When the going gets tough, the tough get going -- to graduate school, that is. In 2001, when the economy took its last tumble, applications to graduate-degree programs doubled and then doubled again in 2002 before starting to drop back in 2003, according to the Council of Graduate Schools. Preliminary data indicates that applications are up again at most schools as would-be students hope to wait out a rough job market.
That strategy makes sense if the added credential puts you further along in your career or helps you change careers altogether. Still, at an average total cost of $28,375 a year 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), grad school is an expensive way to buff up your resume. Before you commit to it, consider these ways to cover the bills.
Shop the schools. Unlike undergraduate programs, which rely on the school's financial-aid office to dispense institutional grants to applicants, graduate programs give each department a pool of money to divvy up. To gauge your odds for bagging a fellowship (otherwise known as a grant) or tuition discount, contact each of the departments you are considering and ask how much money is available and how it is allocated.
Chances are, you'll find slim pickings at the master's-degree level. In the 2007-08 academic year, 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. (The two groups may overlap.) Still, some universities carve out the bucks to help master's programs compete for top-tier applicants. For instance, Boston University has a highly regarded creative-writing program and ample funding to attract talented students, says J. Scott Whitaker, associate dean of BU's Graduate School of Arts and Sciences.
At the doctoral level, strong students have a decent shot at receiving a fellowship as well as a departmental assistantship, which pays a stipend for 20 or so hours a week of teaching, research or administrative work. About one-fourth of doctoral candidates received fellowships, tuition waivers or both in 2007P08, according to the council, and half received an assistantship; research assistants were paid an average of $14,055, and teaching assistants, $11,763.
While you investigate the possibilities, take note of whether the application for admission puts you in the pool for free money or whether the school expects you to apply separately. Either way, you'll also have to fill out the Free Application for Federal Student Aid, known as the FAFSA, to qualify for federally sponsored loans, grants and work-study, the on-campus jobs awarded to students with need. Grad students are required to report only their own financial information on the FAFSA, not that of their parents, but some schools ask about the parents' finances as well.
Find a benefactor. Also scout out independent fellowships, offered through the U.S. Department of Education as well as professional groups and foundations. Such awards range from a few hundred dollars to enough to cover the cost of attendance. The AAUW (formerly the Association of American University Women) offers awards from $5,000 to $30,000 to women who are returning to school to advance or change their careers. The Truman Scholarship provides up to $30,000 to grad students who commit to a career in public service.
Even modest fellowships attract their share of applicants, but major prizes draw thousands of well-qualified contenders from around the country. To give yourself the best shot at the brass ring, begin the application process at least a year before you'll need the money, preferably in your junior year of college, says Paula Warrick, director of the office of merit awards at American University. "Developing relationships with faculty who will support your application is critical. You need to start building those relationships right away."
You can also get help from campus offices such as Warrick's, which encourage students to apply for big-ticket fellowships. For instance, the awards office at the City University of New York (CUNY) works with students on meeting deadlines, refining essays and polishing interview techniques. CUNY students have snagged several prestigious scholarships in recent years, including a Rhodes Scholarship and two Fulbrights.