Best way to get in grad school for almost nothing?
August 4, 2014 7:17 PM   Subscribe

I'm trying to go to grad school, but don't want to be straddled with debt. Snowflake details inside.

I'm currently unemployed and struggling to find a job, and the university near me has a good graduate program that I feel would be a perfect fit for me. I was told by the director of the program that it was too late to be admitted to the program, but I could apply as a special student and take 1-2 classes until I was admitted into the program as a student next fall (2015).

The thing is, I'm already about $35k deep in student loans for my undergraduate studies. I also can't get vocational rehabilitation support for grad school (I'm Deaf, so I'm eligible for vocational rehabilitation support, but they don't support graduate school), so that option is out.

Is there any way I can get free grants/financial aid that isn't in the form of loans, especially at such short notice (school begins at the end of this month)? As I'd be taking 1-2 classes, that wouldn't be full time, and may not even be part-time, so I'm not sure how that works.

Hope you can help me figure out possibilities. I'll be happy to answer any questions I can.
posted by dubious_dude to Education (22 answers total) 7 users marked this as a favorite
What subject would the graduate study be in, and what degree would you be aiming for?
posted by ClaireBear at 7:32 PM on August 4, 2014

A lot of whether this is a good decision depends on what sort of program you want to do and how lucrative your job prospects are when you get out. There are very few grants and scholarships for graduate school, period. If you don't want to pay for it, the military and having your employer pay for it are the traditional routes to take. Those don't sound like options for you, so you'll have to weigh whether it makes sense to take out loans and whether your job prospects upon graduation will make it easy to pay them back. Whatever you do, don't start early if your only options are private loans.
posted by quince at 7:33 PM on August 4, 2014

Response by poster: Public Administration (MPA), to answer your question.

I thought there were automatic grants for independent (25+) adults? I may have been mistaken, never really understood how all that worked.
posted by dubious_dude at 7:41 PM on August 4, 2014

I'd say especially if you were just looking at one year worth of part-time classes, I'd just take the loans. It looks like a lot, but with income-based repayment, I've got a hell of a lot more than that thanks to my law school boondoggle and I still feel pretty okay about it. But this raises a couple of red flags for me--in particular, are they going to guarantee you admission and funding for 2015? Because unless this is law/medical/business school, the usual rule is that they pay you, you don't pay them. There are times where this can be pretty much a sure thing--I did my Master's in Accounting at a place where they used a point system for admission and I knew I had enough points for both admission and funding. But I don't think most places do this? I could be wrong. A small quantity of loans to cover just a couple classes before getting funding is a very different thing from doing it and then discovering that you now have to fund a whole degree program, or that you haven't even gotten in.

Also, well, okay, I've seen people do grad school in the face of unemployment a lot of times, and it rarely goes well, but even assuming that it's really that good a fit? You have to pull a minimum number of credit hours to qualify for federal financial aid. I think you even have to be admitted to a degree-granting program, though I might be wrong. So that might not actually be on the table, but if it is, there might be work-study available? You'd have to contact the institution to ask about that. The chances of work-study being enough to cover both your tuition and living expenses seem slim to me, and as an undergrad I got awarded it and was not able to actually find on-campus employment to get it, so that's an issue. The non-loan federal aid available to graduate students is much less than to undergrads; even the loans don't have the same favorable terms.

In general, though, this is probably a poor substitute for finding a job between now and then, no matter how much trouble you're having finding a job. I agree, definitely do not do private loans under any circumstances.
posted by Sequence at 7:43 PM on August 4, 2014

Is there any way I can get free grants/financial aid that isn't in the form of loans, especially at such short notice (school begins at the end of this month)?
These things take much longer than a few weeks to apply and be awarded. The disbursements are not immediate, either.

This also sounds like a not good idea, but you didn't ask that.
posted by sm1tten at 7:47 PM on August 4, 2014 [1 favorite]

Response by poster: I graduated with a very general BA degree - Communication Studies. I've been struggling to find a job, and some of my friends suggested I pursue a MA to help bolster my chances of finding a good job. When my university recently introduced a MPA in Public Administration, I knew that would be a good fit for me (I love working with people, I'm good with technology and organization, etc). That's why I wanted to join this program, but admission had closed for this fall, hence where I'm at now.

