How I Finished a Master’s Program without More Student Debt

*Disclaimer* Not everyone will be able to follow the same model, but don’t let that stop you from trying to find other ways around taking on more student debt!

The Program

As an undergraduate I applied to about a dozen grad programs, and I ultimately settled on the Master’s program at the University of Chicago’s Center for Middle Eastern Studies (CMES). My decision-making process included two factors: could I focus on the topics that interested me and how much would it cost. On the former issue, the answer was yes. CMES let me focus on Russia and Central Eurasia, and they had no problem funding my interests. On the second issue, they were giving me a merit-based scholarship (more on that below), so going to UChicago would have cost about the same as going to my undergraduate institution.

CMES is a two-year program broken down into three 11-week quarters per year (Fall, Winter, and Spring). There is also a fourth quarter, Summer, but the program suggests students go abroad for research or do a language study program.

The cost in 2011:

Year 1: $17,400 a quarter x three quarters = $52,200
Year 2: $17,400 a quarter x three quarters = $52,200

I honestly thought I would have to take out over $100k to do my MA. BUT when I got my acceptance letter (trust me, nobody was more surprised than I was), there was a funding letter included. Yay! They were covering half of my tuition for the first year, and if I maintained a GPA higher than 3.5, they would fully fund my second year. SO, the new calculation was this:

Year 1: $8,700 a quarter x three quarters = $26,100
Year 2: Tuition covered

I took out a direct unsubsidized government loan of $20,500 (that was the max I could get). Each quarter, the loan covered $6,800 in tuition, and the remaining $1,900 came from savings.

An On-Campus Job

“I think I want to focus on my studies for the first quarter and then get a campus job.” Ha! Amateurs. On-campus jobs at UChicago are up for grabs a few weeks before the academic year begins. There will, of course, be jobs posted throughout the year, but June-August is when the greatest number of jobs appear. Students graduate, move away, or get fellowships, so their jobs get posted.

The job I found was a 10-hour a week gig that brought in about $500 a month. That $500 was a consistent paycheck that paid for food, coffee, and wine, and a little went into my savings account (like $50-100).

Foreign Language and Area Studies Fellowships

For the summer between my first and second years of the MA, I applied to Indiana University, Bloomington’s summer language program through FLAS. They accepted my application to study second-year Uzbek, and the summer FLAS covered my IU summer tuition and provided a $2,500 stipend. Rent at IU was $1,200 for the whole program, so that left me with a good chunk of money at the end of the eight-week program.

For my second year at UChicago, my tuition was covered because I had met the minimum 3.5 GPA set by my acceptance letter. AND I had been granted an academic-year FLAS for advanced Uzbek through the Center for East European and Russian/Eurasian Studies at UChi. The academic year FLAS was dispersed at the beginning of each quarter: three payments of $5,000 totaling $15,000.   

The No Debt Part

Each FLAS check that I received went directly towards paying off my unsubsidized loan of $20,500.

$1,000 left over from summer FLAS
$15,000 from academic year FLAS
$2,800 from saved income from on-campus job

Total paid off: $18,800
Remaining: $1,700. Yeah, I had to dip into savings, but hell if I was going to leave the MA program with a student loan! 

Can I do what you did?

There are so many factors that let me finish my MA without taking on student debt. I had savings from working in undergrad. I was able to find a job on campus at UChicago before the academic year even started. I was able to secure grants beyond what was offered to me in my admissions letter. The grants I received are for American citizens, so if you’re an international student, you will have to find other grants (they do exist!). And I know how to budget. Notice that I did not write anything about previous debt or living costs. I just wanted to make sure that when I finished my MA, I was more or less in the same financial situation I was in before starting the program.

The final word: yes, you too can finish your degree without more debt (or at the very least, not too much more debt). It takes a lot of planning. It takes a budget. And it takes a lot of studious research on what grants you qualify for and how that money can be spent. It turned out to be cheaper for me to go to a private research university for my Master’s than it would have been if I had stayed at my undergraduate institution (CSU Northridge).

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