Grad school is an animal that is almost completely different from the undergrad experience. One of the most significant ways it differs is in cost: graduate school tends, on a per-credit basis, to be more expensive than undergrad classes. The corollary to this bit of information is that financial aid is considerably less available to graduate students than to their undergraduate counterparts.
Thus, one of a grad student’s — or potential grad student’s — most important decisions is how to pay for grad school. Typically, you will receive notice pretty early in the process of figuring out which school you will attend. Some schools may even provide financial aid information along with your acceptance letter. Dr. Don Martin, an education writer for U.S. News and World Report, offers these tips for getting the most out of your graduate student financial aid package:
1. Complete all scholarship and loan forms and documents. As with you application materials, this should be done correctly and on time. Sadly, some students miss out on financial aid because they did not submit their paperwork on time, they did not follow directions or they made mistakes. If you do not receive information on financial aid within one week of being admitted, contact the financial aid office.
2. Be prepared to do some good-faith negotiating on the financial aid offers you receive. I saw a number of admitted students do this the wrong way. They would contact me, and say, “I’ve just received your financial aid offer. Another school has offered me twice as much — will you match or exceed that amount?” This is not the way to handle things.
You can negotiate offers by contacting the person who signed your admission letter. Start by thanking him or her for admitting you and for the generous financial aid the school has already offered. This is such a simple gesture, but it goes a long way. Let them know you are considering some other options — which they expect — but do not indicate how much you have been offered elsewhere unless you are asked.
Finally, ask if the school has a policy that enables staff to re-evaluate a financial aid package. The answer to this question will most likely be yes. Then ask, “Would you consider re-evaluating my offer, and can I provide any information to assist with that?”
Your request may not result in additional funding, but it will be met with a much more positive response about re-evaluating your award.
3. Request an enrollment deposit extension. There is nothing wrong with requesting an extension if you need one. Enrollment deposits are almost always non-refundable, and they are getting pretty high — some institutions charge a few hundred dollars, while others charge several thousand.
Admitted students waiting to hear from other programs or waiting to hear about financial aid from other programs to which they have already been admitted should consider requesting an enrollment deposit extension. Students who may be reconsidering their decision to start grad school that year and are thinking about deferring should also consider requesting an extension.
Contact the admissions office, and ask if you can have a few extra weeks before sending in your deposit. If your rationale is credible, you will usually be given some extra time.
4. Do not stop asking for assistance once you have enrolled. Graduate scholarship dollars are being received throughout the academic year. The key is knowing when to inquire about them.
The best time to ask if additional funding has become available is a few weeks before final exams. Go to the financial aid office and ask if any additional funds have become available. But don’t stop there; make it known that you are willing provide any information needed to be considered for these extra funds.
While these tips are by no means exhaustive and may not guarantee success in funding all of your graduate school aid needs, they will put you ahead of the game — and hopefully ahead of other students, as well — when it comes to paying for grad school.