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Get Help Paying for Your Graduate Certificate Tips for Financing an Advanced Education

Pursuing a graduate-level education can help increase knowledge and further one’s career. However, master’s degrees aren’t always the best option. Graduate certificates can be an excellent alternative to master’s degrees that still give students and professionals additional training, knowledge and skills they can use to advance their careers and personal interests. These diplomas usually take less time to complete and often cost less than a traditional master’s degree program. While those with graduate certificates can see an increase in pay down the road, they still need to cover the immediate cost of advancing their educations. Luckily, there are many ways prospective students can finance their graduate certificates.

Meet the Expert

Mark Kantrowitz Student Financial Aid Expert

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What Exactly is a Graduate Certificate?

Despite the increasing popularity of earning graduate certificates, many students don’t know much about them. “A graduate certificate provides specialized training,” says student financial aid expert, Mark Kantrowitz. Education grads might pursue a graduate certificate for teaching credentials, for example, Kantrowitz explains. “Additionally, graduate certificates typically take less time than a master’s degree since they are more focused.”

Graduate certificates are a form of graduate-level study that give professionals a flexible way to advance their educations and professional skills without committing to a full master’s degree program. They are often industry-specific, which make them particularly useful for professionals who want to enhance their skills or gain specializations to give them an edge in the job market or help them attain advanced positions in their field. There are different types of graduate certificates to meet students’ various needs, such as credentialing, job training, academic and personal interests, as well as soft skills like communication and teamwork, or industry specializations like social media marketing.

Graduate Certificate vs Master’s Degree

Graduate Certificate Master’s Degree
Time commitment Around 12 credits, which can usually be completed in one to two years of part-time study. Around 30-40 credits plus a thesis or capstone, which can usually be completed in three to four years of part-time study.
Cost Often (but not always) less expensive than a full master’s degree program. More credits and a degree at the end typically results in higher cost.
Depth of knowledge Specific, industry-focused learning. Broad knowledge of a topic, sometimes with opportunities for specialization.
Program options Many choices: highly-specific programs meet the numerous and varied needs of professionals. Fewer choices: broader study encompasses more topics under one program, giving students a strong base.
Career enhancement Yes, can provide an edge in a short time. However, it’s not suitable for all industries, like law and medicine. Yes, meets requirements for many industries, including ones that require advanced degrees. May be overkill for some fields.
Admissions process May or may not require GRE/GMAT scores and can be a shorter application process than for a master’s degree. Requires GRE/GMAT scores and can have a more involved application process than graduate certificate admissions.
Financial aid Financial aid is available for select programs. Read more below. Financial aid is generally available.

The Value of Pursuing a Graduate Certificate

Graduate certificates can be the right solution for many students and professionals looking to continue their educations. They allow people to enhance their skills and knowledge in a relatively short amount of time — often without requiring students to take time off work — and they can be extremely cost-effective. Those who take classes full time may have to prioritize school over work, but they can usually earn their graduate certificate in a year or less. Going back to work with an advanced skill set can often mean taking home a higher wage, so even though taking time off can be a setback at first, the shorter completion time can make for a faster return on investment, or ROI.

Part-time students can earn their certificates in a year or two, and they generally won’t have to cut into their work schedule. Being able to earn a graduate certificate without taking time off work can be invaluable for professionals looking to enhance their skills, and the ROI is still good.

Professionals who want to make a career change but don’t want to or are unable to complete a full degree program may find that graduate certificates can give them a nice entry into a new field. Even if students suspect they may want to earn a master’s degree in the future, pursuing a graduate certificate first can be a useful first step that allows them to experience graduate-level study and determine if more education is worth the investment. “Some graduate certificates can be stacked to yield a graduate degree or to satisfy prerequisites for a graduate degree,” Kantrowitz adds.

Graduate certificates aren’t without their snags, however. For instance, some career fields prefer or require master’s degrees, so a graduate certificate would be insufficient unless taken in conjunction with a master’s program. Also, while graduate certificates may offer a quicker ROI, long-term earnings might not be as high as they could be with a master’s degree, depending on the field and specific job sought.

Getting financial aid for graduate certificates can be more challenging than for master’s degrees, too.

The benefits of graduate certificates extend beyond their short duration and potential cost-savings. Kantrowitz says these certificates provide additional credentials that can help an employee qualify for a promotion and higher pay. Proficiency in trends or new technologies in their fields can also give certificate holders an extra edge over other candidates seeking the same jobs. Many job-seekers have the same baseline education as one another, so having highly specific skills can be more appealing to employers.

Can You Get Financial Aid for a Graduate Certificate?

