Pioneering Your Doctoral Tuition Needs
You are officially a pioneer—now what? Figuring how to pay for your advanced degree is a conundrum that inevitably all graduate students must internally and externally debate. And guess what, for me, the degree isn’t paid for… yet!
Below, you will find several strategies for budgeting, managing your organization’s reimbursement policy, and taking out loans.
First off, you need to figure out your household budget and if paying for a doctorate right now is feasible. My mother, a career collegiate student, has always said education debt is good debt, and after four graduate-level degree programs, I guess I’m a believer as well.
According to Nerd Wallet’s 2020 study of household debt, the average United States household with student loan debt owes $57,520, and the average graduate school debt is $71,000. That said, unless you’re independently wealthy or have some Bitcoin mine hiding in your basement, you’re not alone in having to pay for your doctoral degree.
You can make it work, but you must be creative. For my family, our budgeting was realigning items to aid in paying for the outside necessities used for completing the program. At Point Park University, these outside necessities were a new, reliable bookbag, a new MacBook, a good set of headphones for dissertation writing and mental health-needed music, school supplies, and, most important of all, on-campus food from the various establishments in Market Square. The brain needs fuel, and I ensured that it never drove on empty.
The simple items were realigned in our budget which made these necessities feasible. Remember, these doctoral programs are either two or three years; that’s a lot of small budget items to change, and thus, that’s a lot of funds available.
But, Dr. Nick, what did you cut? Well, faithful reader, we didn’t cut anything formally. We limited our Target and chain store purchases to only necessities. This meant no more trips to the dollar bins or the DVD aisle. For our family, this saved a ton. As a second step, the purchase of a fancy, pod-style coffee pot for a couple hundred bucks saved us hundreds, maybe thousands of dollars, over the two years.
Instead of cutting, we also subscribed to the budgeting app Albert, which assesses your bank account and develops saving strategies that automatically transfer calculated amounts of money from your debit account to a separate account. There are several types of budgeting apps that charge a small fee to automatically save you lots of money. Throughout a couple of months, we had hundreds of dollars in our Albert account that we could quickly transfer back to our checking account.
While having cash on hand for those necessities is nice, the meat of your expenses comes from tuition. Many organizations have tuition reimbursement options. Read the fine print of yours. There are many different caveats listed in contracts, and yours could require you to pay back the tuition if you don’t work there for a specific number of years after completing the degree. There are also many conditions of reimbursement.
While I was enrolled at Point Park University, my organization paid a portion of my tuition if I earned a B or greater and had a zeroed-out balance on my account. For my family, that meant finding a good, cash-back credit card and paying my tuition with that card. Every eight weeks, I would earn my grade, pay my bill, and wait to be reimbursed for paying off my credit card.
My organization was very good at reimbursing promptly, but I have heard of others that were not as lucky as me. Check the payout timeline of your organization before agreeing to any reimbursement contract, and make sure that this timeline works with your family and financial needs.
Taking Out Loans
Lastly, student loans! Fill out the Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA) as soon as possible. You never know—you might be eligible. Now, in my family, we have both private and public-school loans. It ultimately comes down to what loan works best for your family and your financial needs. Look at the final amount (after reimbursement) that you will need and calculate how much you will need in the loan.
Note: you may have money left over from your loan after your tuition is paid. My advice is to immediately apply that back to the loan to lower your overall loan balance prior to graduation and interest accruing. Remember, payments do not start for several months after graduation, so make sure you log into your loan servicer’s website to set up your repayment plan. There will be many options. I cannot advise on this specifically as it all depends on your own needs.
Overall, this three-pronged approach to preparing yourself to pay for your doctoral degree worked for me, so steal any aspect, all aspects, or none at all as you begin your journey on one of the most fulfilling roads ever traveled. Good luck and Godspeed.