First, I have some good news on this front. According to a 2009 survey by U.S. News & World Report, at least forty percent of all graduate students receive some kind of free money. It will take some time and effort on your part to find some financial assistance, but the odds are definitely in your favor! Let’s look at where you can go to get yourself a piece of that financial aid pie.
Now for the less than great news… you still need to start by filling out the FAFSA (Free Application for Federal Financial Aid). http://www.fafsa.ed.gov/ While needs-based Pell grants do not apply for graduate level work, completing the FAFSA can assist your eligibility for many scholarship programs and can also qualify you for low-interest student loan programs. You may not have fond memories of completing this tedious task in the past, but new for 2010 is a totally revised (and abbreviated) FAFSA online application! The new form “auto fills” several redundant fields for you and estimated completion time is significantly less than the old form. The key to a smooth FAFSA completion is gathering all of the necessary information needed BEFORE logging in.
Of course you would like to receive some totally “free” money for graduate school. That means either a grant or scholarship that does not require repayment. Rest assured, those opportunities are out there, but they will not jump out and bite you. You will need to do some active searching to find these types of financial assistance. A great place to start is the academic department for your degree. They will have first-hand knowledge of scholarships and grants in your field. Another important stop is the financial aid office of your chosen institution. When I made this visit, I learned I was eligible for an “academic achievement” scholarship of $500 per semester of at least half-time enrollment, simply because my cumulative undergraduate GPA was 3.7 or higher. The award was not automatic. I had to fill out a one page application.
Searching the World Wide Web for other financial aid assistance should not be overlooked, although there is so much “noise” out there, it is often hard to discern what is legitimate. Be extremely wary of any program that requires you to pay out money to apply! At the same time, the Internet can be a great place to find a “niche” grant or scholarship, especially if you have something that makes you unique or identifiable with a certain group. Our local Sons of Norway fraternal organization awards generous scholarship money each year to local college students of Norwegian descent.
There are also options for both public and private student loans. If you qualify for the Stafford loan program, which is a federal direct loan, the benefits are hard to beat. You can get a needs-based loan for a fixed interest rate of 6.8% or less, and there is no re-payment required as long a you are enrolled at least half-time. The total amount you can borrow is based on the cost of attending your specific college or university, minus any other financial aid you will receive. Independent students may be eligible to borrow more because they are paying for college by themselves. Check with your school’s financial aid office for assistance in applying for a Stafford loan.
If you are currently teaching, don’t forget to check with your employer to find out what they can offer you. Most public school systems support and encourage their faculty in continuing education through stipends or assistance with tuition and books. If you are diligent, you should be able to secure the financial resources for your Master’s degree in Education using a combination of all of these resources. Best of luck!