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The Hidden Costs of Graduate School

Socioeconomic and Class Issues in Higher Education
September 6, 2018 Steven Jenks University of Denver

If at any point in your career you have considered a graduate program in higher education, you probably had at least one mentor say "you shouldn't have to pay for your degree." This goes for undergraduates thinking about a masters program and future doctoral students, too. Ideally, that would be the case everywhere, but some great programs are not going to be completely free of tuition or you may need to work and do the program part-time. If you are lucky enough to find a program that covers your full tuition (usually in exchange for working an assistantship) - awesome! If you work in residential programs so you don't have to pay rent - even better! But this post isn't really about the tuition part because you know that up front. This post is about the other costs that sneak up on you or that you may not consider until it's too late to save for it. Which is also why this post is happening now and not in January. These tips reflect my own journey and I definitely wish I had considered some of these costs before embarking on a new educational journey.

Applying to Graduate School

Maybe not a complete secret here, but applying to graduate school is expensive. If you need to take the GRE, that now runs $160 if you are in the US and $190 internationally. Applications can range from free (YAY!) to over $100 per school. If you are successful in the paper portion of your application, you may need to visit colleges to interview for the program and/or assistantships. You may be fortunate enough to have an institution pay for your visit, but most programs do not fund your travel (silver lining - most will feed you). If you can make the trip, I definitely recommend seeing campus and meeting your future classmates. If you really cannot afford the trip, ask if there is a virtual option available. I have had many colleagues be successful in the interview processes without attending self-funded interview days. If you haven't interviewed in a while, you may want to invest in clothing for the interviews - wear what makes you comfortable, but there is a whole other post to unpack about classism and interview expectations.

For me, I knew the costs would be there and I was able to work overtime and save that money away for expenses. From September, when I took the GRE, to April, when I decided where to enroll, I spent about $1000 applying to four schools (accepted into two, visited one). When applying to my master's program, I spent maybe $300 total, but only applied to one school. There is a range. The point is that it adds up quickly if you are giving yourself options.

Moving to Graduate School

By far the biggest unexpected/inconvenient cost of going to graduate school is moving. If you're just coming out of undergrad, you don't have a lot of personal belongings or furniture, or you are heading to a housing position - you might not be in that much trouble. As 30-year-old who lived in apartments for the last six years, none of these caveats applied to me. And thus, a short tale that I feel is the epitome of "life isn't fair."

When you move from one place to another, you often have to pay rent/mortgage at two places at the same time, even if you only live in one place. In order to secure an apartment where I was moving, I had to put down a deposit, and pay the first month's rent when the unit was "available" or I would lose it and risk having to find another place. So on July 16th, nine days before I even wrapped up the job I was working 2000 miles away, I was paying rent for two apartments. It's 2018 and we work in education - one rent is hard enough. Oh and utilities, which also have fees for turning the utilities on. Then you have to pack up your place, which has little to do with finances but is definitely the worst part of starting a graduate program. How to get it all to the next location? My pro tip is to check out Budget. They have unlimited mileage for one-way trips and if you start a reservation and give them your email but don't complete it, you may get a decent coupon the next day to try and encourage you to choose them (I got 40% off!). If it's a really long drive and you want to be safe, you may need a hotel or two. And of course, the vehicle requires gas. And then your new place may need some furniture. Stick to the basics.

For my trip, I had a couple of tricks up my sleeve. I had three years of recruiting for a college which afforded me roughly eight bagillion Hilton Honors points, so I was able to stop along the way for free. I also had some Southwest Airline money from trips, so I drove a moving truck to my new place, and then flew back for a wedding and to get my car. And then drive. Across. America. Again. Second to packing, I hate long drives. But I love saving money more and this was cheaper than getting a truck bigger than I needed just to tow my car behind. So in all, I spent maybe $1800 on rental, gas, and food for two trips across the country. Small shout out to future Dr. Blayne Stone for letting me sleep at his place on my second journey. Lean on your friends! You get to see a familiar face and not have to stay at a hotel!

Waiting for Pay Day

My last apartment had a lease that ended on July 27th. As mentioned, I was already living the dream of having a "summer home in the Rockies" in the form of a vacant apartment waiting for me for two weeks already. So I worked my previous job until July 25th, and departed on the morning of the 27th so I could work as along as I could. Assistantships and financial aid, while awesome, often do not start when you want them to. For me, financial aid disburses early September and my first assistantship check will be October 1. OCTOBER. Essentially, I am unemployed for two months with a small birthday check from the federal government in between. Rent, insurance, food, and other costs start to add up. I am fortunate to have a partner who transferred jobs when we moved, so we do have SOME money coming in, but if you are moving alone, you need to be aware of when income will stop and start again. How much you save for this part is somewhat dependent on your lifestyle.

Tuition Fine Print

Okay, I said this wasn't about tuition, but I had to mention this pitfall because it was pretty significant. I am fortunate enough to have received a half-time assistantship as well as a scholarship that covered a full-time course load. This means that a full-time schedule is covered and I will get a small stipend every month as well. Sounds great, right? So, then registration time came and it turns out one of my required courses was one credit smaller than I expected so I would be one credit short of full time. This was known by the department, and so it was recommended that we all take one additional course to make sure we were full time. Then the surprise - any credits over full-time were my responsibility. At the doctoral level, that meant about $5000 of unmet tuition.

If a school offers you a tuition waiver, ask questions to make sure you fully understand what you are getting into. Does the waiver cover only graduate-level courses or only courses in your major area? Do you have to take a certain number of classes to qualify? Are there limits? Are there grade or work requirements to ensure you continue to get funded? Is the funding guaranteed for a certain time or do you have to reapply?

Final Thoughts

Any form of higher education is an investment in your future. With a little luck, institutions will be investing in your future too - but don't expect them to foot the full bill. The tips mentioned in this post were struggles I ran into going into my masters program, and then again going into my doctoral program (admittedly, I'm ashamed I didn't learn the first time). I didn't have significant savings or family support to help me overcome, but I am blessed with a good credit score and the ability to manage my credit card use appropriately for emergencies. Hopefully, these tips will help someone to plan and successfully navigate the graduate school process without taking on too much debt. And for mentors of future student affairs leaders out there, help them to plan for the practical aspects of life that get left out of classroom education.

Steve received his B.S. in African-American Studies at Florida State University and his M.S. in College Student Personnel from the University of Tenessee-Knoxville. He is currently pursuing his Ph.D. in Higher Education from the University of Denver, where he is a research assistant focusing on college access and affirmative action policies. He is the 2018-2020 Chair of the Socioeconomic & Class Issues in Higher Education Knowledge Community.