So, to be clear, I'd be better off waiting until 2015, when at least I'd either be in fully, or not... and from there, try to find financial aid? If I can take the needed classes this fall, that would maybe expedite my time in the program?
posted by dubious_dude at 7:52 PM on August 4, 2014

IAAP (albeit certainly not a P in PA). Be aware that, depending on the field, it can be difficult-to-impossible to get full funding for an MA from a university, especially if said university grants doctorates. Master's-level degrees are generally treated as cash cows for the campus. Most campuses will not give any sort of $ to non-matrics (what you would be if you took courses prior to formal enrollment), although taking courses as a non-matric can speed up your time in the program, yes. That being said, check with the department, because there may well be a cap on the # of classes you can transfer from non-matric status.

If you go the external grants route, you will need to apply this year in order to qualify for next year. Those funds are almost never available during the same year. I'd suggest checking to see if the university/department offers TAships, RAships, or tutorial positions that come with tuition remission, at the very least.
posted by thomas j wise at 7:56 PM on August 4, 2014

Here is the information from the federal government on their programs. It looks like the only grants from the Dept of Education is for people going into teaching. There are also links to some other sites that could be helpful.

I would definitely check with the PA department and/or financial aid department at the school. I know of some master's programs in other areas that have loan forgiveness programs for people who agree to serve in under-served communities. No idea if that would apply to you or not.
posted by metahawk at 8:09 PM on August 4, 2014

some of my friends suggested I pursue a MA to help bolster my chances of finding a good job.

This a generally a flawed premise. Unless a masters or advanced degrees is barrier due to certification requirements or other professional standards a graduate degree isn't the ticket to the first job. A quick search found this report from NASPAA. Toward the middle, there's a salary comparison for people before and after getting their MPA from Wells School at U Wash. Wells, like other competitive schools, selects students with prior professional experience.

Here's the brutal truth. When you finish your MPA you will be competing with all the other freshly minted MPAs. Those with relevant prior experience will be hired first and at better salaries. Does your school carries such incredible prestige that you are guaranteed a high wage job upon graduation?

If Public Ad is a great fit, then spend this year getting relevant experience - even as an unpaid intern in a non-for-profit. Apply to a few MPA programs and spend the year chasing every possible scholarship with your financial aid office.
posted by 26.2 at 8:27 PM on August 4, 2014 [5 favorites]

My understanding is that terminal masters programs like the MPA typically do not have the same institutional funding that other graduate programs that lead to the PhD do and that most people who enroll in them rely mostly on loans to pay the tuition. (The Woodrow Wilson School at Princeton is a notable exception to this--they appear to have a fully funded MPA program). Please, please make sure you understand the details of how financial aid is going to work/who's going to pay for it before you start--I speak from bitter experience here. I think it is very unlikely that you'll get school-based aid as a non-degree student, and I think you have to be enrolled in a degree program with a certain number of credit hours to get Federal aid.

The independent adults thing you mention, I think basically relates to whether the university can take your parents' income into account when calculating your financial need. People who are independent students tend to have fewer resources so they often qualify for more need-based grant aid (this was actually a big factor for me in terms of keeping my student loans manageable), but I don't think there's any kind of automatic grant or a specific amount you could count on, and again, I think that any institutional support would require you to actually be enrolled in the program.

I would also put some effort into making sure that if you were to take a few classes ahead, you're not inadvertently putting yourself out of sequence in the program--smaller programs often have a lockstep approach to sequential courses.

Finally, I have a couple of concerns about the program. You say it's a new program. The alumni network of MPA/MBA programs is, like, 50% of the value of the degree, and it sounds like there is no alumni network yet. That's going to be a problem when you graduate and start looking for a job. The second issue is that this is a management program. People enroll in these to come out at the end with the skills necessary to run a public sector office. Not having any (or very little) work experience is going to be a negative factor in your application and it's going to be hard to overcome the lack of work experience with a degree after graduation.

