How I Obtained a Masters Degree from Harvard for $500–without Scholarships

Yes, you read that correctly! Despite moving to Boston with a $14K+ credit card debt, I became quite savvy at navigating the perils of financing a graduate education.

Along with learning how to balance my life, priorities and spending, I pushed myself to learn as much as possible about how to cut the costs of attending an outrageously expensive school–without having any scholarships to fall back on.

Here’s how I did it (and later applied the same knowledge to obtain another Masters degree and a few professional certificates at various universities in the area; yes, I love school!):

Secure part-time work at your university

The moment I moved to Boston, I worked to secure employment in the Harvard system (this was in addition to the other part-time job I had that provided all living expenses). Given that I knew very few people in the area and none that actually worked for the university, I had my work cut out for me.

But that obviously did not deter me and I tirelessly submitted resumes & cover letters through the online employment site. Luckily, I was called for a few interviews, was offered a position, accepted it, and have worked there ever since (7 years and counting!). Once you have this job, leverage all you can out of the amazing Tuition Assistance Programs most universities offer to all of their employees, regardless of their employment status.

Seek out assistantships.

“Assistantship” is basically a fancy word for doing grunt work for your professors. The silver lining is that most come with tuition and/or living stipends in exchange for your work. Additionally, assistantships provide ample opportunity to delve deeper into research and to network with other professors, students, and colleagues.

I waived the living stipend portion of my assistantship in lieu of a greater tuition credit. Doing so essentially meant that I would be paying only basic fees for my classes, which averaged $30-75 per course.

Cut down on course material costs.

I’ve never paid full price for a textbook, including those pesky ‘course packs’ that some professors sell themselves in the bookstore. Do your research! Those packs are usually full of case studies that can be found in libraries and online databases.

For textbooks, use search engines built for searching for low prices by ISBN number. I once found, and purchased, a book for one CENT. Also, share your books! If you trust a classmate or have a colleague taking the same course, partner up ASAP.

Identify loopholes.

When I completed my first Masters degree, the university had a policy where all Tuition Assistance Program benefits were automatically applied before any other tuition credits, etc.

By piggy-backing my TAP benefits on top of my assistantship credits, I sometimes was able to receive a refund check for the semester because I’d “overpaid.” I applied those refunds to the following semester’s courses to drive down my personal costs. It’s a double-whammy…in your favor!

Be Creative.

There are literally hundreds of ways to cut down on tuition bills, including at the undergraduate level. By being creative, doing some extra work to seek out potential deals & credits, and being diligent, you can literally save yourself thousands.

My time at Harvard should have cost me over $80,000. Instead, it was $500. If you ask me, that’s a whole heck of a lot less zeros that my bank account surely appreciated not having to fork over!!

More About Me

If you’re visiting here from CNN Money, Lifehacker, Yahoo! Finance, or another media outlet that’s shown so much love for this post, welcome! If you’d like to learn more about my debt payoff, homeownership, travel, or self-employment adventures, check out my About Me page or these posts:


Helpful Resources

This section will change periodically, but is filled with various resources to help you find your own path through grad school (and how to pay for it!):

What have you done to cut down on education-related expenses?

- Jen Smialek

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Freelancer; reformed spendaholic; risk taker; adventure seeker; world traveler; rose smeller; debt destroyer. My mission is to inspire others to live a healthy, balanced life one cent at a time.


How I Obtained a Masters Degree from Harvard for $500–without Scholarships49

  1. That is amazing! I am definitely going to take some of these tips when I go to school. One thin I've noticed is that assistanceships or the ability to do research for stipends is heavily dependent on what type of masters you go for. Most of the top business schools don't have those options, but we do get a summer internship that can pay $10k-20k for 3 months, so if you are extant frugal you can save some of that $$ for next year's tuition.

    • There's a loophole for that, too, if you're creative (and a bit sneaky)–often, if you collaborate with other professors (in this case a prof who teaches business classes at the undergrad level at your school), you can often finagle your own assistantship-esque position. Those summer internships are amazing opportunities, too!

  2. This is an amazing story and, as someone who strives to live debt-free, I admire your creativity and resourcefulness. However, I wonder if this approach was worth the opportunity cost? Obviously you value education so probably for you it's not even a monetary question. But I'm thinking of other people who might consider applying these strategies. Did having the various part-time jobs prolong your time to graduation at all? And how much was your earning potential increased by garnering the master's degree? There exists some tipping point (again, maybe not for your example, but for others) where taking the extra time to cash flow the degree may not be worth it, or the degree itself may not be worth it – strictly from a financial viewpoint.I point this out because it's a question I struggle with myself. I am 4 years into a PhD program (engineering). My tuition is covered by my advisor and I receive a stipend that is very livable for the city. At first blush, that's a great deal – I'm getting paid to go to school! But I also have to consider the money I could be making during these 5-6 years just with my B.S. (2-3 times my current stipend at least). That opportunity cost would be acceptable if my earning potential (or at least career prospects) increased dramatically as a result of this degree. However, my career plans have changed since I entered graduate school and I'm not sure how much the PhD will benefit me in the areas I'm now exploring. Perhaps I could have gotten the same jobs with just a B.S. or M.S. Is it worth it to me to finish the degree? Yes, that's why I'm still here! But it may not be the best decision financially.I bring this up not to encourage the lazy approach of just taking out loans for a degree but to encourage potential applicants to think deeply about why they want to go to grad school and how much time they are willing to spend getting a degree if it means settling for a lower-paying job in the meantime. I think in some situations finishing the degree quickly might be worth the loans because the student has a big boost in income expected upon completion of the degree (I'm thinking law, business, and med as examples).I hope my comments were not offensive to you as I only know about your situation from this post! I just wanted to bring up another perspective.

