Editor's note: This story has been updated.
When Elizabeth Kerr was a full-time PhD student in religious studies at the University of California at Santa Barbara -- and she made a decent living to boot. Thanks to two fellowships, she earned the equivalent of $42,000 a year, including the full cost of tuition and health insurance plus a stipend for living expenses.
A year of graduate school costs, on average, a total of $28,375 for a master's degree at a public school and $38,665 at a private school (most master's programs take one to two years). Four out of five full-time grad students receive financial aid, and the average package is $20,000 per year; student loans usually make up 75% of the total.
But some students like Kerr graduate virtually debt-free.
Compared with undergraduate education, far less money is available for grad school on the basis of financial need alone. "Grad schools give awards based more on merit than need," says Kalman Chany, author of Paying for College Without Going Broke (Princeton Review, $20). In 2007-08, only about 9% of master's-degree candidates received an institutional fellowship, according to the Council of Graduate Schools, and 7% scored a break on tuition. About one-fourth of doctoral candidates received fellowships, tuition waivers or both in 2007-08. Students in the physical sciences, economics, engineering, religion and theology have the best shot at getting a fellowship; fewer grants are available for advanced degrees in business and education. (For more information on fellowships, visit FastWeb.com or www.cuinfo.cornell.edu/Student/GRFN.)
Assistantships, which require you to work in return for a stipend (the average was $14,055 in 2007-08 for research assistants and $11,763 for teaching assistants), are most common in the physical sciences. Nearly half of all full-time candidates for master's degrees in science are paid for work as assistants.