Honestly, I would spend this year continuing to look for a job, volunteering somewhere interesting, doing a lot of informational interviewing with people who have the kinds of jobs you think you might like to have one day, and getting your ducks in a row to enroll in an MPA program for 2015 if you think that's something that might be useful to you.
posted by The Elusive Architeuthis at 8:48 PM on August 4, 2014 [4 favorites]

As someone in public administration (and currently doing my Masters), I second what The Elusive Architeuthis says.

MPAs are generally not like undergrad degrees. They're about taking what you already know,and combining that with academic knowledge and discussions with your peers to better prepare you for your next job. The experience you come in with, and the calibre of your classmates, can make a material difference to how much you learn.

Without work experience, you'll almost certainly find it tougher to get into the course (and if they're letting people in with no work experience, that lowers the quality of your cohort, which lowers the calibre of your experience there since you learn a lot from your classmates), and much harder to get a job afterwards - you'll be overqualified for entry-level positions but lack the experience for anything more senior. You'll also find that many classes will encourage you to apply what you're learning to your past experience, and if you haven't got that, then you won't be getting nearly as much out of the classes as you could be.

To link this back to your question, if you can find a way to do it free/cheaply, then go for it. But don't take out more loans.
posted by une_heure_pleine at 9:09 PM on August 4, 2014

Response by poster: Hopefully this doesn't come at the risk of derailing this thread, or being too off-topic, but I also thought about pursuing a 2nd BA degree in Business. If so, how would I go about getting grants for this? Same timeframe (end of this month).

Thanks, and sorry for the treadsit!
posted by dubious_dude at 9:12 PM on August 4, 2014

Sorry if this isn't helpful, but for a second BA, I'm not sure a general Business degree would do much for you. Areas I can think of that would, and, unlike the MPA or MBA, don't so much rely on existing experience or networks for employability, are the regulated health care professions (nursing, OT, SLP, etc), accounting, and maybe health care administration. I wonder if the last might be of interest? Might be a way of combining a service orientation with technology, and obviously, organization. Salaries look good according to this. I would imagine a master's would be out of pocket, but don't know.
posted by cotton dress sock at 9:57 PM on August 4, 2014

Response by poster: Business and accounting are the only two majors offered at my university. I could go to another university, yes, but I'd prefer the university I want, due to direct communication (it's a Deaf university). It also helps me feel motivated, if that makes sense.

How would financial grants or help be possible? It'd be my second BA degree.
posted by dubious_dude at 10:15 PM on August 4, 2014

In many ways volunteering is like grad school. You want experience? Join a city committee. Commit to volunteering at a bike collective. Serve on a food co-op board of directors. These types of volunteer positions are accessible-to-you roles that are always in need of committed people. You get what you put in, but you can definitely develop strong skills this way.

A bonus? No debt. Plus it's fun.

I don't know about grad school, but as a low-income over-25 BA student, my tuition was covered.
posted by aniola at 10:26 PM on August 4, 2014

Response by poster: aniola, so forget graduate school. How can I get my tuition covered for a 2nd BA degree? I'm over 25 and low-income.
posted by dubious_dude at 10:51 PM on August 4, 2014

The Elusive Architeuthis makes a lot of important points, especially about how MA (or MPAs) students are often not funded, unlike PhDs who are much more likely to receive teaching or research assistantship positions which cover tuition and/or pay a small stipend. What Sequence mentioned about "the usual rule is that they pay you, you don't pay them" is not really correct for many MA programs and in many more "professional" oriented fields, which is how Public Administration is treated at many university's. Ask professors or head of dept. for specific details about the assistantships available, what fees/tuition they cover, if they pay anything additional and for how long they are awarded (some programs may say, we'll only give you an assistantship for one year and you're left with the cost for the 2nd or 3rd years. definitely something to put in your calculations before thinking about enrolling).

The other important point is that you need to do more research about whether this fledgling program will provide the value for your money/time/energy. Talk to more professors and students, have they graduated an MPA class yet to even evaluate where and if alums are able to get jobs? Does the program provide opportunities for you to get professional exp. through internships while you're in school (and do they have connections with places you might like to intern/work)?

