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Are you financially ready for graduate school?

Graduate education offers a wealth of opportunities, but it's also expensive. Tuition for masters programs in the United States can run from about $5,000 to over $38,000 per year—and that's leaving aside essentials like housing, books and supplies, food, and administrative fees. Outside the United States, tuition runs the gamut from free (sometimes even for non-nationals) to prices similar to those at U.S. schools—and international students must factor in currency conversion on top of other costs. Other important expenses associated with grad school can include relocation, travel or commute costs, and incidentals necessary to sustain a (minimal) social life. While a range of financial aid options and scholarships can help offset some of these costs, serious consideration of your financial readiness for grad school is crucial.

Financial issues to consider include:

Reduced income

Part of the financial consideration is a classic opportunity cost: to attend grad school, you may have to reduce hours at (or even quit) your job, which can result in a major financial adjustment. Most students face reduced income while paying a hefty tuition bill each semester. You may be able to work during school, but working full-time will be challenging. An increasingly popular approach to grad school involves part-time study, which opens the possibility of retaining income from a full-time job. And while many students rely on some form of financial aid to afford their studies, aid recipients should be aware that the amount of their award can vary greatly by school and may decrease during your studies.

Debt

Aside from income, another important consideration is debt. If you're like many people, you probably have some personal debt, perhaps from undergraduate student loans, credit card spending, or even a major purchase like a car or a house. Some of these financial responsibilities can't be put on hold during grad school, and you'll have to work out a balance between your expected income during your studies, your anticipated financial aid, and the costs of covering existing debt and school simultaneously. In some cases, it may make sense for you to put off grad school temporarily and focus on paying down debt for a while so that you can undertake your studies in a more stable financial state. See our article on building good credit for grad school.

Additional factors

Even if you have a comfortable income and manageable levels of debt, you may have other financial goals or constraints. Perhaps you're planning to have a child, or caring for a relative, or saving to buy a home. If attending your first choice school requires a move or a commute, you'll have to take these costs into account, too. In any of these situations, you will have to weigh the expenses carefully and decide whether it's reasonable to bring grad school into the mix right now.

Investing in your future

While there's no guarantee that grad school will equate upward mobility, a graduate degree can be a path toward a higher paying career. Perhaps the short-term financial burden of attending grad school will pay off handsomely later when you feel better qualified to go after a more lucrative or enriching career. This is a gamble that many potential grad students are willing to take.

Conclusion and further resources

Ultimately, the decision to apply to graduate school needs to be based on more than just financial considerations, but that doesn't mean you can avoid the money question. If you ignore them, financial worries can compound the stress of grad school and affect your studies (and a whole lot more). These financial calculations can be tricky, and the resources on this page are designed to help you examine the many approaches toward financing your graduate education.