As an undergrad at Florida International University in Miami, Lucia Lopez volunteered in poor communities and saw firsthand the health care challenges many people face. When she finished her master's in physician assistant studies at Wake Forest University in 2013, Lopez, 27, found a job as a PA at a Wake Forest Baptist Medical Center clinic in Winston-Salem, North Carolina, where she serves mostly high-need patients, many of them uninsured.
Now, she says, "I just can't see myself practicing anywhere outside of an underserved population." Lopez's passion is rewarding in more ways than one: It has paid off in a $50,000 grant from the National Health Service Corps, a federal program that offers loan repayment assistance to health professionals who agree to work in low-income communities for at least two years. Lopez's award will wipe out nearly half of the $120,000 loan debt she accumulated in grad school.
For the rest, she pays a "very reasonable" $485 each month thanks to another federal program that ties her monthly obligation to her $86,000 income. Devising that kind of multipronged payment strategy is the key to keeping graduate school affordable, whether you plan to be a doctor or lawyer or are destined for a teaching career.
Prospective students should keep costs, job and salary potential, and their repayment options top of mind from the beginning of the application process, rather than as "the last piece of the puzzle," says David Sheridan, director of financial aid at Columbia University's School of International and Public Affairs.
Nationwide, about 70 percent of grad students receive financial aid in the form of grants, teaching or research assistantships, and loans. Here are several potential ways to get your share.
-- Find a sponsor : Fifty-two percent of companies offer tuition assistance for job-related courses, according to the Society for Human Resource Management. More typical in fields like business and education, employer-sponsored funding helps about 15 percent of grad students pay for school, and up to $5,250 annually of such aid qualifies as a tax-free benefit. Most university employees have access to discounted coursework, too.
-- Seek scholarships : At the graduate level, scholarships tend to be awarded based on a student's credentials or course of study rather than financial need. Such grants are more common for Ph.D. students, many of whom are able to tap into research funding.
Awards can come from a wide range of government agencies, foundations and other sources. In 2015, the National Science Foundation, for instance, awarded $138,000 each to 2,000 individuals to pursue grad degrees across a range of scientific disciplines as part of its Graduate Research Fellowship program. The U.S. Department of Labor and FastWeb offer lists of scholarships that can be searched based on academic interests, location and other factors.
Applying early could give students an edge in the competition for institutional money; schools with rolling admissions deadlines could see their funding dry up by late spring.
-- Work for the school : Teaching or research assistantships are often awarded to Ph.D. students, many of whom will go on to become faculty members or researchers. Awards typically include tuition plus a stipend for other expenses and entail 20 or so hours of work a week.
At many institutions, assistantships are viewed "not first and foremost as employment but as part of their training," says W. Jeffrey Hughes, associate dean of the graduate school of arts and sciences at Boston University.
Obtaining an assistantship can be competitive, so students should "make sure that they are marketing skill sets" that they would bring to the table, says Carol Shanklin, dean of the graduate school at Kansas State University. For instance, an aspiring Shakespeare scholar who has taught high school English might have the edge for a coveted TA position over an applicant with equal academic creds who is arriving straight out of college.
Currently, grad students can borrow up to $20,500 per year in federal loans at a 5.84 percent interest rate. That rate is fixed for the life of the loan, but the interest figure for new loans is adjusted each summer based on the 10-year U.S. Treasury note.
For those who need to borrow more, federal PLUS loans are available up to the cost of attendance at 6.84 percent interest. Federal loans feature a range of flexible repayment options that allow borrowers to adjust monthly payments based on their salary or have their loan balances forgiven after a certain period of consistent payments.
[Learn how graduate student loans differ from college debt.]
"There's far less risk with a federal loan than a private lender," says Tracy Kitchel, assistant vice provost for graduate and postdoctoral affairs at the University of Missouri. The rate on loans at several private lenders, for instance, can swing by about 5 percentage points depending on market conditions.
Dustin Rynders sought out a variety of state, federal and legal sector funding sources to keep his burden manageable. After graduating from the University of Houston Law Center in 2006 with some $100,000 in debt, Rynders, 36, took a job as an attorney at a state agency in Houston representing children with disabilities in education matters.
Under a standard 10-year loan repayment plan, he owed about $1,100 a month from his $38,000 starting salary. That might have been "a pretty insurmountable barrier" to a public service career, he says, if not for a fellowship from Equal Justice Works -- a nonprofit that sponsors dozens of public interest lawyers nationwide -- that covered most of his payments for two years.
Next, Rynders turned to the Texas Access to Justice Foundation for additional aid. The foundation gives about 120 public-interest lawyers in the state as much as $400 a month toward their loans for up to 10 years, and Rynders is among them.
This story is excerpted from the U.S. News "Best Graduate Schools 2017" guidebook, which features in-depth articles, rankings and data.