PAM MULDOWNEY learned quickly that there arenít endless financial options available to people who want to continue their education beyond the undergraduate level. But that didnít stop her from going online to research the possibilities when she decided to go back to school for a masterís degree in interior design.
"I got all my financial information on the Web," says Muldowney, 30, who lives in the South End. "I found a couple of Web sites and found out that itís hard for grad students to get grants." But Muldowney persevered and was pleasantly surprised to discover the Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA), a form provided by the government for applying for various grants and loans.
Muldowney also found what she calls "a bunch of great Web sites," including FinAid.org, Gradview.com, and FastWeb.com. Whether youíre planning to study anthropology, botany, or zoology, there are options for grants, loans, and scholarships, and the sites to find them are endless. Experts say it just takes some digging.
The Web has "really redefined the whole process" of researching financial-aid options, says Baird Johnson, vice-president of product and marketing for FastWeb, an online scholarship-search service. "Thereís literally hundreds of thousands [of scholarships] out there. You used to have to go to library and go through books individually to find out what to apply for." With FastWeb, visitors simply fill out a profile detailing their grades, interests, activities, and test scores; that information gets matched against a database of scholarships. "Itís many times easier than it used to be," Johnson says.
Still, finding financial assistance for graduate school isnít necessarily the same process as it is for undergraduates. "Unlike undergrad scholarships, where you may get $1000 for whatever, graduate-level scholarships are more specific to the type of program," notes Elliot Brandow, an information-resource specialist at The Education Resources Institute (TERI) College Access, a national nonprofit organization offering loans for undergraduate, graduate, and professional study.
"While the value of graduate degrees is higher in terms of earning potential, thereís a wider gap between a high-school degree and earning potential," observes Steve Pemberton, vice-president and founder of Maynard-based Road to College, a college-admissions-consulting service for high-school students and recent college graduates looking to continue their education. "The government wants to be certain youíre pursuing a bachelorís degree. They want to give you every opportunity to make college a reality."
By 2010, says Pemberton, nearly 80 percent of new jobs will require a bachelorís degree, which also explains the emphasis on undergraduate aid. By the time people reach their early 20s and are looking into graduate school, itís assumed theyíre more capable of finding loans on their own. But that doesnít mean pursuing a graduate degree isnít financially realistic.
A good place to find scholarships specifically for graduate programs is from national organizations affiliated with the profession youíre interested in studying, Brandow says. For example, the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars is targeted primarily to graduate students interested in the humanities and education.
"If youíre interested in a library-science scholarship, my first stop would be the American Library Association; if you want to be a dentist, youíd look at ADA.org, or [if you want to be] a doctor, the AMA," says Brandow.
Every scholarship provider has its own twist on the kind of student itís looking to help, says Baird Johnson. For example, he notes, the Jack Kent Cooke Foundation, one of the largest scholarship foundations, focuses on, among other areas, the transfer-student population.
Johnson also emphasizes that not all scholarships are based on academic merit, and some are very niche-oriented. "There are many scholarships where you have to read a book and write an essay," he explains. For example, the Common Knowledge Foundation Scholarship awards scholarships based on what people know.
Mark Kantrowitz of FinAid.com, a free Web site that compiles financial-aid information, advice, and tools, says that between five and 10 percent of visitors to his site are interested in graduate or professional school. "Itís a low amount because a small percentage of undergraduate students go on to graduate school, but itís also partly because financial aid for graduate school is a little different than for undergraduates," Kantrowitz says. Graduate programs often offer teaching or research assistantships, a form of financial support for students thatís much more common in grad school.
"So many more students [in graduate school] are supported by their department, so [financial aid] tends to be more department-oriented than school-oriented," says Kantrowitz. "Itís much less based on financial need than on merit." Another option is graduate fellowships, which are based on academic disciplines. "Someone going to grad school in sciences is going to find it easier to find a fellowship in their discipline than [someone looking for a fellowship] in the humanities," he notes. Part of the reason is that unlike English and the arts, which are "intellectually viable disciplines," areas such as computer science have a "practical utility." There are private companies willing to sponsor these fellowships because such studies have commercially valuable results, Kantrowitz says. Still, he adds, fellowship options for the arts and humanities, such as the Jacob K. Javits Fellowship Program, do exist.
Elayne Peloquin, director of financial aid at the MGH Institute of Health Professions and a member of the Massachusetts Association of Student Financial Aid Administrators (MASFAA), says many students donít realize that the best sources of information are college and university financial-aid offices and their Web sites.
She should know. Not only is Peloquin a financial-aid professional, she also used the Web to find information to help pay for her own schooling. Through her legwork, she discovered Boston University had a very flexible program for a masterís degree in education; she was accepted into the program in 2002.
"Candidates really need to research the different schools and go into the student services and financial aid [section] on the Web sites of the individual schools theyíre interested in, because each has a different financial-aid structure," Peloquin says. "Thatís where I realized that BU offered part-time education for a masterís degree at a reduced amount. They donít really advertise that, but I found it on their Web site."
Peloquin found everything she needed on BUís Web site, which even provided a link to the FAFSA. After filling out the application, she received a federal Stafford Loan, which Peloquin thinks is the best type of loan to get because "Stafford Loan funding on the graduate level is substantially higher than on the undergraduate level." She adds that Stafford Loans have "wonderful repayment terms."
Whichever Web site you use to conduct your financial-aid search, and wherever you ultimately apply for help, Mark Kantrowitz says thereís been an increase in available scholarships because thereís higher demand for them, due in large part to the Internet. "Previously the sponsor would get a handful of applicants and award scholarships. [But] as soon as Web came on the horizon, many more students are applying for these scholarships," he explains. "So the number of qualified applications has increased tremendously."
And in addition to greater use of the Web, over the past few years federal funding for higher education has been stagnant, giving students greater incentive to look for scholarships, says Kantrowitz. As government support has declined, schools have increased the financial support they offer, but they canít cover the full cost of education.
"So if youíre a sponsor and you see this increased demand [for] scholarships and fellowships, you tend to want to direct your funding to where the need is greatest," he says. "And the need for student financial aid has never been greater."
Esther Shein can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org
Issue Date: April 8 - 14, 2005
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