Heading to graduate school? Here are 5 tips on managing student loans

It’s back-to-school time! To help you prepare, each Tuesday over the next few weeks, we’re featuring advice on finding, applying, and paying for graduate school. Read our first post on three good reasons (and one bad reason) to go to grad school and our second post on finding the perfect graduate degree program. Want more information? Be sure to visit our Graduate School Resource Center and attend a free Grad School Fair near you!

In this piece,  student loan expert Heather Jarvis shares tips on how to manage your undergrad loans and make sense of your graduate school loans. You can also learn more by listening to our podcasts on the Public Service Loan Forgiveness Program and Income Based Repayment Plan.

by Heather Jarvis

Get the help you need to understand your student loans (Photo credit: Phillip Taylor PT, Creative Commons/Flickr)

If you’re thinking of grad school, here’s what you need to know to get a grip on those student loans.

1.  Start by pulling together your student loan information.

Many of us borrowed to finance undergraduate school.  It makes sense to take an inventory of what you’ve got before starting graduate school.  That will help you decide what you can afford.  You’ll find all your federal student loans listed in the National Student Loan Data System and you can check for those pesky private student loans by pulling a free copy of your credit report from AnnualCreditReport.com.

2.  Understand when your first payment is due.

Most student loans have a six-month grace period before you have to start making payments.  In most cases, Class of 2012 grads will start paying around November or December.  If you enroll in graduate school, you can postpone your payments while you are taking at least a half-time course load using an “in-school deferment”.

Student loans only ever have one grace period.  If the six-month grace period on your undergrad loans expires before you go to grad school, payment will be expected on those loans right after you’re done with your grad program (although borrowers can typically secure a forbearance to postpone payment if necessary).  Your new grad school loans will have their own grace period.

Some undergraduate loans include an interest subsidy so that the government pays the interest during in-school deferment (for example while you are in your graduate program).  But many of us also have unsubsidized loans, and interest on those loans will keep adding up whether or not you’re in school.

Sadly, nobody can get subsidized loans for grad school anymore and interest starts to accrue straight away.  Unless you make payments as you go, your debt will be increasing the whole time you are in school.  Yikes.  Borrow as little as you can, and consider whether you can afford to pay some of all of the interest that accrues while you are in school–you’ll save yourself some big bucks!

3.  Decide whether consolidation makes sense for you.

Heads up Idealists!  Consolidation allows you to group your loans together into the Federal Direct Loan program.  That’s important because only Federal Direct loans are eligible for Public Service Loan Forgiveness. But be careful deciding whether to consolidate Perkins loans, because they have their own cancellation provisions that would be lost upon consolidation.

Student loan borrowers can consolidate either before or after grad school, but not while you are enrolled.  The decision depends on your particular situation.  Get a sense about how consolidation might work in your circumstances using the free personalized assessment offered on GLAdvisor’s site.

4.  Choose your own repayment plan.

If you’ll be out of school beyond your grace period, you’ll need to start making payments (although you can postpone repayment while in grad school).

Choosing a repayment plan can be confusing, but if you don’t choose a repayment plan within 45 days of being notified, your loan servicer will automatically put you into a “standard” repayment plan, and that might or might not be the best plan for you.

If you need reduced monthly payments (for example during a job search), consider the income driven repayment options.  Income-Based Repayment is available now and is a good option for people with low income compared to student loan debt.  Monthly payments are based on a percentage of income so that when you don’t earn a lot, your payments are low.  You’ll need to determine which repayment options are available to you, and evaluate which of the available options provides the most benefits.

Use the Department of Education’s calculators to estimate how much you’ll pay under the different repayment plans.

5.  Know where to go with questions.

Your loan “servicer” handles the billing and administration for your loan (find out your servicer on the National Student Loan Data System).  You can get in touch with your school’s financial aid office.  Some of my favorite sites include:

  • StudentLoanBorrowerAssistance.org (terrific site especially for borrowers struggling financially)
  • Finaid.org (comprehensive information and some really spiffy calculators)
  • GLAdvisor (student loan management and financial advice for hire; I do some consulting for them)
  • askheatherjarvis.com (My site!  Loads of info on Public Service Loan Forgiveness and more)


About the Author

Heather Jarvis

Former capital defense attorney and long-time public service advocate Heather Jarvis dedicates herself to helping students make informed decisions about their student loans.

Since 2005, Heather has helped more than an estimated 25,000 students understand and overcome college debt through in-person and online trainings and resources.

Want to learn more about Public Service Loan Forgiveness?  Heather provides free tools and information for student loan borrowers and the people who love them at askheatherjarvis.com.

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Attending an Idealist Graduate School Fair? Here’s what you need to know

Connect with programs and friends at an Idealist Grad Fair (Photo Credit: Joanna/Staff)

One of the most important aspects of applying to graduate school is selecting the programs that are best suited towards your career goals and needs as a student. To help you narrow down which programs are best for you, we’re hosting 17 Graduate School Fairs around the country, starting this week in New York City.

However, we know that attending a fair and connecting with hundreds of people and potential programs can be a bit overwhelming. To cut through the confusion, we’ve outlined how to make the most out of attending an Idealist Grad Fair:

Do your homework

Before the fair, identify which attending programs and graduate schools you’re most interested in and scout them out. Review graduate school websites and other resources, like Idealist’s Grad Fair Resource Center, to give you a better sense of what the schools and programs are like, and which ones may interest you more. Doing your research will help you identify the schools you’ll want to speak with and get more information from on the day of the fair.

Prepare questions to ask representatives. Asking questions can help determine if a program fits your interests and goals. For example, you may want to know how the admission process works, what courses the program offers, or what the student life is like.

