Graduate school is one of the most important investments in your future you can make. To ensure that you invest wisely, it's essential that you identify your main expenses as well as develop a funding plan and a budget. It’s important to start thinking about these financial questions early and to seek out University resources that can help answer your questions.
First, identify your main expenses, which means you’ll need to assess the cost of education for your particular program and the cost of living. To help determine your cost of education and cost of living at Illinois, visit our Cost of Attendance page.
Next, you will want to develop your funding plan and seek out funding sources. To start, assess your current funding sources. Then identify additional sources that might be options for you. Many graduate students fund their educations through a combination of sources, with some years funded by assistantships and other years funded by fellowships, loans, or supplemental work.
As you explore funding sources, keep the following criteria in mind:
- Requirements of funding (eventual repayment, work obligations, travel to meetings)
- Whether or not the funding includes a tuition waiver
- Eligibility (citizenship, degree program, demographics, special purpose)
- Any associated restrictions on the funding (credit load, impact on federal loan limits)
- Restrictions on the funding (impact on federal loan limits, research expenses vs. living expenses)
- Tax implications
Fortunately, there are many ways to fund your graduate education and ensure your financial wellness. The best place to start your search for funding is your home department. Once you know what to expect from your department, your next steps may be to explore funding sources such as federal loans, supplemental employment, or external fellowships.
Holding an assistantship will allow you to gain experience that will help you grow both academically and professionally. Some types of assistantships include teaching, research, graduate, or pre-professional (you can learn more about assistantship types on the Illinois Human Resources website). Though the responsibilities and benefits of assistantships vary, generally you will hone your research skills, gain teaching experience, develop professional skills (such as leadership, communication skills, and performance evaluation), and collaborate with others. Assistantships typically come with tuition waivers, and you can learn more about the tuition waiver policy in the Graduate College Handbook. Teaching assistants and graduate assistants are represented by the Graduate Employee Organization (GEO).
To find assistantships available to you, the best place to start is your home department. Ask about the types of assistantships the department offers as well as how and when to apply. You might also reach out to department in areas that relate to your interests to learn about assistantships opportunities. Finally, the Graduate College has an Assistantship Clearinghouse where you can search for assistantships that are available campus-wide.
Borrowing money from the federal government or from another source is one way to help offset your student expenses. Graduate students may be eligible for Federal Direct Unsubsidized Loans and Federal Direct Grad PLUS Loans. To qualify, you must be enrolled at least half time (6 credit hours) in a degree or eligible certificate program. Loan amounts depend on the calculated cost of attendance for that academic year, and you will need to begin repaying the loan shortly after degree completion or if you cease to be at least half-time. To learn more about federal loans, check out the U.S. Department of Education’s Federal Student Aid and the University of Illinois’ Office of Student Financial Aid (OSFA).
If you don’t qualify for federal loans, you might look into alternative loans from banks or credit unions. The OSFA website has information about these.
Fellowships are important sources of funding, but they’re also valuable items to add to your CV because of the prestige they bestow on you and your work. Most fellowships provide a stipend, and most are “non-service” awards, meaning they do not require any type of work outside of the student’s own coursework and research. At the University of Illinois, fellowships over a certain amount (currently $10,000) may generate a tuition waiver.
"Internal" fellowships are awarded by units within the university, whereas "external" fellowships are awarded by government agencies, foundations, corporations, and professional associations. Awards are usually determined via a competitive application process, and most are given only to doctoral students in research-oriented programs. For information on internal fellowships, contact your home department. For information on external fellowships, visit the Graduate College’s Fellowship Finder database.
Scholarships are a form of gift aid that doesn’t require repayment. They’re generally awarded on a variety of factors, including academic achievement, talent, athletic ability, leadership, geographical location, field of study, or financial need. Scholarships help pay for your education costs, but they do not provide a tuition waiver. Learn more about scholarships from OSFA.
Grants are funds usually awarded for a particular purpose, such as purchasing research equipment or paying to attend a professional conference, and they usually do not include a stipend. Some grant opportunities are listed in the Graduate College’s Fellowship Finder database. Check with your department or professional organization for other possibilities.
A note on the use of “Fellowships,” “Scholarships,” and “Grants”
Funders vary in terms of the labels they give to their awards. Some awards that the University of Illinois categorizes as “scholarships,” for example, may be called “grants” by the funders. If you have questions about a particular award, contact the Graduate College’s Business & Fellowship Processing Office.
Sometimes students find work outside of their graduate program in either an on-campus or off-campus job. It’s important to plan for how you will balance time for your studies with your work responsibilities. If you wish to pursue this option, the Graduate College Campus Job Boards page has several databases where you can look for openings.
Planning and Budgeting
Developing a financial plan and budget for graduate school is an ongoing process. As you move through your graduate program, you’ll continue to refine your budget as your needs and funding sources change. There are several campus offices and external resources to support you in the budgeting process. The Financial Wellness for College Students program through University of Illinois Extension provides information and peer educators. The USFSCO Student Money Management Center offers activities, newsletters, and other information. Finally, Grad Sense, sponsored by the Council of Graduate Schools, offers a budget calculator and other resources.
Only you can figure out the right financial strategy for your particular needs and we encourage you to start early on forging that strategy. Having your finances in order will allow you focus on the true task at hand, which is to learn and achieve as much as you can while maximizing the wealth of opportunities we have here at the University of Illinois!
Ken Vickery is the Director of Fellowships in the Graduate College. He helps graduate students pursue external fellowships, and he coordinates the Graduate College’s fellowship and grant competitions. When not reviewing proposals, he’s either taking pictures or attempting something akin to dancing at the Regent Ballroom.