Written by @thecfomom
As an undergrad student, I was one of the lucky ones that graduated with little student loan debt. Sadly, I cannot say the same for graduate school. I always knew that college would open many doors for me; the most critical was opening the door to escape my parents house into freedom. I grew up in a very religious family. For years, I fought with my parents on everything they deemed holy and sacred. I studied hard and did whatever I could to get into a college far away from my controlling parents. When I received an offer letter to Ohio University, I knew this was my chance to run free. Unfortunately, my parents refused to let me move 350 miles away. Being only 17 years of age, there was little I could do, I ended up accepting admissions to a university only 25 miles from our home. I was devastated and concluded my life was ruined forever. Despite my parents track record for eccentric ideas, attending a local university was one of the greatest moments of my life. I ended up getting a full ride, and graduated only owing $1,200 which I quickly paid off.
After graduating, I was faced with the “now what” crisis. My liberal arts degree left me with no marketable skills, and I didn’t know what I wanted do with my life. I knew immediately that I had to attend graduate school. But for what? I quickly decided I wanted to save the world and put in motion a plan to finally leave my home state and go to school as far away as possible. Two years later, I took a plane and greyhound bus to a small college town in Florida to study counseling. A few weeks into my first semester, I realized I did not have what it takes to fix other people’s problems. I didn’t want to be a counselor, was racking up large amounts of student loan debt, and was rethinking everything.
Luckily the universe was looking out for me. Even before the fall semester, I got a notice that I could come to campus early and participate in a program to help minorities adjust to graduate school. I received a small stipend for living expenses during the summer and had one of my graduate courses paid for. Through the program, I met a wonderful woman who was pursuing her Ph.D. She had an amazing impact on my graduate school experience. Upon meeting me, she asked me if I had funding to pay for my masters degree. I didn’t. I’ll never forget her response, “You should never pay for graduate school.” She arranged for me to meet several faculty members in a quest to have them pay for my schooling. By the middle of the Fall semester, I had a graduate assistantship that would not only give me money to live off of, but pay part of my tuition. She also urged me to apply to several scholarships and I ended up receiving for a small one for almost every semester I was enrolled. She definitely was my fairy grad-school mother.
Two and a half years later, I graduated with about $13K worth of debt for a program that was $60K for out-of-state students. I worked in the counseling industry for a few years until I finally switched to a field that better suited my personality. My student loan was the first debt I attacked once I finished cash flowing a wedding (to my husband I met in graduate school). It took me about a year to payoff.
If you are contemplating graduate school, here are a few tips I did or wish I did to reduce the amount of money I took out in loans:
-Cash flow that baby! Seriously, its possible. There are people out there who are doing this and you can do it too!
-Wait several years to make sure your field of choice is what you want to do and spend your money on. Although I know I was supposed to attend the university when I did so that I could meet my husband, perhaps if I waited I would have gotten a degree that I would have more closely matched my long term career goals.
-Go to school in state. Again, the universe wanted me to meet my husband, but did I need to go out of state when there were plenty of perfectly good colleges around that I could have gotten in-state tuition.
-Look for scholarships. Yes, there are scholarship for Graduate school. I didn’t realize this until my fairy grad-school mother told me.
-Look for benefits-eligible campus employment. Whether it’s a traditional graduate assistantship or just a random job that offers discounted tuition, this could drastically decrease the cost of tuition. I currently work at a university that offers almost free tuition to staff members.
-If you have to take out loans, return unused funds at the end of the semester. Each semester, I didn’t know if what I was doing would cover all my tuition. So, I took out the minimum amount I thought I needed each semester, but diligently returned any unused amount by the end of the semester. This alone saved me from racking up tons of debt and spending it all on Starbucks.
-Make a plan to pay off your student loans as soon as you can! There is no need to hold on to that garage. Free yourself!
In the end, I don’t regret the paper that hangs in my living room. Having a masters degree has indeed opened many doors for me. You can never go wrong in expanding your knowledge! However, there are definitely ways to not have a few years turn into debt that haunts you for the rest of your life. Like what my fairy grad-school mother said to me, I urge you to not go into debt for graduate school.
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