Can I pay for school without working?
February 2, 2018 12:23 AM   Subscribe

I'd like to go to school to become a mental health therapist. I currently write about mental health on my blog, am trying to get a volunteer job at a mental health hotline, and am hoping to start a peer support group. Both the Bachelors program and Masters program that I'm interested in will have internships. I'll have plenty to keep myself busy with even without having a job.

Can loans be enough to survive on while I'm in school? Adding a job on top of all of that stuff sounds overwhelming. I'm not even sure if it's possible, at least with the graduate program, because the graduate program has a very complicated schedule (there are occasionally also classes later in the afternoon/evening or on weekends). If loans aren't enough, is it possible to get a flexible, work from home job that I can work around classes and other commitments, such as data entry?

If you're not sure what to tell me, do you know if a school counselor or peer counselor would be able to help?
posted by Eevee to Education (10 answers total) 1 user marked this as a favorite
Also, the graduate program will have one of its internships and a couple of classes during the summer.
posted by Eevee at 12:45 AM on February 2, 2018

Surviving on student loans is definitely really hard, particularly in America, which is where I assume you are. The risk is that you can end up with more debt than you are able to easily pay off, especially if you work in a field like mental health where there's not much money. The people I know who are getting a degree in the US without also working are getting a combination of government assistance and scholarships, but those sound really complicated (at least when they explain them to me!), and there are lots of rules around who is eligible or not, and how you stay eligible.

It's worth asking yourself why you want the degree, as this might help you to focus your options. If it's to be able to work in mental health and help people, think about looking into places that hire peer support workers - basically they recognise that having lived through mental health difficulties is a qualification in itself, and is often better than anything on paper. I have a good friend who got a job this way - it was in the UK, but I bet there are openings like this in the US as well. On the other hand, you may want to gain deeper knowledge of, for example, the latest research, or to work in a specific way which you need the degree for. In that case, you'll need to spend a while putting together a financial plan, with as much help as possible from people who know about the system. There might be organisations near you that specialise in helping people with mental illness or disabilities put together a career plan - that would be a great place to start, as they can advise you on any difficulties you might not have thought about, and advise you on how to overcome them. There may even be extra bursaries or scholarships, or other assistance, that you can apply for because of your disabilities. Don't give up! The financials of education are a real headache, and worth planning for to avoid getting into some serious money trouble, but you sound like you're really clear about what you want and just need to spend some time filling in the details about how to get there.

You should link your blog in your Metafilter profile, by the way - I'd like to read it!
posted by Acheman at 2:16 AM on February 2, 2018 [3 favorites]

I worked at a University that gave tuition reimbursement to full-time employees. Several people did that, including me. You can take undergrad or grad courses. If you can get a job as an assistant in their social work/psychology department it would also help get your connections and exposure well underway. But even a position outside of that will be a great way to get started in University for almost free (you have to pay income tax on the tuition reimbursement). When you decide to go full time you may be able to swing a part-time job out of your position at some point.
posted by waving at 5:03 AM on February 2, 2018 [1 favorite]

It’s typical for people to take time off between undergrad and grad school. It’s an opportunity to get work experience in the field to be sure that’s what you really want to do, plus you can try to save money. Having work experience can also help increase your odds of getting into more competitive programs. Also, a lot of grad programs offer part time options so people can work full time while earning their degrees. And some employers, especially universities, include tuition remission as a benefit.

That said, I think you may be putting the cart before the horse. Take this one step at a time. It’s good to think ahead but there are a lot of things that can change so your plans should be flexible. For example, there are programs like debt forgiveness for public service employees where if you pay your loans and work in public service for a certain period of time (10 years?), the balance of your debt is forgiven. But that program gets threatened politically from time to time. So don’t worry about that right now - focus on what’s in front of you, then think about the next steps.
posted by kat518 at 5:56 AM on February 2, 2018 [1 favorite]

Do you have any undergraduate credits at all? If you don't, or have very few, and you're in the US, check out your local community college where you can take classes very cheaply that will transfer (make sure you pick courses that do) to a 4 year college. Do everything you can to avoid getting deeply into student loan debt, especially since you're going into a career in which you will not be making a whole lot of money. Talk with the financial aid people at the college of your choice. And yes, public service debt forgiveness.
posted by mareli at 5:58 AM on February 2, 2018 [2 favorites]

Yes, you can survive on loans. If you need more money than the Stafford limit, there is the Grad Plus loan. Your financial aid office has a yearly budget that includes tuition + living expenses, and you can borrow up to that amount.
posted by 8603 at 7:42 AM on February 2, 2018 [1 favorite]

You need to also look at education as an investment. Your ROI (return on investment) on your loans should be weighed against your potential earnings as a mental health therapist. School is expensive, the mental health field isn't known for being lucrative.

Now, I'm not saying you should not go down this road. The world needs more mental health workers, but for your own mental health you don't want to put yourself into indentured servitude. Trust me, I know. I spent decades paying off my student loans with a liberal arts degree. If I had it all to do over I'd do pretty much anything to avoid debt (I know, easier said than done, and I also know costs have dramatically increased since I was in college). Take on as little debt as you possibly can.

Try to monetize your blog, or take up freelance writing. Start a side hustle related to your field. Try to get the work/life balance correct, and perhaps take classes only half time to pace out the expense.
posted by cjorgensen at 9:04 AM on February 2, 2018 [3 favorites]

I expect to start a Masters program some time in the next few years. Undergrad education has more financial aid. I wish I had done this earlier, but, Life. If its what you really, really want to do, go to some grad school information events, talk to departments, get costs and financial aid info. Then do a budget.
posted by theora55 at 1:08 PM on February 2, 2018 [1 favorite]

Thanks, Acheman :) I put the link to my blog in my profile. I appreciate everyone's advice. I'll look into making money from my writing.
posted by Eevee at 3:53 PM on February 2, 2018

You should fill out FAFSA and find out what your financial aid would look like. Based on your previous posts, it seems likely that you qualify for substantial financial aid. If your education is completely covered by Pell grants and state grants (if you live in a state with those), which is totally possible for community college and some state universities, this will be much more doable. I obviously would encourage you to choose a more inexpensive college in order to follow this plan.
posted by hydropsyche at 4:31 AM on February 3, 2018 [1 favorite]

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