And, don’t forget to RSVP! This ensures you’ll get the most out of a fair by allowing representatives to have enough informational materials for all attendees. If you’re interested in attending an Idealist.org Grad Fair you can click here to RSVP today.

The big day

Now that you’re prepared and ready to find yourself a school remember these few tips on the day of the grad fair:

  • Dress casually, but appropriately. Remember, you still want to make a good first impression.
  • Arrival early to give yourself plenty of time. Take a moment to check out your surroundings and pick up a map if available. If you’ve done your research and know which schools you’re interested in head toward those first.
  • Be prepared to answer questions. Representatives might be curious to why you’re thinking about graduate school, what degree you are looking to pursue, or when you plan on attending.
  • Network. Use this as an opportunity to get representatives direct contact information. This gives you the ability to ask follow up questions or get in contact with someone from that school in the future.
  • Take advantage of the free workshops or informational sessions, like the Q & A sessions that are held at Idealist Grad Fairs every year. These can range from guest speakers to a panel of experts who are there with the best intentions to help you.

After you’ve attended remember to follow up with any additional contacts, and if you have further questions get a hold of one of the many representatives you spoke with at the fair. Good luck on your graduate school hunting, and we hope to see you at one of our 17 Idealist Grad Fairs across the country this fall!

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How to find the perfect graduate program

It’s back-to-school time! To help you prepare, each Tuesday over the next few weeks, we’re featuring advice on finding, applying, and paying for graduate school. Read our first post on three good reasons (and one bad reason) to go to grad school. Want more information? Be sure to visit our Graduate School Resource Center and attend a free Grad School Fair near you!

In this piece, writer, program officer, and member of the Young Nonprofit Professionals of NYC Eleanor Whitney shares her experiences finding the right graduate degree program.

by Eleanor Whitney

I’ll admit it: I dreaded the process of finding a graduate program. I knew that graduate school would be an important investment in my career and myself, but the finding the right program felt like a chore. I’ve built my career working in museums and nonprofit arts organizations and saw that universities were rapidly expanding their graduate program offerings in specializations related to my field, but was unsure if that was the kind of program I wanted.

Starting my research

I began my research process informally by talking to the people I worked with about their graduate school experiences. I took careful note about their career path before, during and after they completed their degree. I asked them about their classes, classmates, opportunities and, as politely as I could, the price. From these conversations I started asking myself what I wanted out of graduate school.

I had gotten my bachelor’s degree from a small, private liberal arts college and wanted to go to a large, diverse public university as a contrast; Because I worked in the arts I did not need a specialized program that introduced me to the art world, but a program to teach me quantitative skills I could not learn on my own; I was not sure I wanted to stay working in arts nonprofits, so I wanted a degree that could apply to a wide range of fields; Finally, I could not go into debt to go to graduate school or stop working full time, because I met many people who had done so found it difficult to find another job upon completing their program and felt stifled by the loans they had taken out.

Talking with people, including friends, colleagues, and school representatives can help you make the right decision about grad school (Photo Credit: Julia S./Staff Photo)

Selecting the right program

With these criteria, choosing a program became simple. When I found Baruch College’s Master’s in Public Administration program that was designed for working students I knew I had found the program for me. It enabled me to go to school part-time and work full-time, had a focus on quantitative skills like statistics, budgeting and economics, and a diverse student population working in all types of public, nonprofit and corporate agencies.

(Want to learn more about this program? Visit Baruch and other schools at our upcoming Grad Fairs.)

It took me four years between completing my bachelor’s degree and beginning my master’s, but taking that time helped me hone in on the right program. From my experience, I wanted to offer advice about how to find a program that is the best fit for your interests and needs. Instead of pouring through overwhelming options, spend time to clarify what you want to get out of graduate school. Knowing the end result that you want can help you focus on the program that is right for you.

Here are some questions to ask yourself when you begin to research graduate programs:

  • What is your end goal? Think big and dare to imagine yourself in your dream job. What is it? What did you need to know to get there? You want to make sure that the program you choose will serve as a stepping-stone to realizing your career vision.
  • What specific skills do you want to learn? Are there skills your profession requires you to know or that you feel you need to further develop? Does the program offer classes and opportunities to learn and hone those skills? Are the classes and methods up-to-date with the latest thinking and technology? You want to make sure you invest in developing skills you will actually use.
  • What connections do you want to build? Are the professors respected experts in the field you are interested in? Will the program give you access to internship and professional networking opportunities with high-level professionals in your field of interest?
  • What specific degree does the program grant? Some graduate degrees, such as a Masters of Social Work or a Master’s in Education, prepare you to work in a specific field. Other degrees, such as a Master’s of Public Administration, are more general and give a wide range of skills that could be applicable across professions. If you decide to change jobs will your degree still be relevant? Idealist produced a series of podcasts explaining different master’s degrees to help you decide which one is right for you.
  • How much does the program cost? Graduate school is a smart long-term investment, but it can be a pricey one. When considering how much you can pay for graduate school think carefully about the cost of a program versus the benefits you will receive. Research average salaries for your field and consider how much can you reasonably expect to make once you have your degree. Will that offset the cost of paying for graduate school, especially if you need to take out loans? Also consider the cost of living where the program is located and whether you will be able to have a full or part time job while you are in school.

Spend some time reflecting on these questions and make a note of your answers. When you are clear on the skills you need to learn, the professionals you want to work with, the type of degree you want and your price range you will have a great list of criteria by which you can evaluate graduate programs and find the right fit for you.

Eleanor C. Whitney is a writer, arts administrator and musician living in Brooklyn, New York. She currently is a Program Officer at the New York Foundation for the Arts and is the author of the forthcoming book Grow: How to Take Your Do It Yourself Project and Passion to the Next Level and Quit Your Job, which will be released in the spring of 2013 on Cantankerous Titles.

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