By Lexie Little

When Grant Bauer decided to pursue his master’s degree at the University of Oklahoma last year, he adopted a plan to finance the degree.

His parents had helped him pay undergraduate tuition while he worked to fund everyday expenses and rent through part-time income. But he would need a strategy to fund graduate studies on his own.

Bauer returned to Oklahoma from New York City, where he had found work after completing his bachelor’s degree, when COVID-19 pandemic shutdowns created hybrid education opportunities. He now lives affordably with family while paying off initial graduate loans through odd jobs like substitute teaching and his graduate assistantship secured this spring.

However, he might have avoided paying some fees out of pocket had he known about funding opportunities like graduate, research and teaching assistantships in advance, he said.

“I didn’t know when the application dates were, I didn’t know when I could apply, so I missed the fall deadline,” Bauer said. “That would have been incredibly nice to know…OU has extended deadlines, so some of the grants and scholarships were already taken up.”

According to the National Center for Education Statistics, Bauer represents one of approximately 3.1 million graduate students enrolled in programs across America. One facet of education creates a conundrum for degree holders: how best to pay for a subsequent degree.

With many options to pay, such as savings, employer funding, graduate assistantships, tuition waivers, loans, work study, university employment and scholarships, finding the right combination poses individual challenges.

Don Martin, founder of consulting group Grad School Road Map, advises potential students to check program financial aid websites before applying.

“Many students wait to do this until after they find out whether or not they’ve been admitted,” Martin said. “The reason that can be a mistake is that there are many graduate institutions that offer major scholarships or fellowships programs to their students for which you apply when you’re applying for admission.”

Martin also said some universities allow employees to obtain graduate degrees for reduced or waived tuition. University employment helped him pay for his masters and doctoral degrees.

In addition to program and university funding, outside sources like the U.S. Department of Education (www.ed.gov) and some civic or state programs also offer grants and scholarships. Martin suggested prospective students should check their credit scores before filing any aid or loan applications to avoid potential rejection. Lenders and aid offices use credit scores to determine who qualifies for loans and appropriate interest rates.

Casey Lapham, a Master of Business Administration student based in Dallas, said she recognized through her business studies that economic trends are reducing interest rates, which makes borrowing money cheaper. She said pandemic trends might work to the advantage of potential students.

“The interest rates on student loans in 2021 are about to reach an all-time low since the 1980s,” Lapham said. “I think it’s dropping below 3%, which is a really phenomenal rate if you’re going to compare it to any other rate.”

Studentaid.gov currently lists federal undergraduate loan rates at 2.75% and graduate at 4.3%. With lower financial barriers, students position themselves to enter degree programs by avoiding initial costs previously tied to the application process.

Many schools suspended testing requirements like the Graduate Record Exam (GRE), which normally costs $205, during the pandemic. However, Lapham warned applicants to look beyond tuition costs and application fees.

“You cannot always be aware of what you’re getting in to,” she said. “Recognize there’s added fees, there’s added little sticker prices here and there for books or any of that. That will add up to a much larger number.”

Lexie Little is a master’s student in journalism at the University of Georgia.