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Compare Graduate Schools by Dollars and Cents

Kelsey Sheehy

Waiting on a graduate school decision can be stressful, but choosing between multiple admissions offers can further increase that anxiety.

Prospective students should consider everything from whether the school is a good fit to the potential to gain hands-on experience when deciding where to enroll. Graduate school is often behind the horror stories of six-figure student loan debt, so students should also consider the financial aspect.

What to weigh depends a lot on what you study, though. Students in pursuit of an academic master's, such as sociology or physics, or a Ph.D. at a top research university often get a lot of monetary support. Those pursuing a professional degree such as law, business or medicine are more likely to rely on loans.

More than half of all 2012 doctoral recipients graduated debt-free, according to a December 2013 report from the National Science Foundation. In comparison, the average debt load for 2012 law school graduates was nearly $108,300 and 2011 medical school graduates had an average debt burden of around $150,400, according to data reported to U.S. News in annual surveys.

Below are three financial factors all students should consider when choosing between multiple grad school offers.

[Learn how to negotiate more grad school financial aid.]

1. Funding: Three types of funding exist for graduate students on the academic path -- loans, academic appointments and fellowships -- and students often receive all three, says Steven Albrecht, director of graduate student support at the University of California--Davis.

Teaching and research appointments are considered employment by most institutions, so students not only receive a salary, but their tuition and fees are also waived, he adds.

When comparing offers, students should look at the dollar amount as well as the duration. Multiyear offers are best, since students often take between five and seven years to finish a Ph.D. and getting a master's often takes at least two years.

Students need to be proactive and seek out fellowships and research positions to increase their funding, Albrecht adds.

"I compare it to a political campaign," he says. "Each year a student has to fund themselves for the upcoming year."

Some business schools also offer assistantships. The Kelley School of Business at Indiana University, for example, has more than 150 graduate assistant positions. Those who receive an appointment receive a stipend, as well as a partial tuition waiver, according to the program's website. The School of Business at the University of Wisconsin--Madison offers a full tuition waiver, plus health insurance and a stipend for teaching and project assistants.

When funding is more straightforward, students should compare the amount of grants and scholarships offered by each school to figure out their out-of-pocket costs each year. They should also consider whether they can work while earning their degree, and account for any lost income.

[Understand what student loan options are available for graduate students.]

2. Time and tuition: The length of a master's program can vary from school to school, even within the same discipline. The cost can differ drastically, too.

At the University of Miami's School of Business Administration, for example, students can earn an MBA in one year. Tuition and fees for the 12-month program totaled $56,272 for the 2013-2014 school year. The school's two-year program during the same time frame was nearly $42,500, but that is just for one year. In comparison, tuition and fees for nonresident students enrolled in the two-year MBA program at UW--Madison was slightly more than $27,800 for one year.

None of those figures factor in living expenses, such as housing and food. Given the cost of living in Miami versus Madison, a two-year program at the latter could cost less than a one-year program at the former.

Taking on debt to cover the high cost of attendance may not be a bad move if the investment will pay off after graduation.

Graduates of two of the top-ranked law programs -- Yale University and Stanford University -- who took out student loans averaged around $110,000 in debt in 2012. But lawyers from those programs also earned a median starting salary of $160,000, so graduates received a good return on their investment.

[Find out how graduate student loans differ from college loans.]

3. Job prospects: For grad school to be a good investment, students need to be able to land a job after graduation. A lot of business schools and law schools tout employment rates on websites and brochures, but prospective students shouldn't take those numbers at face value, says Christina Balotescu, founder and CEO of 360 Alumni, a networking platform.

"Those placement rates, you wonder what the data is that's adding up to them," says Balotescu, who is also an MBA student at New York University's Stern School of Business. "The criteria for being employed is very broad these days."

Students can ask specifically what percentage of graduates get a job in their field, she says. They can also talk to alumni to gauge the effectiveness of a school's career services. The grad pathways program at UC--Davis, for example, helps master's and Ph.D. students build resumes, network, hone teaching skills and translate academic research into policymaking, among other things.

Prospective students should also think about where they want to ultimately work when selecting a grad program, Balotescu says.

"The companies that recruit at that school, unless we're talking top-tier, are going to tend to be local companies," she says. "If you see yourself eventually working in Silicon Valley, it would be awesome to attend a school in that part of the country."

Trying to fund your education? Get tips and more in the U.S. News Paying for Graduate School center.

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