorates. It was harder to find up-to-date information, and the dollar amounts sometimes dropped between years.

That’s not to say you shouldn’t look. On top of all the places to find undergrad scholarships, some colleges offer scholarships for people who stay at the same school for graduate study, and professional organizations in your chosen field may help fund you.

Ultimately, I didn’t get any scholarships, but I did learn about another important opportunity that kept my bill down.

2. Apply early and go for assistantships

An assistantship is the ivory tower version of an internship. But where internships can be unpaid, assistantships offer a paycheck and often a tuition waiver for teaching undergrads or conducting research.

Find out if your academic department offers assistantships. If not, check with general-purpose departments like Housing and Orientation. Don’t ask the school — you’ll get the most specific and accurate information from within each department, because that’s where the money comes from.

My undergrad and grad years were spent in the same building, so I already knew the key players. They told me how and when to apply. In exchange for teaching low-level classes (like public speaking) and helping publish an academic journal you’ve never heard of, I got 80 percent off my tuition and a biweekly stipend that worked out to about double minimum wage. Not as great as a free ride, but it beats the heck out of retail.

The assistantship opened other doors, too. I negotiated my way onto something called a “faculty learning committee,” where I got paid $1,000 basically for four one-hour brainstorming meetings. Unfortunately, I couldn’t talk my way into a cushy faculty parking spot.

3. Get in-state tuition

Graduate tuition rates are already way higher than undergraduate rates. And out-of-state tuition rates will destroy you.

The national average in-state tuition and fees at a public four-year school is $8,893, according to College Board. Out-of-state? You’ll pay almost three times as much: $22,203.

I didn’t have to worry about this, but more than one of my colleagues did. I cringed every time they mentioned anything to do with money, knowing they were taking the same classes as me but would be in debt far longer.

There are some colleges (private ones, more often than not) that make no distinction between in-state and out-of-state students. For those that do, there are a few ways to get around residency requirements. If your parents are in public service — military, police, firefighting, teaching — a school might waive the requirement, U.S. News and World Report says.

If you don’t have that kind of luck, there’s another option that may be better for multiple reasons: Take a year or more off and move to the state where you plan to attend. Become a resident and build a paper trail. Register to vote, get a state ID and re-register your car, and keep evidence of bills at your local address showing you’ve been there for the longest period you can.

This works better for grad students than undergrads, since they tend to be older — if you’re under 23, the college may base your residency on your parents regardless of where you live.

So what will you do with a year off?

4. Gain real-world experience first

Sometimes education experts recommend taking a year or two between undergrad and grad school, and I sure wish I had listened. As it stands, I’ve only paid back a little over a third of the nearly $17,000 in student loans I took out.

(Don’t worry, I’m not a deadbeat: I haven’t missed a payment, and I pay more than the minimum, although I don’t qualify for any of the forgiveness programs out there.)

But if I’d waited, I’d probably be debt-free now. As it turns out, you usually don’t need a master’s degree for writing jobs. My current bosses didn’t even ask about my education.

When I started teaching public speaking for my assistantship, I told every new class the same thing: Go get an internship and put yourself ahead of the competition, so you have clear options when you finish your bachelor’s. A few asked me about grad school, and I told them the same thing: Don’t go because you’re unsure what to do. Go because you want a job you know needs the degree.

They had to pay tuition to hear this advice. You get it for free.

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About the Author

Brandon Ballenger

Brandon Ballenger

Having more than $10,000 in student loan debt has a way of piquing your interest in personal finance. And because my degree was in English and public communication, I get to share that interest with you. My wide-ranging stories on money and business have run on Business Insider, the Christian Science Monitor, Reader's Digest, the front pages of and Yahoo! Finance, Money Talks News, and the South Florida Business Journal. In my free time, I like to jump off skyscrapers and play video games.

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