Based on what you've said, it does not sound like a good idea to pay out of pocket for this degree just because it "sounds like a good fit" in theory. Unemployment is a grind, but I don't think you should rush into this and find it's not going to pay off later. As others have mentioned, funding takes time to find and apply for (not just a few weeks.)

It sounds like your university may be small/unique, but one other thing you can do instead of enrolling right away (in addition to continuing your job search and gaining work experience through other means like volunteering) is focus your job search on getting employed at the university if they offer a tuition reduction for employees. This may be a long shot but is worth looking into.

On preview, I see you are going to "forget graduate school", but I'll post this anyway for posterity...
posted by dahliachewswell at 10:58 PM on August 4, 2014

Is your question more correctly stated as: Because of its unique support for deaf students, I want to stay in this particular university in some fashion - how do I do that?

If that's the question, then go visit the financial aid office tomorrow. They can tell you what's available in terms of loans. If there are any grant funds available at this point Financial Aid will know. Merit and endowed scholarships are awarded much earlier in the year and are very likely gone.

However, in your spot I'd look for a job on campus to stay there. Taking out additional debt without a clear plan toward a career is just pushing your problem down the line.
posted by 26.2 at 11:05 PM on August 4, 2014

Response by poster: B1tr0t - what's a good recommendation to get started with obtaining a MBA?
posted by dubious_dude at 12:10 AM on August 5, 2014

I think you're missing the larger gist of most commenter's arguments, which is that more education is not what you need right now. Unless you are trying to get a specific job that requires a specific degree, you're going to end up posting this question again in 2-3 years, having wasted your time and earning potential even if you find a school that is totally free.

To answer your latest question, I would start by getting hired at a company that will eventually finance your MBA. That sounds glib, but MBAs can actually be a burden if you get them without any experience, or from a school that doesn't provide you with a strong network - it over-qualifies you for some jobs and makes people expect you have real life experience that you don't. Many top schools won't accept people without a few years of business experience.

To get to the point where you have a job that is financing your MBA, I'll n-th the recommendation to start volunteering. If you really have the itch to learn and increase your skill set, check out free online universities.
posted by fermezporte at 5:02 AM on August 5, 2014 [4 favorites]

There are many more bad reasons to go to grad school than good ones, and I think that one of the worst is because you can't find a job. All you are going to do is dig yourself deeper into debt, with no guarantee that it'll be any easier to get a job after grad school. Expect your student loans to quadruple, because even if you get financial aid/grants/etc. you are still going to be paying for all living expenses out of pocket. Similar issues apply to getting a second BA.

I think you need to take a big step back and 1) focus on getting a job, any job if necessary and 2) get some experience working in the field of your choice, even if it's part time or volunteer work. Gaining more experience will both make you a more attractive grad school candidate and open the doors to getting you on your desired career track without having to drop a boatload of cash on more schooling.
posted by fox problems at 5:35 AM on August 5, 2014 [2 favorites]

Does your school have a career center? They should really be putting at least as much effort into helping to connect you to jobs with the degree you already have as they are trying to sell you on new degrees that may not make much of a difference in your employability. Maybe they have some hiring opportunities themselves.

An MBA with no significant career-track experience is not going to be very useful. I think that's the wrong approach and it could harm your future employment prospects. MBA programs worth their salt won't accept you without significant work experience. An additional BA or MPA or MBA when you're not already in a job that requires that degree to move up isn't a good investment.

I was just listening to a radio interview with a hiring manager from a large tech company (you know the one) and he said that if a current applicant is unemployed, it's not a deal-breaker. But, if the current applicant is unemployed and not volunteering, that's a deal-breaker. Volunteering and showing that you're doing something while job searching shows initiative and dedication to doing something to continue to build and refine skills. I agree with the posters above who keep suggesting volunteering. You can put it on your resume and you can also use it as a networking opportunity.
posted by quince at 5:32 PM on August 5, 2014

« Older How do I deal with my adolescent son's burgeoning...   |   New boss wants to hire his unqualified friend.... Newer »
This thread is closed to new comments.