While a graduate certificate program is not as long or intense as a graduate degree, certificate programs can still be a significant commitment — both in terms of time and money. Some certificate programs may cost thousands of dollars, and there may be ongoing additional fees to consider, such as materials, exam fees, and professional association fees.
Not all certificate programs qualify for federal aid, although some may. There are financial aid avenues that can potentially help you afford your graduate certificate. Exploring options, plus the pros and cons of each, can help you decide which path is right for you.
Finding Financial Aid for Graduate Certificate Programs
Why do people take on a graduate certificate? They may be able to make more money with certain graduate certificates. More roles may be available to them, and compensation packages may be higher. In some fields, such as finance, employers may encourage their employees to obtain certificates to move up in their fields. In these cases, employers may provide financial assistance to pay for the certificate program.
Some people may obtain a graduate certificate with an eye toward completing additional coursework toward a master’s degree in the future. While some graduate certificates have discrete coursework unique to the certificate, other post-grad certificates have credits that may go toward a master’s degree. If you’re considering a grad degree, then it may be a good idea to explore what the coursework entails and whether you may be able to use those credits toward a master’s in the future.
If you’re planning on funding your graduate certificate yourself, it may be helpful to speak to people who have done the certification program to hear the pros, cons, and time commitment required. It can also be helpful to hear how other people have funded the certificate, because it could open up certain avenues, such as specific scholarships for that certificate that you may not have heard of yet.
Strategies to fund your graduate certificate include self-funding, funding from your employer, funding from scholarships, or a private student loan. Here, some of the considerations of all avenues.
Recommended: A Guide to Private Student Loans
Funding from Your Employer
In some cases, your employer may recommend you obtain a post-grad certificate. In other cases, you may need to ask your manager and go through your employer’s process for tuition reimbursement.
Pros of funding from your employer:
• Your employer is covering some or all of the financial burden.
• Your employer is invested in your career.
• You can be confident that the certificate will be useful to your future career path.
• There may be coworkers who have done the certificate as well as who can walk you through their experience as well as specifics about the HR process in getting the certificate funded.
Cons of funding from your employer:
• Balancing work and studying may be challenging.
• Your employer may have oversight into your success.
• You may be on the hook for the costs of the certificate if you leave or are terminated during a set period of time.
• You may still be responsible for part of the tuition, or for additional materials fees.
Free tuition is an obvious pro when it comes to having a certificate employer-funded. But other considerations come into play: How will you simultaneously manage work and studying? What happens if you don’t pass? And if you do accept employer funding, is there a contract that locks you into employment for a certain period of time? Knowing the stipulations can be helpful in managing expectations. And of course, talking to coworkers who have already done the program can be helpful in figuring out the ins and outs of how your specific employer expects you to complete the course and what they anticipate for your career future.
Funding from scholarships
Private scholarships may be available to help pay for the course. They may be issued by the institution granting the certificate. For example, the Certified Financial Planner (CFP® ) certificate, a popular financial certificate, has a host of scholarships presented on their website . These scholarships may be distributed by private foundations in honor or memory of certain people. Each scholarship may have specific requirements; some may be exclusive for people who demonstrate financial need, others may be exclusively focused on merit.
Pros of scholarships:
• Can help offset tuition costs.
• Can be gratifying to receive and provide motivation for success.
Cons of scholarships:
• Requires applications, which can be time-consuming to complete.
• May have admission requirements, such as being a U.S. citizen or already completing certain coursework. Money received may be contingent upon performance.
• Full amount of money may be contingent on performance.
• You may be required to declare the scholarship on your taxes; scholarships for non-degree.
programs are generally considered taxable. If that’s the case for you, consider putting aside money for taxes on the scholarship.
Scholarships can be great ways to cover the cost of your certificate. Research the certificate program you’re considering to uncover scholarship opportunities. Your alma mater’s career development office may also have leads for you to pursue.
Recommended: Finding & Applying to Scholarships for Grad School
Self-Funding a Certificate Program
Maybe you have savings set aside or maybe your family has offered to step up and cover the cost of your degree program. But if you have the funds, should you write the check?
Pros of self-funding:
• Seamless process. Write the check after you’ve been accepted, and you no longer need to worry about payment.
Cons of self-funding:
• The money used for the degree program may diminish your savings or emergency fund.
• Payment may come with strings if a family member is covering the program.
If you have the money to cover a certificate program and still have a comfortable emergency fund, then this option can be seamless. But if you’d need to decimate your emergency fund or use a credit card to cover the payment, then it could be a good idea to consider other options to cover the cost.
Student Loans for a Certificate Program
The fourth option is applying for student loans to cover the cost of a certificate program. Unlike a degree program, certificate programs are generally not eligible for student loans.
In the case that your certificate program is eligible for federal financial aid, it’s worth filling out the Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA®). This form will help determine your eligibility for federal aid, including federal student loans.
Recommended: Private vs Federal Student Loans
But private loans may be an option. Note that private student loans are not subject to the same requirements as federal student loans and don’t offer the same borrower protections, such as the option to pursue Public Service Loan Forgiveness or deferment protections. Be sure to shop around and read all the terms and conditions closely.
Pros of private student loans:
• Don’t need to dip into savings.
• Can compare private loans to find the lowest interest rate.
• A payback structure can make sense within your overall budget.
Cons of private student loans:
• Additional debt can be challenging to take on, especially if you’re not working.
• Depending on credit history, some lenders may require a cosigner.
How do you choose which company to get private student loans for a certificate program? In addition to checking your interest rate — which will not affect your credit score — you also may want to consider additional elements of the loan. Are there any additional fees? Are there any hardship clauses, if you were unable to make payments for a month? What does the payment structure look like?
In addition to comparing lenders, it can also be helpful to ask yourself some what-ifs. These include:
• How will these payments fit into my budget?
• What happens if I don’t obtain the job or payment bump I’m expecting along with my certificate?
• How will I budget to make sure that my loan payment doesn’t feel like a liability?
Because graduate certificate programs are generally less expensive than degree programs, loan terms may be shorter. Still, applying for any loan is a big deal, and it’s good to go through a few scenarios before you decide on the right avenue for you.
Even though they may seem lower-commitment than a full degree program, certificate programs have the potential to be time-consuming and expensive. Resources are available for payment, but some expenses, such as professional fees or exam fees, may not be covered under certain scholarships or by your employer. Understanding the full scope of expectations for tuition coverage and knowing how any payback terms may fit into your budget can be key for paying confidently for your certificate program.
If using a private student loan seems like an option for you, consider SoFi. There are no hidden fees on SoFi’s student loans and borrowers can choose from four repayment plans.
Photo credit: iStock/Jacob Ammentorp Lund
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