By NATHAN GARDNER
More than 1,200 students will graduate at commencement Amalie Arena on May 7. With an average of $35,000 in student loans, according to a 2015 article in the Wall Street Journal, most graduates will be facing only three choices: start working and paying back those student loans now; continue on to graduate school and (probably) rack up more debt, while deferring payment on those loans for another year or two; or, start working full time and take classes on the side.
Continuing education beyond a bachelor’s degree has decided advantages. In 2015 the unemployment rate for those holding a master’s degree was 2.4 percent, compared to 2.8 percent for those with a bachelor’s, and their median earnings were nearly $11,000 higher, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. Still, with graduate school costing approximately $18,000 to $23,000 a year at UT (tuition, only), making the decision to pursue a postsecondary degree can be difficult. Fortunately, nearly 85 percent of all American students receive some form of financial aid. Applying for that financial aid, however, is often confusing and difficult.
There are a few things about financial aid that are good to know when deciding whether or not to pursue a postsecondary degree, or when trying to figure out how to pay for it.
Almost everyone who is currently enrolled in a four-year program understands the process of applying for scholarships, including filing the dreaded Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA). Filing the FAFSA (FAFSA.gov) is the first step that any prospective student will take as it determines eligibility for many forms of financial aid. Once the FAFSA is completed, the next step is applying for specific scholarships. This should be done as early as possible — scholarships can (and do) run out of funds, and those who file early are more likely to receive some of that money. FAFSAs for the 2016-2017 school year are already being accepted (as of January 1), so anyone intending to go to school in the fall should file this paperwork ASAP.
Assistantships are paid academic positions offered to graduate students that involve part-time teaching or research. The University of Tampa offers assistantships for students pursuing their Master’s in Business or Nursing. Awarded by the Office of Graduate and Continuing Studies, assistantships are very competitive as they offer a tuition waiver for up to 12 credits, as well as a $1,500 stipend, per semester. Students awarded one of these coveted spots will work 20 hours per week in an academic or administrative office, in addition to a full course workload (8-14 credits) while maintaining a 3.25 GPA or above.
- Perkins Loans: This type of loan provides up to $5,000 per academic year for students who demonstrate a financial need (through the FAFSA) at a fixed interest rate of five percent. The interest rate, in addition to being low, does not kick in until the student graduates, making this one of the most affordable loans still available. If awarded this loan, students must be enrolled at a halftime rate (4 credits), minimum.
- PLUS Loans: These loans are issued to students or parents who demonstrate financial need directly from the Department of Education. As a direct federal loan, the requirements are fairly stringent to be approved, including a positive credit history (see my last article on this topic). If approved, students can receive up to amount they are paying to attend school, minus any other aid they receive. The amount to attend school includes tuition, cost of living (or room and board on campus), and school supplies, as determined by the university. PLUS loans are a perfect option to fill in any budgetary shortcomings you may have after receiving your other financial aid.
- Subsidized Direct Loans: Like the first two loans listed, in order to be eligible for a subsidized loan the student must demonstrate a financial need and attend classes at a halftime rate or higher. Students can be approved for up to $20,500 per academic year, though the loan amount is calculated by the university and cannot exceed your financial need. Interest on these loans is paid for by the government while the student is enrolled, and for six months after graduation.
- Unsubsidized Direct Loans: Without a financial need requirement, these loans are an option for those who make too much money to receive one of the other loans, but are still finding it difficult to pay for their education. As with subsidized loans, students can receive up to $20,500 per academic year, but for unsubsidized loans the amount awarded is not capped by financial need. Another major difference here is, being unsubsidized, the government will not pay for the interest while the student is in school. If the student chooses to seek a deferment of these payments, the interest accrued during that time will be added onto principal amount of the loan.
Whether it is the allure of a paycheck, or work experience crucial to career advancement, many graduate students opt to work full-time while pursuing an advanced degree. Despite the heavy workload, this can be a great idea for many students, especially if paying for that degree seems impossible. In addition to a steady paycheck, many employers offer tuition reimbursement as a benefit of employment.
Because benefits vary from company to company, it is important that students find out the specifics from their potential employer. The amount of tuition reimbursement can range anywhere from nothing, all the way up to full reimbursement. It gets more complex than simply figuring out the amount, though. Many employers won’t award tuition reimbursement until the employee has been with the company for a minimum amount of time – commonly six months to a year. Then, it is often required that the employee seek a degree major that is applicable to their job, while maintaining a minimum GPA, and then must remain with the company for a specific amount of time after reimbursement is awarded. Failing to meet any of these requirements can result in tuition reimbursement being denied or, if it has already been awarded, the employee can be required to pay it back.