In this article:
Getting a master's degree can be a way to expand your horizons and possibly land a better job and a higher salary. But while master's degree programs can be completed more quickly than it takes to earn an undergraduate degree, you can expect to pay more.
If you're considering a master's degree, it's important to know what to expect in terms of the cost and how to handle your expenses and student loans. Here's what you should consider.
The Average Cost of a Master's Degree
On average, tuition and fees for a master's degree cost $66,300, according to the Education Data Initiative. Because there are so many types of graduate programs out there, the averages can vary based on the program you choose and the school you attend.
For example, getting a master's degree at a public university costs $54,500 on average, while the same degree from a private school runs $81,100 on average, according to the Education Data Initiative. And here's what you might expect based on the program type.
|Master's Degree Costs by Program|
|Type of Degree||Average Tuition Costs|
|Master of Education||$55,200|
|Master of Arts||$72,800|
|Master of Science||$62,300|
|Master of Business Administration||$66,300|
Source: Education Data Initiative
Note that these costs include only tuition and fees. While universities typically don't break down the total cost of attendance for graduate programs, you should also consider the cost of textbooks, supplies, equipment, room and board, transportation and other living expenses you'll incur while you're studying.
How Many Students Take Out Student Loans to Get a Master's Degree?
According to the National Center for Education Statistics, the proportion of master's degree students who took out student loans and their total debt amounts for the 2015-16 academic year—the latest year for which data is available—varied by the type of school they attended. Here's a breakdown:
|The Number of Master's Degree Students With Student Loans|
|School Type||Percentage of Students With Debt||Average Debt Amount|
|Private nonprofit school||60%||$71,900|
|Private for-profit school||71%||$90,300|
It's easy to see that your choice of school has a significant impact on your total costs and how much debt you'll end up with upon graduation. As such, it's important to take your time to research your options to find the program and school that will give you the most value.
How to Pay Off Master's Degree Student Loans
You can generally expect to earn a higher salary after you've obtained a master's degree, but that's not always the case. Additionally, expected salaries can vary wildly depending on the program you choose and your career path.
Regardless of what your financial situation will look like after graduation, here are some tips to help you pay down your master's degree debt.
Student Loan Forgiveness and Loan Repayment Assistance Programs
If you decide to work for a government agency or eligible nonprofit organization after graduation, you may qualify to apply for the Public Service Loan Forgiveness program. This program offers forgiveness of your entire balance after 120 qualifying monthly payments on an income-driven repayment plan, among other requirements.
If you're a teacher, you may also be eligible for the Teacher Loan Forgiveness program, which offers up to $17,500 in forgiveness after five years of teaching at an eligible school.
You may also be eligible for various student loan repayment assistance programs. There are several programs offered by federal and state governments for health professionals, teachers, military service members, public defenders and more.
Take some time to research these programs to see whether you're eligible and what you need to do to qualify. If you're planning to work for a private company, look for employers that offer student loan repayment as an employee benefit.
Get on an Income-Driven Repayment Plan
If you're having a hard time keeping up with your student loan payments, an income-driven repayment plan may help. These federal repayment plans can cut your student loan payment to 10% to 20% of your discretionary income. They also extend your repayment term to 20 or 25 years; after that, any remaining balance is forgiven.
This option won't help you pay down your debt faster, but it can help out at the start of your career if your income isn't sufficient to pay your student loans on top of your other necessary expenses.
Add Extra Payments Every Month
In the event that your salary is high enough that you have extra room in your budget, consider adding extra payments every month. With the debt snowball or debt avalanche method, you can accelerate your monthly payments, helping you pay down your debt faster and saving you hundreds or even thousands of dollars on interest.
Even if you can't afford to pay extra every month, you may consider putting a portion of your annual tax return or performance bonuses from work toward your student loans to speed things up a little.
Refinance Your Student Loans
Refinancing student loans with a private lender could potentially help you secure a lower interest rate, particularly because graduate student loans typically have higher interest rates than undergraduate loans.
That said, the best candidates for student loan refinancing are typically those with a credit score in the upper 700s and a near six-figure income. That doesn't mean you won't qualify if you don't meet those criteria, but you may have a harder time getting favorable enough terms.
It's worth it to shop around and get prequalified with some lenders to get rate quotes—this process typically only takes a few minutes and won't hurt your credit score. That way, you can decide for yourself if refinancing is right for you.
Refinancing could also potentially give you more flexibility with your repayment term, with many lenders offering between five and 20 years.
That said, if you're refinancing federal student loans, you will lose access to certain benefits, including income-driven repayment plans, forgiveness programs and others. If you're confident you won't need them, refinancing may be a good option. Otherwise, it may be better to keep your loans where they are.
How to Borrow Less for a Master's Degree
Having a plan for your student loan debt after you graduate is important, but part of your strategy should also be to limit how much you borrow in the first place. Here are some steps you can take to limit or even eliminate your need for student loans to get through your master's degree program.
Skip the Expensive Schools
While certain schools charge more for a master's program, they don't necessarily provide a better education or better prospects upon graduation.
It's crucial to take your time to compare multiple universities and determine which can provide you with the most bang for your buck. In addition to tuition costs, also look into whether the school provides financial aid based on merit or financial need. Even with higher costs, a school may be less expensive after taking aid into account.
Take a Gap Year
Many college students jump into their master's degree right after completing their bachelor's degree. However, taking a break for a year or two can give you a chance to save some money to cover a good chunk of your tuition costs.
Additionally, a break between the two programs can give you some time to get some real-world experience and decide what you want to do with your career. And if you're planning to attend a school out of state, moving there ahead of time can help you establish residency and qualify for reduced in-state tuition.
Apply for Other Financial Aid
Federal grants aren't as abundant for graduate students as they are for undergraduate students, but if you're going into education, you could be eligible for a TEACH Grant, which offers up to $4,000 per year.
Additionally, you can look into other financial aid opportunities, such as fellowships, assistantships and scholarships offered by your school. To maximize your chances of getting assistance, be sure to fill out the Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA).
You'll also want to look for scholarships and grants offered by private organizations. To do this, use scholarship websites like Scholarships.com, Fastweb, Unigo, Chegg and Scholly, which can give you access to millions of opportunities for aid.
Attend Part Time
Some graduate students attend school part time while they continue to work a full-time job. This can add some stress to your situation, especially because it extends the amount of time you're working on your degree.
But if you don't have a lot of other options and avoiding student loans is a top priority for you, it could be the right move.
Build and Monitor Your Credit to Improve Your Financial Opportunities
If you're planning to refinance your student loans at some point or you simply want access to better credit when you graduate, it's important to focus on building your credit score while you're in school.
Experian Go™ is a free program that can help you create an Experian credit report and track your progress with your FICO® Score☉ as it becomes available. With the right strategy and regular monitoring, you'll be in a better position upon graduation to achieve major financial milestones, such as buying a house or a car. It can also improve your chances of getting low insurance rates and even help you get certain jobs.