Considerations for Balancing Cost and Reward

By Elizabeth LaScala, PhD and Stuart Nachbar

Furthering education typically requires more student loan debt. This is especially true for prospective graduate students who wish to study in a field that was not related to their college major. Luckily, at a graduate level, there are many opportunities for funding. Here are some considerations for choosing a low-cost/high-reward opportunity.

For some students, a higher degree is a must, especially for careers that look highly on a degree from a “name brand” University. It is easier for a college graduate to gain admission to a “brand name” university for graduate studies in several disciplines than it is for a high school senior to be admitted to that school for a bachelor’s degree. But while a master’s degree or a doctorate might help to make you more marketable and earn a higher income and the opportunity to earn the degree at a well-recognized school might sound exciting, you do not want to take on added debt that will make you worse off financially.

If you know that you will need help beyond your family and your savings to cover educational costs, you must identify schools that are most likely to offer scholarships, fellowships, teaching assistantships or research assistantships. These are based on your academic record, resume, recommendations, and standardized tests such as the GRE and the GMAT. Sometimes the schools that offer the greatest monetary rewards will not be the ones that have the highest brand recognition. However, they might be equally well respected by academics and prospective employers. If one or more of these schools offer incentives, like a scholarship, fellowship, or assistantship, you should consider them quite seriously.

Scholarships are credited towards tuition and fees—and they do not need to be repaid. Fellowships can cover more than tuition and fees to help you cover educational and living expenses. They, too, do not need to be repaid. Teaching and research assistantships cover tuition and fees, just like scholarships, but they also provide stipends to students who will help a professor teach an undergraduate course or conduct research. A stipend is considered taxable income, but a scholarship or fellowship is not.

These awards are much harder to get to cover costs in your first year of graduate school if you have no substantive academic achievements (e.g., publication) or work experience related to your desired field of graduate study. So, if your program runs for two or more years, you should find out if the career services in your graduate program will help you find relevant experience during the summer months, part-time while you are taking classes, and full-time after you graduate. You might also want to find out if a solid academic performance in the first year of your program could lead to a scholarship or assistantship in your second year. Alumni relations programs should also be available to help you network whenever you want to make more connections or change jobs for many years after you graduate.

The least expensive program might have the lowest costs, but it might not have all of the supports that you want. However, the most expensive brand-name program might offer little more than the name. The return on your investment in a graduate degree is a personal calculation. Your risks (chiefly the costs) should be compared to the availability of support (alumni, faculty, staff) and financial reward to help in your decision-making.


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