Financial Breakdown, Part II: Paying for It

Me and my fellow Kent State TA's after a long day cleaning the studio.

Me and my fellow Kent State TA's after a long day cleaning the studio.

Again, I just can't help myself with the puns.

This is the other half of the financial equation: You now know your expenses, so how will you pay for them? Like many college graduates, when I decided I wanted to go back to school I still had undergraduate loans to pay off. I knew that racking up too much debt would be detrimental to my future career and could even outweigh the benefits of attending an MFA program altogether. I considered several options to keep costs low and support myself financially: Live with my parents and attend a university nearby, attend a two-year program to get in and out quickly, choose a university in an area with a low cost of living, work at the university to receive reduced tuition rates, get an assistantship, earn scholarships or work a part-time job. In the end I chose a university in an area with a low cost of living and one where I received a Graduate Teaching Assistantship to pay for tuition plus a small monthly stipend. For extra income during the semester I sell my jewelry at small retail shows, local galleries and on Etsy. Along with picking up part-time jobs during breaks from school, this combination has allowed me to get by without taking out any student loans. There are times I wish I had the extra cushion but I know it is only a false sense of financial security that will need to be paid back plus interest. That being said, student loan debt is likely a better option than credit card debt or homelessness, so if you do need to take out loans, just remember to do as conservatively as possible.

After you calculate your expenses in Part I, break down how you will pay for these costs:

1. Scholarships and Grants – Sometimes it can be hard to motivate yourself to apply when it seems like a long shot, but somebody is going to receive them and that person could be you! This is money you do not have to pay back, a.k.a. the best kind of money there is! Many universities offer grants to their own students and provide information on outside sources online. Graduate Student Senates often offer travel and research grants to graduate students. Scholarship opportunities are frequently posted on websites such as, Crafthaus and various craft organizations’ websites. Snoop around for scholarships specific to your field and keep a calendar of approaching deadlines.

2. Financial Aid – Having completed your undergraduate degree you are likely familiar with Financial Aid. Whether you plan on applying for aid or not, be sure to complete your FAFSA. Doing so may qualify you for certain need-based grants or scholarships. Keep in mind that graduate students are no longer eligible for Subsidized Federal loans, which are the lovely kind of magical loans that do not accrue interest during grace periods. Unfortunately we are only eligible for the interest-accruing sort, and interest can be shockingly high in comparison to your original loan amount. Tread ever-so-carefully when it comes to taking out loans. I can’t tell you the number of times I've heard someone exclaim, “I can go out tonight – my student loan came through!” Every time that thought crosses your mind, remember that five years from now your $30 night out is going to cost you about $50, along with every subsequent dollar you spent over your two- to three-year stint. If you can’t avoid loans, at least be as thrifty as possible when taking them out: Do not use them as an excuse not to apply for scholarships, get a job or live frugally. The “You” five years from now will thank you for the financial freedom to pursue the career you came for in the first place.

3. Assistantships – There are a lot of schools that offer full and partial assistantships to graduate students that may be in your department or in another department. Assistantships may cover 50-100% of tuition and some fees and may include a monthly stipend. Be sure to look into the exact reward for each program when calculating costs. There are Teaching Assistantships (like mine) where you simultaneously gain teaching experience, valuable especially if you plan to teach in the future. If you are interested in a TAship, ask which classes you will be assigned. Many programs have TA’s teach foundation courses such as 2D or 3D Composition, while others allow you to teach courses in your field. Find out if you will have a section of a larger class that meets less frequently or if you will be teaching the full class and how much responsibility you’ll have over the curriculum. This should match your comfort level as well. Part of the reason I chose my program is that I am able to teach in Jewelry/Metals, including upper-level classes. This is both stimulating for me and great on my resume. Other assistantship opportunities may be as a Research Assistant with a faculty member (a great learning and networking opportunity), assisting in studio maintenance and ordering (this is also a part of my job as a TA), or an assistantship with an on-campus gallery (great if you are interested in gallery work). An assistantship is an ideal way to bolster your resume while paying for school, but keep in mind the huge number of hours you will need to commit to your duties and your studio each week.

4. Working at the University – Some universities, usually public, offer reduced or free tuition to employees. Benefits may vary based on position and full- or part-time status but it’s worth looking into. Make sure that you speak to the program faculty about the number of hours you’ll need to commit to per week and if they have a time limit on completing your degree in case this implores fewer credit hours per semester.

5. In-State Tuition – Look at public schools in your state for reduced tuition rates based on your residency. Also, unlike undergrad programs, you will probably be able to establish residency at an out-of-state school during your first year of grad school and apply for the reduced tuition rates your second and third year. Be sure to look into how to do this right away.

6. Family Support – This loan may come with a high interest rate of prolonged parental control and unsolicited advice, but it could be a good option. If your parents are willing to fork over some cash to help with school, consider accepting. Even if you pay them back it most likely won’t be at the interest rate of federal or private loans.

7. Part-time Job – Most college campuses have a lot of options for part-time jobs with flexible hours to accommodate their student applicant pool. Just be prepared to put in a lot of hours between coursework, studio hours and your job.

8. Sell Yourself! – Your greatest resource is yourself! You can take this idea literally and head to the Plasma bank or model for a figure drawing class, or you can use your own best asset – your artistic skill – to make extra money. Whether it’s setting up an Etsy shop, making contacts at local galleries or getting fellow students together to do an art sale on campus, why not earn money doing what you do best? Not only can you make your own hours and be your own boss but you’re also improving your skillset, building a customer base, networking, finding out what sells, gaining confidence and learning valuable lessons about earning money in your field. Personally, this is my favorite way to make money. It gives me a taste of the career I’m working toward and I get to see people excited about what I do!

In conclusion, calculate your potential expenses and income for each program before you decide so that your final decision is an educated one. Once you do, be prepared to pare down on frivolous expenses and work your butt off for the next few years. And on those days when you want to throw in the towel and give up, remember that you’re doing what you love and that’s a whole lot more than most people can say.

As always, I welcome and encourage comments below!