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When you still have student loans to pay off, the idea of accruing more debt to return to school to earn a master’s degree is probably the last thing you want, but you may be able to continue your education without accruing more debt.

Define Your Education Goals

It’s tempting to jump right into a master’s degree program, but it may not provide you with the education you need. When I decided to get an MBA in marketing, it wasn’t my first choice. I was looking for a backup plan if journalism didn’t work out. My undergraduate minor was in hospitality for the purpose of planning charity events. My first thought was to get a master’s in hospitality. I researched the degree, but the program was more focused on teaching than on the practical side of event planning.

For me, it turned out that for event planning, my best course of action was to enroll in a course (that only cost $1,000) from an event planning organization called June Wedding, which included monthly networking events. The low cost meant I was able to save up enough money instead of incur debt. I ended up borrowing money down the line for both of my master’s degrees (MBA, marketing; journalism). The MBA in marketing has made me a stronger journalist and my backup plan didn’t require any borrowing.

When you start evaluating what education you need, a good place to start is to talk to the alumni representative for the career services office from the school where you earned your undergrad degree (that’s where I learned about the $1,000 event planning certification program). They’ll be able to help you figure out the education you need for the goals you have. Once you’ve figured that out, it’s time to figure out how to pay for it.

Plan Your Work Life

Once you’ve decided on your post-graduation employment situation, you can start to budget how much you could dedicate to schooling from your current paycheck. You can also talk to your human resources department about whether they’ll pay for any of your coursework. It’s not uncommon for full or partial tuition reimbursement to be a perk of full-time employment.

If you plan to switch employers, note that when you fill out the Free Application for Federal Financial Aid (FAFSA), you can submit a special circumstances form to the schools to which you’re applying. The special circumstances form is used to tell the schools’ financial aid offices that your income will change from the previous calendar year. The difference in income can mean an increase in eligibility for more money in grants and need-based scholarships. Contact your program’s department about being hired as a research assistant or other work for graduate students. Career services will also be able to help you find part-time work that can give you the pay you need now and the experience you need to get the job you want after graduation.

Plan to Pay for College Either Way

See how you can reduce expenses and funnel the money toward education expenses. You may be able to do easy budget fixes, such as reducing expenses by comparing and lowering car insurance rates. You might also be able to negotiate your cable bill, cellphone bill or rent payment.

Your school may help you with scholarship or grant offers, but the federal government may also be able to help. The Lifetime Learning Credit may give you back up to 20% of the amount you spend on qualified educational expenses, such as tuition and fees. For example, if you owe $8,000 after scholarships and grants, the government could give you back $1,600 in addition to any money you’d get back if your state offers a tax incentive for continuing your education.

Another way the government can help is by giving you an allowed payment break on your undergraduate federal student loan payments. You can then apply the monthly funds you were allocating for your loans toward graduate school expenses. Borrowing for graduate school can cost you more than borrowing for your undergraduate degree. Currently, the rates for graduate loans are a least 1.5% higher than undergraduate loans.

Finally, if you’re considering going back to school for a public service program, search online for special scholarships and programs to help you pay for your education. There are quite a few programs that will pay for your education in advance or reimburse tuition for public service professionals.

What education goals do you want to accomplish this year? Let your fellow readers know in the comments below.

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