While federal financial aid may be available for some graduate certificates, it isn’t always an option. Federal aid, which can include grants, scholarships and loans, is typically reserved for degree-seeking students. Since graduate certificates are not degrees, many programs are ineligible for federal financial aid. There are some exceptions, however. Schools can have graduate certificate programs approved for financial aid by the U.S. Department of Education (DOE), but they must do so for each program, which can be tedious. In order for a graduate certificate program to gain approval for financial aid, it must be proven to provide gainful employment. Therefore, if a program meets the DOE’s standards, enrolled students may be able to receive federal financial aid.

It’s important to note, though, that just because a program is approved for financial aid doesn’t mean all enrolled students will receive or are eligible to receive financial aid. The graduate certificate program must contribute to the individual student’s gainful employment. Students who are pursuing graduate certificates to enhance skills for a job they already have, for instance, wouldn’t be eligible, as they don’t need the certificate to gain employment. Kantrowitz advises students to check with their desired college on whether financial aid is available for the graduate certificate program they want to pursue. “If eligible, students should file the Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA) to qualify for financial aid.” He also warns that most financial aid at the graduate level will be in the form of student loans.

Veterans are likely eligible for federal financial aid for graduate certificates and can check with their school’s Office of Veterans’ Affairs. While many students in the trades are already employed, they may also receive financial aid, as graduate certificates can ensure that their skills meet current standards and will help them stay employed. Students can also receive federal financial aid if they pursue a graduate certificate while earning a master’s degree. In this case, it’s good to check with the financial aid office and FAFSA to see if there are limits on the amount of federal financial aid students are eligible to receive for graduate-level study.

Other Payment Options

Even when federal financial aid is not available, students seeking graduate certificates can still find ways to pay for their educations. Non-federal forms of financial aid, like private loans, scholarships through clubs and organizations and private grants are also available to certificate students. Before applying for these forms of aid, students should make sure they meet all application criteria and, in the case of private loans, make sure they have a good understanding of the loan’s interest rate and repayment process.

Since furthering their education can make them better employees, prospective students can see if their employer can provide tuition assistance. “In some cases, the student’s employer will pay for the graduate certificate,” Kantrowitz says. “Up to $5,250 in employer-paid tuition assistance may be excluded from income each year. Most employers require the employee to earn at least a B in the course to receive reimbursement. Some require the employee to continue working for them, typically one year for each year of support.” After all, employers would be less likely to pay for their employee’s graduate certificate if the employee was going to use their education to get a job elsewhere.

Kantrowitz also notes that, while financial aid may not always be available, students can save money on their graduate education in other ways. “Graduate certificates are similar to continuing education. As such, they might be eligible for the Lifetime Learning Tax Credit.”

Finally, students can pay out of pocket for their graduate certificates. This may take some planning and saving in advance, but the higher wage afforded by an advanced education can be worth the investment to many students.

More on Graduate Certificates

Prospective students who want to learn more about graduate-level study and financial aid can use the following resources for additional guidance.

  • Financial Aid for Graduate or Professional Students

    This PDF provided by the Department of Education gives a convenient overview of types of financial aid available to graduate and professional students and directs students to various government resources for extra help.

  • PLUS Loans

    PLUS Loans are popular forms of federal financial aid. Find detailed information and frequently asked questions about these loans, including eligibility requirements.

  • Am I Eligible to Claim an Education Credit?

    The IRS provides some guidelines to help students determine whether they qualify for various tax credits and deductions, including the American Opportunity Credit, the Lifetime Learning Credit and the Tuition and Fees Deduction.

  • Teacher Loan Forgiveness

    Teachers looking to advance their education and training can check out this resource to learn more about Teacher Loan Forgiveness and see if they may qualify for assistance.

  • U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs – Education and Training

    Veterans and their families can learn about the array of education and financial aid programs provided by the VA.

  • Private Student Loans Guru

    Find an array of objective information on private student loans, including rundowns on affordable debt, student loan discounts and watching out for scams.

  • “How to Ask Your Employer to Fund Your Education” – Investopedia

    As its title suggests, this Investopedia article provides readers with more information on employer-sponsored education and tips for asking employers for financial assistance.

  • “Ask Your Company to Pay for College” – U.S. News & World Report

    Some companies offer tuition assistance to employees or their children. This article touches on a few of these companies and provides tips for those wondering if their workplace offers any financial aid for school.

  • PayScale Salary Survey

    Professionals can use this tool to estimate their earnings based on potential job changes, education level and different credentials.

  • CareerOneStop

    CareerOneStop is a comprehensive source for students and professionals seeking information about jobs, salaries, training, education and more.