How to Afford Grad School

First, a disclaimer! As anyone who reads this blog can tell you, I am not a financial planner. My idea of debt management is not to go into debt. Seriously. My only major loan was on our house. I pay off my credit cards and have never had a car loan. I thank my parents for much of that, and the Andrew Mellon Foundation for the rest. My parents paid for my undergraduate education (and it wasn’t cheap), and a Mellon Fellowship paid for all but two years of my graduate school — a teaching assistantship and a Fulbright fellowship took care of the rest. So when it comes to funding graduate school if you don’t have a great fellowship, I’m no expert. That’s why I’ve been doing some research.

If you are going into a career with prospects of a lucrative profession upon graduation, then it makes sense to invest in your graduate education by taking out loans. If, on the other hand, you’re going into creative writing or one of the many other rewarding graduate tracks that should make you more marketable, but can’t promise a huge salary (not that those aren’t possible), then going into debt is a riskier proposition. Always remember that the longer you owe, the more you’ll pay, and interest generally begins to accrue while you’re in school, even before you’re required to pay off your loans. The less principal (money you can actually use) you have to take out, the less interest will pile up. So try to find ways to minimize the amount you need to borrow up front, and try to pay down the principal (pay more than the minimum payment) as soon as you can to cut the overall cost of your loans.

Many graduate students typically receive some form of financial assistance from their school. This can come in the form of a scholarship, but more likely will be in the form of an assistantship—either assisting with a graduate faculty member’s research or with teaching a class. Often a teaching assistant begins by leading discussions and doing some grading, but isn’t in charge of a full class. Then after a year or so, an assistant instructor may have complete responsibility for an undergraduate class. Don’t be fooled. This is work! It’s not easy money, but it is a job that is tied to your educational goals, and you learn as much by teaching as you will in your other classes.

If you are in a low-residency program, like the W’s new MFA in Creative Writing, then teaching opportunities may be limited. We’re a small university, after all, and we don’t have a ton of extra sections of classes to cover. Students in our program are not on campus, so there are even fewer sections that would be offered online, and it takes more expertise to teach online than it does to teach in the classroom, since you have to manage the online environment while you’re learning to teach your class. We are planning to offer some teaching assistantships, but those will be fairly limited for now. We ought to have some scholarships available as well, but again those will be limited. Often low-residency programs don’t offer a lot in financial aid, since the expectation is that their students will already be working and will do their degree on top of their regular job. So the first question before you apply may be whether you are ready, financially, to take that on. Here are some resources that might help you find the financial aid you need and make the decision whether you are financially ready to take on the expense of grad school.

If you’re applying to MUW’s Graduate programs, don’t forget to fill out an application for Graduate Scholarships and one for Graduate Assistantships, if you want to be considered for these opportunities. This needs to be done each semester that you are enrolled. These forms can be found on our program’s page on How to Apply.

Published by Kendall Dunkelberg

I am a poet, translator, and professor of literature and creative writing at Mississippi University for Women, where I direct the Low-Res MFA in Creative Writing, the undergraduate concentration in creative writing, and the Eudora Welty Writers' Symposium. I have published three books of poetry, Barrier Island Suite, Time Capsules, and Landscapes and Architectures, as well as a collection of translations of the Belgian poet Paul Snoek, Hercules, Richelieu, and Nostradamus. I live in Columbus with my wife, Kim Whitehead; son, Aidan; and dog, Aleida.

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