    • Emily, this is a fantastic comment; thank you so much for the thought & effort you put into it! It is definitely not offensive in the least as I value hearing other perspectives.

      I agree completely that it doesn't always make sense to attend graduate school, and I know that my situation was very unique. I basically worked myself to the bone during the 2 years I was there (which meant an on-time graduation), but I certainly sacrificed having a social life in order to do so (among other more serious things).

      On the flip side, having this degree in conjunction with significant, applicable work experience allowed me to reap insane benefits including a higher salary and a varied network of colleagues, mentors, and friends upon graduating. I also blended a bunch of part-time/miscellaneous side gigs together while I was in school to ensure I was still making about the same amount of money as before deciding to begin the program. Having such an insane schedule is a huge opportunity cost (and gamble) but it worked well for me.

      I also agree with critically analyzing your desire to attend grad school. As you've mentioned, there's no way to predict exactly what the future holds but you do need to understand what you value most prior to making such a large decision/commitment. I commend you on your decision to pursue your degree, and I believe that it will certainly be useful at some point (if only to open some doors!).

      Best of luck to you and please continue to comment here anytime!

  3. I can help but brag a little bit, but I always feel good that I essentially got paid to go to grad school. I had all tuition and fees covered, as well as health insurance and a nice $20k stipend, all thanks for have an assistantship where I worked about 20 hours a week! I know these types of things aren't super-easy to come by, but I encourage everyone to look out for them. It saved me a ton!

  4. Now that's what I call a hustler. I love love love that you didn't just think of student loans when it came to your education. More people need to think like you. I'm jealous I didn't think of this! Like I said on twitter. I'm sharing this with everyone I know. Great job

    • Thank you so much! I wish more people understood how likely it is to significantly reduce tuition bills. Yes, it takes a lot of work, but it is definitely worth it after the temporary sacrifice!

  5. I'm so glad you were able to finish your degree in two years! The reason I thought it might have taken longer was that my understanding of Tuition Assistance Programs for employees limit them to only one or two classes per semester. Maybe I'm mistaken or that's just not the case at Harvard. It certainly seems that you created an ideal situation for yourself (aside from working to the bone) between your master's work and other jobs in terms of your network and such. That's awesome!

    • You're exactly correct, my TAP benefits only covered 2 courses per semester (but I used them all 4 semesters which accounted for 8 courses and 32 credits!). That's why I sought out the assistantship, which is how I managed to get them to "pay me." By waiving the living stipend in lieu of additional academic credit vouchers, this helped me achieve the double whammy I mentioned before.

      I should note that none of this was easy and that I definitely had to be my own advocate when it came to being creative with my schedule, figuring out assistantship credits, etc. I also pushed to have previous coursework from undergrad applied to one of the courses I should have had to take, which meant those 4 credits were waived.

      By thinking outside of the box, anyone can do what I did!

  6. congrats! coming from the background I do (college planning), I can say that this is truly amazing. most college graduates have mountains of debt and I'm curious what made you want to go to graduate school? what degrees did you receive?

    • It began as a way to satisfy curiosity that perhaps I wasn't following my best path in life (ie. bored with my desk job and constantly thinking about how I had chosen not to pursue a career in Psychology). Then, it sort of morphed into a personal course of study. While this may seem flighty and the precise reason NOT to attend graduate school, I created a detailed list of rules and parameters for which to pursue this adventure (such as being able to replace my salary and continue working/gaining professional experience while in school, paying off my debt, etc, etc). Only if they were all satisfied would I continue.

      So far, it's M.A. Psychology, MEd Education, M.A. Anthropology, and Certificate in Strategic Management. I continue to take courses for personal enjoyment, but I only take those covered by my TAP benefits (this means first being accepted into a program which is usually the hardest part…haha!)

  7. Why am I not surprised that you pulled off such a feat?It's because it is you and you are like super duper ultra crazy amazing.You are such an inspiration without a doubt.

    • Thanks, Rafiki! I nearly fell out of my chair (well, off of my exercise ball that I sit on at my desk) when I logged in and saw all of your comments. THANK YOU so much for returning–your comments are always wonderful and motivate me to "keep on keepin' on" :)

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  13. Congratulations to you & thank you for sharing your great story.
    Thankfully, I also made a decision to attend an amazing university in my state that was 'public', yet still ranked in the top 10 for business. The other options open to me were all out of state, extraordinarily expensive universities. I know someone personally who racked up so much student debt, that they do not believe they will ever be able to get out of it. All the respect to you for sharing your story & helping others!

  14. I went back to school as a non-traditional student. I worked so hard. Worked, school, four children , graduated Grenville state college summa cum laude, 4th in line! Anything you need to do to get the degree, to get the higher paying job. Hard times paid off!

  15. Hey, I just saw this article posted on Rockstar Finance today. Great stuff!

    I had to stop by because I’m less than three weeks away from getting my master’s degree from Dartmouth. Like you, I was able to do it for very little money!

    I knew I wanted to go to grad school but I definitely didn’t want to pay for it so I kept an eye on Dartmouth’s job board and when a suitable position (in my case, a software developer position) was offered, I went for it. I then utilized the Tuition Assistance Program to take classes part time for free while working full time.

    It’s been a lot of work but it’s the only way to do it, in my opinion!
    Mad Fientist recently posted..JD Roth – Get Rich SlowlyMy Profile
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