Data: How Students Pay for Graduate School

Data: How Students Pay for Graduate School

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Several programs can support graduate education. In a survey conducted on U.S. doctorate recipients, doctorate respondents shared their primary source of financial support in graduate school. These were teaching assistantships, research assistantships, fellowships, own resources, employer, and others. 

In this article, we will discuss each of these financial sources for graduate studies funding.

Graduate Assistantship

Graduate assistantships support graduate students’ academic and professional development. A graduate assistantship provides you with the opportunity to gain working experience in teaching, research, or other activities. Furthermore, being a graduate assistant allows you to receive financial support for your graduate studies, including tuition fee remission and stipend.

According to the data from the survey of earned doctorates, around 43% of the doctorate respondents in the U.S. reported that the primary source of financial support for their graduate studies was graduate assistantships (teaching and research). This data suggest that most aspiring doctors rely on graduate assistantships to finance their doctorate program.

American universities have eligibility requirements for a graduate student to become a graduate assistant. If you apply for a graduate assistantship, you must be a full-time graduate student with good academic qualifications. Upon being granted the graduate assistantship position, you must demonstrate satisfactory progress in your educational program with a minimum grade point average (GPA) to maintain. Moreover, you should work 20 hours per week for full-time appointments and perform your duties as a graduate assistant. Though, some universities allow part-time positions with only 10 hours of weekly work assignments.

As a graduate assistant, the university supports you by paying for your tuition fees. Additionally, you are eligible to receive graduate assistantship stipends, where the amount varies depending on the university. In the University of Central Florida, a doctoral graduate assistant may earn as high as $18,000 per year, including a summer stipend of $4,500, for a full-time appointment. While a full-time graduate assistant admitted to a master’s degree program may receive $15,000 annually and a summer stipend of $3,750. A graduate assistant with a part-time appointment may receive half of the amounts mentioned.

Teaching Assistantship

A graduate teaching assistantship is a type of graduate assistantship with duties related to classroom instruction under the supervision of a graduate faculty member. Being a graduate teaching assistant requires you to assist in preparing lectures and examinations, lead reviews and group discussions, conduct laboratory activities, grade papers, and maintain records. 

Some graduate teaching assistants with a certain amount of completed graduate credit hours may be entrusted with the responsibility to teach in an undergraduate course and allowed to assess and evaluate student performance and even assign final grades. The subject department will provide graduate teaching assistants (instructor role) with detailed orientation and training programs for effective and quality instruction.

Research Assistantship

Other than teaching-related responsibilities, you can also apply for an assistantship position in the field of research. Graduate research assistantship is another graduate assistantship appointment that requires you to assist in research-related duties such as library research, preparation of reports, field studies, and laboratory research. 

Becoming a graduate research assistant provides you the opportunity to broaden your research knowledge and learn new research techniques and methods with the guidance of a faculty research supervisor within your academic discipline or from another department.


Another way to finance your graduate education is by securing a fellowship. Fellowship is the commonly used term for scholarship in graduate education. A fellowship is merit-based monetary support awarded to a graduate student scholar. Unlike graduate assistantships, fellowships do not require you with working hours for teaching or research-related duties. Having fellowship not only relieves you of financial burden but also allows you to focus on your graduate studies without work-related interruptions.

There are three major types of fellowships: 

  • Graduate Fellowships
  • Medical Fellowships
  • Postdoctoral Fellowships 

Graduate fellowships help graduate students pay for their university expenses. Typically, it covers tuition fees, living expenses, and health insurance. Medical fellowships are for medical practitioners who aim to receive further training within their specialization. Postdoctoral fellowships, on the other hand, support doctorates who aspire to further develop their competence in their expertise by devoting additional time to study and do research.

In the same survey conducted on U.S. doctorate recipients, 26% of the doctorate respondents reported fellowships/dissertation grants as their primary source of financial support in graduate school. The report suggests that fewer doctorates were fortunate enough to obtain a fellowship to fund their graduate education compared with graduate assistantships.

Applying for a fellowship is exceptionally challenging as it is granted based on academic credentials. You will have to compete with other applicants from other colleges or universities. Graduate students with the finest academic accomplishments are most likely to be accepted into a fellowship program.

In most universities, graduate students granted a fellowship must be enrolled full-time and maintain good academic performance. Furthermore, each fellowship program has specific qualifications. For instance, the GEM Fellowship Program supports graduate students accredited to an engineering or computer science master’s degree program with full tuition fee payment, including a minimum stipend of $16,000 for the entire program and paid summer internships. The American Dissertation Fellowship program of the American Association of University Women (AAUW) offers a $20,000 dissertation grant to doctoral women students at an accredited institution with complete coursework and an approved dissertation research proposal.

Own/Family Resources

Not all aspiring graduate students can secure financial support from a program or an institution. The data from the survey of earned doctorates showed that one out of four (25%) research doctorate respondents uses their own/family resources to fund their graduate school expenses. These resources include personal savings, loans, financial support from one’s spouse and family, and earnings from non-academic employment.

