As the economy drags and the job market weakens, it's inevitable that workers will begin contemplating going back to school to increase their skill set. Both The London Business School and the Stern School of Business at New York University, for example, report double-digit jumps in applications this year, and the trend doesn't appear to be slowing.
While a higher degree often leads to a more competitive job and a better salary, the initial investment to attend a graduate program can be daunting. On average, grad students owe $30,000 upon completing a master's program, according to Kaplan Test Prep and Admissions. "Now more than ever you have to realistically assess what graduate school will do for you, and exactly what program will suit you best both personally and professionally," says Priya Dasgupta, GRE program manager for Kaplan Test Prep and Admissions.
Consider these questions before taking the leap.
Am I Switching Industries?
Often graduate school serves as a bridge when transitioning from one industry to another. In some cases, like deciding to be a doctor, graduate school is unavoidable. Still, some transitions don't require a specific degree. For example, for a teacher to enter the business world, an MBA might come in handy during the job search, but it's not absolutely necessary. Getting an entry-level position first can help survey the lay of the business land before making the decision whether to attend graduate school. And in the interim, that's a $40,000 a year savings in tuition costs.
Can I Work Part-Time?
It may be more time consuming and challenging, but it also eases the blow of graduate school tuition. At least 50% of U.S. employees receive tax-free educational perks from jobs that cover career related courses. Some employers may even contribute tuition expenses, if you agree to return to the same company full-time upon graduation for a minimum number of years. The federal government actually encourages this with a special tax code letting employers pay as much as $5,250 a year in tuition for courses pertaining to your profession. Check with your human resources manager to learn about your company's education benefits program, often called the Employer Assistance Program.
Have I Exhausted All Financial Resources?
While banks are increasingly getting out of the business of offering private student loans, that's no excuse to quit your search for funding. Begin by filling out the FAFSA (Free Application for Federal Student Aid) at fafsa.ed.gov, which Dasgupta calls "the gateway to a large chunk of financial aid awarded to students." Then talk to your local bank – preferably a credit union or small bank that hasn't suffered from severe write-downs à la Citigroup - for available loan programs. Ask the student aid office in your graduate school for applications for private scholarships, school fellowships and teaching assistantships. Also consider peer-to-peer lending web sites, such as prosper.com and lending.com which eliminate banks as middlemen and directly connect individual borrowers and lenders.
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