Cost of a Master’s Program

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In 2018/2019, the average cost of grad school tuition and fees exceeded $19,000 per year, according to the National Center for Education Statistics. On top of tuition, master’s students need to budget for living expenses, books, and other costs.

In this guide, we look at the cost of a master’s degree, how to pay for a master’s degree, and the earning potential with a master’s degree.


Tuition costs for a master’s degree varies depending on several factors, which this section introduces.

  1. Degree Type and Subject

    At the master’s level, students can earn degrees in areas like business, education, nursing, engineering, and the humanities. The subject influences what students learn, the length of their program, and graduate degree costs.

    In general, professional degrees cost more than academic degrees. In 2015/2016, the cost of an MBA exceeded $27,000 per year, while a master’s in education cost $19,300. Even within academic programs, the cost of a master’s degree varies. On average, life and physical science programs cost around $1,000 less than humanities and social science programs.

  2. Public vs. Private Institutions

    Public universities receive state funding to cover part of the costs of operating the institution. Private institutions operate independently of the state. As a result, public schools typically offer lower tuition rates. In 2018/2019, graduate tuition at public universities averaged around $12,000 per year, while private nonprofit universities charged an average of nearly $28,000 per year.

    While private institutions typically charge higher tuition rates, many offer financial aid opportunities, such as scholarships and fellowships. Additionally, accredited public and private schools both meet the requirements for federal financial aid opportunities, such as student loans.

  3. In-state vs. Out-of-state Tuition

    Graduate students often pay higher tuition rates than undergraduates. However, choosing an in-state program saves students money on tuition. At UCLA, for example, California residents pay $17,500 per year in tuition, while out-of-state students pay $32,500 per year.

    Each state sets its own requirements to establish residency and qualify for in-state tuition. In most states, students must live in the state for at least 12 months before enrolling and provide proof of economic independence.

    Some online programs charge a flat tuition rate for all students regardless of residency.

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Other Costs to Consider

  1. Cost of Living

    In addition to tuition, graduate students must cover their cost of living. Master’s degree cost-of-living factors include housing, transportation, healthcare, and food. For example, adults 18-24 typically spend over $1,000 per month on housing costs and around $500 per month on food, according to 2019 data from the BLS. Those numbers jump to over $1,700 per month for housing and over $600 per month in food for adults ages 25-34.

    Cost-of-living expenses vary depending on the location. For example, housing costs in urban areas typically exceed those in suburban and rural areas. Other costs, such as utilities, transportation, and food, also vary by location.

    A student’s circumstances also affect cost of living. Online and hybrid students often save money on housing and transportation since they do not need to live as close to campus. Learn more about budgeting for college students.

  2. Books and Academic Materials

    Books and other academic materials add to the price of a master’s degree. The total cost varies depending on the master’s program and school. However, many graduate students spend over $1,000 each year on books and supplies. For example, Cornell estimates that graduate students spend $1,332 per year on books and academic materials.

    In addition to books assigned for classes, master’s students may need to buy lab-appropriate clothes and protective gear, art supplies, and subscriptions to online services related to their courses. Most graduate students also need a computer and access to a printer.

  3. Fees and Charges

    Schools also add fees to their costs, such as application fees, testing fees for exams required for admission, diploma and transcript fees, and graduation fees. While these fees may seem small, they can add up.

Paying for Your Master’s Degree

Fortunately, graduate students qualify for many of the same financial aid opportunities as undergraduates, including scholarships, grants, loans, and work-study programs. This section introduces financial aid opportunities to help students pay for master’s degree costs.

  1. Scholarships and Grants

    Scholarships and grants represent the best way to cover master’s degree costs. Unlike loans, which recipients must repay, scholarships and grants offer free money toward a degree. Master’s students can research scholarship and grant opportunities based on factors like their field, career goals, and institution. Many university financial aid offices connect incoming students with scholarship and grant information.

    Students interested in scholarships and grants should still fill out the FAFSA. Many grants and scholarships require FAFSA documents to show financial need.

  2. Student Loans

    Many master’s students rely on student loans when paying for a master’s degree. In 2015, around 67% of master’s students took out loans totaling around $59,000. Students at private schools borrowed more than those at public schools.

    In general, federal loans offer better terms than private loans, including loan forgiveness policies. Graduate students can qualify for federal loans by filling out the FAFSA. After accepting federal loans, degree-seekers can consider private loans to cover any unmet costs.

  3. Work Studies

    Work-study programs connect qualifying students with job opportunities, often in their field of study. The federal work-study program, for example, pays graduate students to work on campus or in public service fields. By pursuing work-study opportunities, master’s students earn wages to cover their expenses while gaining professional experience. Master’s students qualify for work-study programs by filling out the FAFSA.

Salary Outlook for Master’s Graduates

Earning a master’s degree often translates into a higher salary. Overall, professionals with a master’s degree make nearly $13,000 more per year than professionals without one, according to BLS data. Unemployment rates also drop with educational attainment.

However, the earning potential with a master’s degree varies depending on the field. The following table outlines salaries from the most popular master’s degrees.

When considering graduate degree costs, prospective students should weigh tuition and expenses against a potential increase in salary. For more tips, check out our resource on determining whether grad school makes financial sense.

Degree Average Salary
Master of Arts in Psychology $61,403
Master of Public Administration $68,188
Master of Engineering $92,032
Master of Business Administration $89,181
Master of Education $58,996
Master of Computer Science $103,112

Source: National Center for Education Statistics, PayScale

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Portrait of Genevieve Carlton

Genevieve Carlton

Genevieve Carlton holds a Ph.D. in history from Northwestern University and earned tenure as a history professor at the University of Louisville. An award-winning historian and writer, Genevieve has published multiple scholarly articles and a book with the University of Chicago Press. She currently works as a freelance writer and consultant.

See articles by Genevieve

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