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How to Pay for Graduate School When You Work For a Nonprofit

How to Pay for Graduate School When You Work For a Nonprofit

If you work for a nonprofit in the U.S. or another country, or if you raise your own support as a missionary or volunteer, you know what a challenge it can be to think about going back to school. From my own experience helping students enroll in the MA in International Community Development program at Northwest University (and as a student of the program myself), financing your degree is an issue that requires a thoughtful, personalized strategy, which will be unique for each person. But if a graduate degree is your goal, it’s very likely possible! Here are some questions to consider as you create a payment plan.

Where do you want to be in two or three years, and what do you need to get there?

The MA is the new BA, in the nonprofit sector; good jobs that don’t require an MA are difficult to find. 

When I applied for graduate school, I was working at a job that wasn’t a great fit. I had a choice of waiting a year to get employee benefits for my education, or starting right away and paying out of pocket (with loans as well). I knew the “correct” answer was to wait until later, but I also knew that I was going to need to do something now, if I wanted to move forward soon. So I jumped in—and within three months of starting my degree program, I had a job that was a much better fit. Eventually, that led me to my current role, which I truly enjoy. The financial cost of that first year was well worth it, for me.

Everyone’s story is different, but don’t forget to take all the factors into account, in your calculations. Is it really cheaper to work for a whole year or two for less money (in something you may not even like) and then go to graduate school? Quite often, the salary differential will more than make up for the cost of a moderate amount of school debt, over time. And from an employer perspective, even starting an MA program can make you a better fit for some roles. Don’t forget to weigh future earning power—and the value of your time.

Can you find a scholarship or tuition discount?

In the U.S., the MA degree is generally the most difficult degree to find grant and scholarships for. (Fortunately, though, it does also cost quite a bit less than a bachelor’s or doctoral degree.) Here are a few options:

For international students: Many schools have scholarships that apply uniquely to international students. At Northwest, our MA in International Community Development program does offer a couple of competitive, partial scholarships to those who cannot access U.S. student loans. 

For anyone: If a college-specific scholarship is not available or isn’t a great fit, dedicate some time to research applications; you may be able to get an outside scholarship. How to find one:

  • Set aside a few hours for internet research. (Please do be careful of scholarships that request a lot of information from you, without providing a way for you to verify the legitimacy of the offering organization; there are a few scams out there.) Northwest University has collected some links to both scholarship search engines and individual scholarships, which may be relevant.
  • Ask your enrollment counselor to point you toward any outside scholarships they know of that are particularly program-relevant.
  • Visit a library to research scholarships and educational grants in person. While some libraries, like the Redmond Public Library near Northwest University’s main campus, may have a special section for researching grants and philanthropy (and a program preparing you for working in nonprofits might be a good fit for some grants!), most libraries in the U.S. will provide access to annually-published books of private scholarship opportunities.

What about military aid?

Most schools are happy to help you apply your military aid package—and many provide additional assistance! Be sure to check in with the VA coordinator. 

How does this fit into your larger plan for serving communities?

And then: is it a plan that others might want to be part of?

Do you have a plan or a dream for a community (or an issue, or a movement)? Do you have (ideally) some experience in this field or community? Consider creating a business plan, or a vision-casting proposal taking finances into account, to communicate: a) how this degree will fit into your plan to serve, and b) how it will ultimately benefit others. You can then use this business plan to raise funds for your degree—perhaps with your employer, your church, your connections, or even with businesses looking to provide a community benefit. Make your degree in community development a community effort, right from the beginning. Here’s a surprising, but reassuring, personal observation: Raising funds for education, done correctly, does not tend to divert fundraising from other areas. Don’t hesitate to reach out to your enrollment counselor for resources to put together a business plan or a fundraising strategy; they are likely to have a few good ideas, and may be able to put you in touch with other students who have relevant experience.

It’s even possible that your nonprofit would consider a sponsorship or a partnership. Larger nonprofits, and some smaller ones, may already have a program in place to pay a portion of an employee’s tuition. You should definitely find out if yours does. If not, consider spearheading the effort yourself to show the benefits of such a program. And don’t be afraid to approach your university with a win-win proposal. While this might take longer to put together, it never hurts to ask.

How much can you pay out of pocket?

Programs vary widely in their price ranges. Students coming into the MA in International Community Development program are often considering degrees in similar fields (sociology, public health, etc.), which tend to cost more in the United States. They may be pleasantly surprised to find out that our tuition cost is just over $12,000 per academic year. Many students do manage to study without loans or sponsorships, by cutting expenses and continuing to work while in the program.

Cutting expenses might mean finding a less expensive (or even free!) place to live, for a while. If you have parents who will let you live at home, or the ability to do a program online and also work remotely from a location with lower living expenses, that can be a great deal. Of course, that can’t work for everyone, which brings us to the topic of scholarships and loans.

Is debt a reasonable way forward? How much can you afford? 

Most accredited programs are eligible for U.S. federal financial aid through the FAFSA program (as well as for deferment of prior school debt during one’s years of study). With a few exceptions, U.S. students are eligible for the Stafford loan of $20,500 per year. Since that is more than students need for Northwest’s MAICD, most people in this program borrow what they need each semester, and pay the rest out of pocket. Of course, it’s important to check with Financial Student Services at your school.

Some international students find that they can also obtain a loan in their country of origin in order to pay for part of an online degree. 

How does “debt forgiveness” work?

Debt forgiveness programs for U.S. students are highly specific and may change with time. But if you work for a nonprofit, this is, at least, a possibility. Do your research carefully and be sure to check with your organization for any information about eligibility, as well as with the Department of Education.  

Most importantly: don’t give up! There are always obstacles when you pursue great things. But if you are pursuing “knowledge in order to serve” others—well, as Bernard of Clairvaux stated, “that is love.” It is not merely a great thing for yourself, but for your community. There is no need to go it alone.

Lisa San Martin is the Program Advisor for the MA in International Community Development program at Northwest University. After spending six years in Ukraine and Argentina, primarily in educational settings and roles, she completed the on-campus version of the MAICD program and was instrumental in its launch as an online hybrid program. Hearing the stories of students and future students from all over the world is Lisa’s favorite thing. In her free time, she drinks yerba mate with her Argentinean husband, plans trips, and weeds the garden. For questions about the MAICD program, she can be reached at

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