Paying Your Dues

You don’t have to go in over your head to get a good education. Here’s how to get a post-grad education without going broke.

So you’re thinking about higher education. You’ve taken the GRE, you know where you want to go, you’ve prayed about it ... but there’s still an obstacle in your way: money. Though there are plenty of opportunities for aid, loans and scholarships, finding them all can be daunting. Where to begin? And has the rough economy impacted financial aid availability?

“At the graduate level, there’s been no change,” says David Richards, director of student financial services at Fuller Theological Seminary. “Student loans are still readily available, as are monies for the work-study programs. This year, schools moved away from a private, lender-based student loan system to one where the Department of Education provides all the student loans as direct loans. With that, it’s all about accreditation—as long as a private university, religious or not, is accredited by an approved accreditation agency, they can get approved to offer federal aid.”

Richards also has reassuring words for those who might be concerned that their “less than perfect” credit might hinder their chances for financial aid.

“As long as a school is accredited, students just need to apply and complete the paperwork on time. That’s the biggest issue—folks just need to follow up with their applications,” Richards says. “They’re not based on your credit—one program is based on credit, but most are not. As long as you’re going to be half-time and enrolled in a program, you’re going to qualify for a student loan.”

Credit’s effect on loans

However, Michelle Morzov—the director of graduate student financial services at Azusa Pacific University—says that while Federal Stafford Loans are safe because they are guaranteed regardless of students’ economic or credit backgrounds, there has been a negative impact on credit-based loans such as the Graduate PLUS loan.

“Those loans require a credit check, and as the economy has worsened, for some students we have noticed that it may be harder for them to receive this loan than in years past, due to their individual situations,” Morzov says. “But we are committed in graduate student financial services to ensure that each student has the options they need to finance their education, and we are dedicated to walking them through that step by step. Specific departments often have their own grants and aid programs, and even have loan forgiveness for those who qualify.”

Among the suggestions Morzov has for those with credit worries is to get a co-signer for their loan. Another option is to take a few months off from school to improve credit during that period, and then reapply with a better credit rating. But regardless of credit history, she points out that students can borrow up to $20,500 per year in Stafford Loans, which is usually enough to cover tuition and other costs.

There is often additional help for students on a private level, aside from government loans. For instance, Richards notes that Fuller offers nearly $5 million in grants, scholarships and fellowships to its students each year, based on either academic achievement or financial need. Programs like Fuller’s The Great Commission are often available for students seeking creative aid.

“The Great Commission is for students who want to serve overseas in some sort of a nonprofit ministry capacity,” Richards says. “We provide a $10,000 scholarship in the second year of our program. Once they graduate and go overseas to do ministry work, we provide another $10,000 to repay any loans they might have. That’s really letting folks pursue their calling earlier than they might have without that assistance. There’s six or seven students a year selected for that process, but we’d like to expand that program out to other students also.”

Such ministry- or career-related aid is often available at universities and seminaries. For example, students studying theology at APU can receive some funding by working in ministries throughout their educational experience. APU also teams up with the Kern Foundation, which gives scholarship funds to Master of Divinity students who will be working full-time in ministry upon completion of their degrees.

Availability of aid

Of course, federal work-study programs have long been a staple of student aid. The distribution, however, has always been limited by the amount of funds available at a given time.

Both Richards and Morzov recommend students also look for regular part-time jobs that aren’t work-study on their campus, or seek work full-time at the school they’re attending.

While working full-time would likely extend the amount of time it takes to complete their studies, such students often receive significant tuition reductions—possibly even a full ride—if they work for their institution.

Depending on a student’s denomination, additional help may be available from particular churches.

“There’s quite a few church aid groups, and many are denominationally based,” Richards says. “They may have scholarships and fellowships for students from different-sized churches going into missionary or development services. Besides denominational headquarters, students should also look at their own home churches.

“The denomination might have their own overarching scholarship programs. Many times people will support them or create a scholarship for them, but they have to ask to put it together,” he continues. “There’s also the Fund for Theological Education. They have a list of scholarships for seminary students, and then they also offer their own fellowships to Master of Divinity students.”

Ultimately, what might help you most if you’re searching for funds is a combination of creativity and plain, old-fashioned common sense.

“Students shouldn’t be afraid to think outside the box for their funding—for instance, by asking someone to buy their books for a semester or quarter,” Richards says. “Another thing is, look for any scholarship for which they think they might qualify, even if it’s on the back of a cereal box. I say, go ahead and apply because it’s always good to get free money. The last thing I would say is plan ahead financially, and talk to your aid office because we’re here not only to fund their education, but to prepare them for working in the Kingdom in the future.”

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