College financial aid

College seniors eyeing graduate school need to get cracking if they're still trying to figure out how to pay for it.

For starters, they'll need to complete the Free Application for Federal Student Aid to qualify for federal Perkins loans, unsubsidized direct federal loans and Graduate Plus loans.


Students should also be knocking on campus financial aid office doors and academic departments to check on assistantships, fellowships, job-study programs, grants and scholarship opportunities.

Another option is to tap your bank. Private lenders usually offer more favorable terms to graduate students because they are less likely to default, a practice called "cream skimming," said Mark Kantrowitz, the publisher of Cappex, an online financial aid resource.

With all these financial strategies, the proverbial early bird almost always wins. That's something to think about when you consider that the cost of a graduate degree can cost anywhere from $30,000 to more than $100,000, according to various studies. And that's on top of whatever was spent on an undergraduate degree.

I get a lot of questions from readers on how to pay for grad school. Many parents haven't clearly established the ground rules with their college student on whether there will be any financial help beyond undergraduate school. Some people misunderstand the financial aid process or miss deadlines for filing key paperwork, and they miss out on scholarships and grants and wind up taking on more debt.

Here's the financial upshot for students pursuing grad school:

Be clear about your goals: Given the broad range of tuition, Joseph DePaulo, chief executive of College Ave Student Loans, recommends coming away with answers to the following questions: Is a big-name grad program the best option if it means borrowing up to your neck? Are there schools close to home so you can move back in with mom and dad? Should you work for a year or two before returning to school?

Run the cost-reward numbers: Know the job market, DePaulo said. Will a graduate degree help you stand out? "Do some research on the jobs you're planning on applying for and the companies you'd like to work for to better understand how your graduate degree will be valued," he said.

Ask for assistance: Many college financial aid offices have someone who specializes in grad school.

Don't spend money searching for scholarships: Plenty of quality information is available online for free. Check out several of the free scholarship matching services, such as StudentScholarshipSearch.com, Fastweb.com, CollegeBoard.com and Cappex.com, said David Levy, editor of Edvisors Network.

Check out tuition reimbursement and loan repayment programs: More employers are offering these benefits.

Plan ahead: Some college professors I've interviewed recommend students start doing their homework on grad schools by their junior year. That means checking on schedules for admissions tests, submitting applications and ballparking costs to attend.

Follow all the application instructions carefully: Don't be left out because you missed a deadline or failed to follow up to make sure your application materials made it into the proper hands.

Questions, comments, column ideas? Send an e-mail to srosen@kcstar.com.