Graduate school can be expensive. On top of tuition, you typically need to cover the cost of books and living expenses. At the same time, you may be juggling undergrad student debt.
One way to ease costs is to get a graduate assistantship. If you’re not familiar with the concept, a graduate assistantship is a salaried employment opportunity for graduate students. Graduate assistants work a set number of hours per week and, in return, receive a tuition waiver and/or a monthly living stipend.
Securing a graduate assistantship can buoy finances and boost connections. Read on to learn how graduate assistantships work and how to find one.
What Is a Graduate Assistant?
Graduate assistants are students enrolled in graduate or professional schools who assist departments or professors in a teaching, research, or administrative capacity. A graduate assistant might be paired with a professor who is actively engaged in research or work that might complement their career goals or current focus.
Graduate assistantships often benefit both the university and the student. The university is able to fill positions that might be more costly if filled by a traditional employee. The student typically receives a tuition waiver, monthly stipend, and/or a fixed sum of money to help them pay for graduate school. Some programs may also offer class credit for these jobs.
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Things to Consider
Overall, graduate assistant programs are meant to offer value to potential students, and to defray at least a portion of the costs associated with pursuing a graduate degree.
When combined with scholarships, grants, and other financial awards, becoming a graduate assistant can make the costs of grad school more manageable. Some schools also offer tuition waivers — for some or all of the tuition — for qualifying graduate assistants.
Compensation packages vary depending on the school but tuition waivers are more commonly offered to graduate assistants who are employed by the school already, have financial or other hardships, or are veterans (or the spouse or dependent of a veteran).
Graduate assistantships that offer tuition waivers are often competitive, so it can be a good idea to explore the assistantship options offered by your college or department and apply as early as possible.
Another thing to keep in mind: A stipend typically counts as taxable income, though it isn’t considered wages (which means you won’t pay Medicare or Social Security taxes on it). So while assistantships do bring in some extra money, Uncle Sam will collect a portion of it.
As for tuition waivers, graduate assistants can exclude up to $5,250 worth of educational assistance benefits from their income each year, according to the IRS.
Also keep in mind that many universities prefer it if graduate assistants don’t seek additional, outside employment. It’s a common policy intended to protect a graduate student’s limited bandwidth — being a full-time student with an assistantship can feel like having two full-time jobs. Adding an additional part-time job on top of that could become too much of a strain.
Recommended: Finding & Applying to Scholarships for Grad School
Tips on How to Become a Graduate Assistant
How you go about becoming a graduate assistant will depend on the program and school. Acceptance letters often include at least some initial information pointing students toward any financial aid or assistantship the program might be offering.
You can also explore graduate assistantship opportunities by looking at the school’s or department’s website, as well as websites of professors. In addition, you can check the school’s job boards and social media sites, and even just do an online search using the name of your intended school and the phrase “graduate assistant.”
What if You Need More Funding?
Stipends and/or tuition waivers that come with graduate assistantships can make graduate school more affordable. However, if you still have gaps in funding, you may want to explore scholarships, grants, and federal or private student loans.
Graduate and professional students can apply for federal Direct PLUS Loans. Eligibility is not based on financial need, but a credit check is required.
Graduate and professional students may also apply for Direct Unsubsidized Loans; again, eligibility is not based on financial need.
To apply for federal loans for graduate school, you simply need to complete the Free Application for Federal Student Aid, or FAFSA.
Because graduate students face some of the highest federal student loan interest rates, and loan origination fees, you may also want to look into private graduate school loans and compare offers. Just keep in mind that private student loans don’t come with same protections, such as forbearance and forgiveness programs, offered by federal student loans.
💡 Quick Tip: Need a private student loan to cover your school bills? Because approval for a private student loan is based on creditworthiness, a cosigner may help a student get loan approval and a lower rate.
Getting a graduate assistantship position can help cover the often high-cost of graduate school. These positions can involve being a teaching, administrative, or research assistant. Compensation may be in the form of a monthly stipend and/or a tuition waiver.
If you aren’t able to get a graduate assistantship, or you have secured one but it isn’t enough to fully cover your costs, you may want to look into other sources of graduate school funding, including private grants and scholarships and federal or private student loans.
If you’ve exhausted all federal student aid options, no-fee private student loans from SoFi can help you pay for school. The online application process is easy, and you can see rates and terms in just minutes. Repayment plans are flexible, so you can find an option that works for your financial plan and budget.
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