"Ask Brianna" is a Q&A column from NerdWallet for 20-somethings or anyone else starting out. I'm here to help you manage your money, find a job and pay off student loans — all the real-world stuff no one taught us how to do in college. Send your questions about postgrad life to email@example.com.
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Q: I want to get an advanced degree, but I'm not sure how to pay for it. How can I get financial aid as a graduate student?
A: When I was unhappy at my job in my mid-20s, I daydreamed about going back to school the way some people long for a vacation to Costa Rica. I wanted to spar intellectually with professors instead of eating sad, solo lunches at my desk.
I know this makes me a big nerd, but I'm not the only one. Between 2014 and 2015, enrollment among first-time graduate students increased 3.9 percent at schools that responded to a recent survey by the Council of Graduate Schools . That was the fourth straight year of growth in graduate enrollment.
Before you run to the campus store to buy grad-school swag, make sure an advanced degree is right for you. Resources like PayScale's College Salary Report can show you what salary you might earn when you graduate. Ask professional connections in your chosen field about their career paths and scan job descriptions to see whether a graduate degree is required.
Once you've committed to grad school, paying for it isn't easy, especially if you don't have a ton of savings or help from your parents. I went to grad school for journalism in 2013 on the cheap by getting in-state tuition and generous scholarships from a city school. You can get financial aid and even student loan forgiveness, depending on your field — you just have to know where to look. Here are three ways to get help paying for grad school.
ASK FOR TUITION REIMBURSEMENT AT WORK
If you plan to continue working when you go back to school, find out whether your company will help pay for your degree. More than three-quarters of U.S. employers that responded to a 2015 survey by the International Foundation of Employee Benefit Plans said they provide educational assistance to workers. Survey respondents most frequently offered an annual benefit valued at $5,000 to $6,999.
This perk often takes the form of tuition reimbursement, which means you'll pay for your program upfront and receive a lump sum to pay for education expenses after your grades have posted. If you can't pay all your tuition in one go, ask the school if it will let you pay in installments. Make sure you understand all the rules and limitations of your company's program. You might have to return the funds if you leave within a year of completing your coursework, for instance.
On the job hunt? Negotiate for tuition reimbursement when you receive a job offer if it's not already on the table, says Mary G. Morris, chief executive officer of Virginia529 College Savings Plan, an independent state agency that helps families plan and pay for college.
FILL OUT THE FAFSA
The Free Application for Federal Student Aid, the elaborate financial aid form that plagued your college years, is back — and it's just as important now as it was then. Graduate students who attend school at least half time are eligible for federal student loans, federal grants aimed at prospective teachers , and work-study funds, which you'll have access to only if you fill out the FAFSA .
A few things have changed since undergrad: You're considered an independent student now, so your parents' income and assets won't affect how much financial aid you receive. You can borrow up to $20,500 a year in federal unsubsidized loans , which is more than you had access to in college. Look for ways to reduce your living expenses or work part time to avoid overborrowing and getting a shocker of a loan bill when you graduate.
The FAFSA for the 2017-18 school year is available now, so you won't have to wait until Jan. 1 as in years past. You can also use your income from 2015, which means you won't have to wait to do your 2016 taxes to add your financial information to the form.
LOOK FORWARD TO FORGIVENESS OR REFINANCING
Graduate school might help you switch careers, like I did, or increase your earning power in your chosen field. It's an investment in your future — and if that means taking out loans, in some cases, you'll be able to find relief later through student loan forgiveness or refinancing.
If you work for the government or a 501(c)(3) nonprofit organization, the Public Service Loan Forgiveness program will eliminate your federal student loan balance tax-free after you make 120 monthly loan payments, or 10 years' worth if you make the payments consecutively. Teachers have access to federal loan forgiveness if they work in certain school districts or teach particular subjects.
Workers at for-profit companies with solid incomes and good credit can refinance their student loans at lower interest rates through private lenders. Those with graduate degrees are often particularly good candidates for refinancing. But know that you'll lose various forgiveness and repayment benefits if you refinance federal student loans; refinancing private loans is a safer bet.
This column was provided to The Associated Press by the personal finance website NerdWallet.
Brianna McGurran is a staff writer at NerdWallet. Email: firstname.lastname@example.org. Twitter: @briannamcscribe.
PayScale: College Salary Report http://www.payscale.com/college-salary-report/majors-that-pay-you-back/graduate-degrees
Federal Student Aid: Get Help Paying for College https://fafsa.ed.gov/
Federal Student Aid: Public Service Loan Forgiveness https://studentaid.ed.gov/sa/repay-loans/forgiveness-cancellation/public-service
NerdWallet: How to Refinance Your Student Loans (Told in Under 350 Words) https://nerd.me/6-nerdwallet-studentloans