Pursuing graduate studies in any university is quite expensive. If you have enough personal savings or a family member that can readily support your desire for advanced education in graduate school, then you will likely have no problem paying any incurred expenses along the way. However, if these resources are unavailable to you, another option for you is to apply for student loans or do non-academic part-time jobs.

Student Loans

A student loan is a borrowed money from either the federal government or private sources such as banks, credit unions, or other organizations to be repaid with interest. Most students in both undergraduate or graduate studies prefer federal student loans to private loans as they are generally cheaper and include benefits such as fixed interest rates and income-driven repayment plans. Federal student loans also offer you different loan programs with varying eligibility requirements and amounts of money that you can borrow. As a graduate student, you can borrow up to $20,500 per year under Direct Unsubsidized Loans.

Alternatively, you can earn money to pay for your graduate school expenses by doing part-time jobs. The Federal Work-Study Program in the U.S. allows the students to be employed while being enrolled in school. You may directly apply for work-study positions in your chosen school. 

The institution will either provide you with on-campus or off-campus employment. On-campus employment requires you to work within the campus, while you will have to work in a private non-profit organization or a public agency for off-campus. The employer may pay a graduate student per hour or by salary, depending on the nature of the work.


If you are an employee who seeks to enroll in a graduate school program for professional development, you may want to consider applying for an educational assistance program in your company if such a benefit is available.

Tuition reimbursement is another way to support your financial needs in graduate school. Employers embracing such programs reimburse your tuition fee payments. Some employers may even cover your living, book, and transportation expenses. Employers offer financial assistance programs for employees to grow professionally and improve their knowledge and skills required for their jobs. It is also a strategy to increase the workforce’s loyalty to the company.

Working for a company that offers a tuition reimbursement program will undoubtedly lessen your financial burden in your graduate studies. However, some employers can only accommodate a certain number of employees for the tuition reimbursement program as your company may have a limit to spend for employee education. Also, the educational cash assistance offered by your company may only be up to $5,250 for the year since exceeding the amount will be taxable. Thus, the tuition assistance from your employer may not cover all your graduate school expenses. 

In the survey on U.S. doctorates, about 3% of the doctorate respondents were funded by their employer, implying that only a few benefited from the employer-sponsored tuition reimbursement program.

Employers have specific requirements for you to qualify for the program. Most companies will require you to be enrolled in a program or courses related to your job description to improve your work performance. Maintaining a satisfactory academic performance or a minimum GPA may also be necessary for the tuition reimbursement program. Other employer’s requirements may include specific months or years of working within the company.

The tuition coverage widely varies from one company to another. Some companies, such as Best Buy, reimburse full-time employees with graduate-level coursework up to $5,250 a year. While other companies, like Genentech, can cover as high as $10,000 tuition assistance per year. Disney can provide 100% tuition coverage for employees pursuing high school completion, language learning, skilled trade diplomas, and undergraduate or graduate degrees. 


Before we conclude this article, we feel the necessity to discuss student loans. Although advantageous as it can temporarily remove your financial predicament from the equation, it has its drawbacks, indebtedness. 

While there are many options of financial support for graduate education, the number of graduate students with debts in the U.S. has increased year after year. There is also a significant increase in the average amount of student loans spent on graduate education.

Table 1. Percent of graduate degree completers with a student loan for graduate education only.

Graduate Degree TypeAcademic Year 1999-2000Academic Year 2015-2016
Postbaccalaureate Certificate35.847.6
Master’s Degree39.952.8
Research Doctorate38.843.6
Professional Doctorate79.473.5
Taken from Digest of Education, 2017

According to the Digest of Education Statistics survey, the total percentage of graduate completers with loans used for graduate education expenses across all graduate degrees increased from 44.6% of the academic year 1999-2000 to 54.2% of the academic year 2015-2016. Among the graduate degree types, the professional doctorate (73.5%) has the most completers with student loans for graduate education as of 2015-2016, while the research doctorate has the lowest (43.6%). Master’s degree has the highest percentage increase with 12.9% difference of degree completers with loans from 1999-2000 to 2015-2016.

Table 2. Average cumulative amount owed for graduate education only

Graduate Degree TypeAcademic Year 1999-2000Academic Year 2015-2016
Postbaccalaureate Certificate$21,400$54,100
Master’s Degree$23,500$50,300
Research Doctorate$34,600$77,600
Professional Doctorate$61,900$171,700
(Taken from Digest of Education, 2017)

In the same survey, the total average cumulative amount owed by graduate degree completers increased from $33,300 of the academic year 1999-2000 to $71,000 of the academic year 2015-2016. With an increase of around 110%, the total average cumulative amount owed roughly doubled. Furthermore, professional degree completers have the highest debt ($171,700) as of 2015-2016, and the highest percentage increase (180%) from 1999-2000 to 2015-2016 across all graduate degrees.

The data presented suggest that the cost of pursuing graduate education has become more expensive over the years. Some students apply for loans to quickly compensate for the lack of financial resources to cover the graduate educational expenses. However, there are other options for monetary support that you might as well try, other than student loan programs, as elaborated in this article.


Lack of financial means is not an excuse not to pursue graduate education. As this article shows, you can apply to several assistance programs. Whether you utilize these programs or not depends on your determination and motivation to continue and complete an advanced degree of your choice.