Financing Graduate and Professional Education: How Students Pay

Research and Data
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How Students Pay

The third in a series of research briefs on key topics related to graduate and professional education, this brief examines how students finance their graduate and professional education.

By Sandy Baum, Ph.D., and Patricia Steele, Ph.D.
January 2018



Thirteen percent of adults in the United States ages 25 and older hold advanced degrees—master’s, doctoral or professional degrees.1 The first brief in this series reported that bachelor’s degree recipients from lowincome households are less likely than other graduates to pursue advanced degrees and are less likely than students from more affluent backgrounds to complete them. High tuition prices and living expenses may provide one explanation for these unequal outcomes.2

This brief examines how students finance their graduate and professional education. It summarizes the sources of funds used to cover the tuition and fees universities charge, as well as living expenses. Institutions set a “cost of attendance” (COA) for students, estimating the average budget for one academic year (fall through spring). COA includes tuition and fees, books and supplies, room and board, transportation, and other living expenses, and it establishes the maximum amount students can borrow in federal student loans to attend a particular school. These official budgets serve as the foundation for the discussion that follows about how graduate and professional degree students pay for their education.

It is critical to understand that COA is subjective. Since most graduate students do not live in campus housing, actual living expenses depend on local prices for food and housing, as well as the lifestyle choices students make. As the data below reveal, the budgets institutions set for graduate and professional students are frequently quite generous relative to budgets set for undergraduate students and living standards set by the federal government.

Many students use earnings from employment and federal loans to fund their graduate and professional education. But financing patterns differ a great deal across and within types of programs. This brief explores these patterns by describing average budgets for graduate and professional degree students and the funding sources used to cover these budgets.


1U.S. Census Bureau, Current Population Survey (2017), Educational Attainment of the Population 18 Years and Over, by Age, Sex, Race, and Hispanic Origin, Table 1, demo/education-attainment/cps-detailed-tables.html. 
2Sandy Baum and Patricia Steele (2017), The Price of Graduate and Professional School: How Much Students Pay. AccessLex Institute and Urban Institute,