When we talk about student debt, it’s often implied we’re talking about undergraduate debt. And while it is true that undergrad debt is a burden on millions of borrowers, a lot of student debt is not undergraduate debt at all. A big portion of the student debt Americans face is from loans taken out for graduate school.

Why so much grad school debt? Greater demand for advanced degrees in the job market may be the reason. While having a bachelor’s degree is becoming a necessity to get a job in the professional world, a graduate degree is often a necessity to advance. Also, many public service or nonprofit jobs, like in government or education, require a master’s degree outright.

The Basics on Grad School Debt

In light of the prevalence of grad degrees, we want to highlight a few points about debt in grad school. Here’s what you need to know:

  • A 2014 study concluded that around 40 percent of all student debt in America is graduate school debt. This debt encompasses all graduate and professional degrees.
  • Grad students in general take on bigger balances than undergrad. In fact, graduate students take on a much larger proportion of debt relative to their numbers.
  • Students pursuing professional degrees in medicine and law tend to have the highest student loan balances.
    Though they only make up small portions of graduate degree holders (5 percent for medical and 4 percent for law), their total debt load is often over $100,000 when they complete school. (Those who pursue PhDs are more likely to receive grants and other free funding, but their employment prospects are different.)
  • Master’s recipients in the fields of education, liberal arts, and sciences don’t accumulate as much debt as those pursuing professional degrees, but they still often face student loan balances in excess of $50,000, which is well above the national average.
  • Graduate students usually don’t receive funding based on financial need. Instead, grant funding for grad degrees often comes in the form of fellowships and teaching assistantships. But these are not always available to every student depending on the circumstance.
  • In 2006, Congress created the Direct PLUS program, which allowed graduate students to take out federal loans issued by the Department of Education to cover the full cost of attendance at their institution.

Funding Your Degree Without Loans

Despite the fact grad debt is widespread, it doesn’t have to be inevitable. Depending on your field, if you attend a fully-funded program or you hunt down the right grants, you could get a lot of your costs covered with funds you never have to pay back.

You can start your search with websites like Princeton Review or Peterson’s, and read each program website carefully for information about funding. You can always call or request information from specific schools as well. Or you can search with websites like ProFellow, which focuses on funding first rather than institutions or programs. A Google search for “grad school funding” will turn up millions of results, but you will have to vet each site. You may decide to apply only for programs that waive tuition for students.

Find out if your employer provides tuition reimbursement for degrees in your field. This could be a great option if you’re employed now and looking to continue your education.

Repaying Your Grad Debt

If you already have debt, you still have options. Given that graduate students often face large balances, programs for federal loan repayment like income-driven repayment plans, Public Service Loan Forgiveness, and National Health Service Corps loan repayment may come in handy. Grad degree holders in government or nonprofit jobs may especially benefit from federal repayment or forgiveness programs because their pay is often much lower than their counterparts in the private sector.

Repayment options for private student loans are far fewer and depend on your lender and servicer. Private loans may be sold more than once, so your options for repayment could change. It’s important to communicate with your servicer and get all the necessary information about your private loan and repayment possibilities.

Your Grad School Journey

This post is just a primer on grad school debt, but we hope it will get you started. If you’re applying to grad school, it’s helpful to know what lies ahead and what your options for paying for your degree are. If you are facing an expensive degree, we advise you to be thoughtful before taking on debt if you’re unsure what your job prospects will be.

If you already have your degree — and your debt — it’s good to know that you have options for repayment or even eventual forgiveness. It may also help to know you’re not the only one facing this kind of debt.