How to cover the cost of your master’s of public health degree

BY Rich GrisetApril 28, 2022, 1:17 PM
People walk past a directional sign for the financial aid office at City College of San Francisco, as seen in December 2017. (Photo By Lea Suzuki—The San Francisco Chronicle/Getty Images)

Pursuing an online master’s of public health degree is no small undertaking. In addition to classes and study time, there’s also the hefty price tag to consider. Obtaining an online MPH at George Washington University, the holder of the No. 1 spot on Fortune’s first-ever ranking of the best online master’s of public health programs, will set you back $81,000. Other online programs, such as those offered by Baylor University and the University of Southern California, cost more than $40,000.

While scholarships and financial aid can help cover that cost, private loans are the most common way for students to pay for their master’s degree in public health (MPH).

“Pursuing a master’s degree, a lot of times students end up borrowing, and borrowing a lot of money,” says Leissan Sadykova, assistant director of financial aid, scholarships and graduate assistantship at GWU’s Milken Institute School of Public Health. With a student body of more than 1,000 students, GWU is the largest online MPH programs ranked by Fortune—and the school has helped students navigate paying for their degree since the program was established nearly a decade ago.

While students must navigate paying for the degree, there are plenty of benefits to earning an MPH. Not only are graduates trained in a field dedicated to promoting health, prolonging life, and preventing disease, but they also stand to earn higher salaries, like making $120,000 as a biostatistician.

So, how can potential students cover the cost of an MPH degree? Read on.

Where should potential students begin their search for funding their MPH?

When considering how to pay for your MPH degree, Sadykova recommends starting at the public health school you’re interested in and inquiring about scholarships, as scholarship awarding can differ greatly from school to school.

“Check either the school website or reach out to the scholarship office directly,” she says. “Some schools have scholarships awarded within their admissions office, so sometimes you reach out to admissions, which might be a good place to start.”

And pay attention to deadlines, Sadykova advises. While a school of public health may have rolling admissions for its online MPH program, that same school may have annual deadlines to apply for financial aid and scholarships.

How do most people pay for their MPH degrees? 

Students pursuing a master’s of public health primarily pay for their degrees through private, unsubsidized loans.

“Unfortunately, graduate students are not eligible for any need-based aid from the government, so when they fill out their [Free Application for Federal Student Aid form], they’re only going to see an unsubsidized loan. They’re not going to see any subsidized [loans], they’re not going to see any Pell Grants,” Sadykova says, referring to the federal grants awarded primarily to undergrad students who display exceptional financial need.

Because there are annual loan limits for unsubsidized loans – and students sometimes need more funding than their annual loan limit to pay for tuition, room, and board – students can apply for federal PLUS Loans. These loans are part of the Federal Direct Student Loan Program and offer a variety of flexible repayment plans.

Federal loans have a special appeal for students who want to teach after obtaining their MPH degree or pursuing a Ph.D. program. “With federal loans, as long as you’re enrolled in an accredited program, your loans do not go into repayment, which is really nice,” Sadykova says.

Federal loan borrowers may be able to alleviate their student loan debt through loan forgiveness programs after graduation. For example, people employed by a U.S. federal, state, local, or tribal government or not-for-profit organization may be eligible for the Public Service Loan Forgiveness Program.

Most federal student loans are also eligible for income-based repayment plans. Additionally, federal student loans usually have forbearance options; since March 2020, federal student loan payments have been paused and the interest rate has been set to 0%.

Students may also consider private loans to help pay for their MPH. As interest rates on federal loans are set by the federal government every July 1, those loans can have higher interest rates than private ones. For borrowers with good credit, private loans may appeal, especially if the borrower’s goal is to pay off those loans as quickly as possible.

“If they have excellent credit, they could get a loan for 3%, versus 4% on the federal government side,” says Sadykova, adding that she’s not advocating for one type of loan over another.

What other ways can someone pay for an MPH?

Some higher learning institutions offer scholarships for MPH degrees.

“Those are usually merit-based, and they’re usually based on the admissions application itself,” Sadykova says. “Some schools might have supplementary essays they want you do to do be considered for certain scholarships.”

Some scholarship offices will reach out to students and invite them to complete an essay. Other offices will just use their admissions applications to award scholarships.

Colleges may also opt to use a student’s FAFSA or CSS Profile to determine need-based financial aid. Managed by the College Board, a CSS Profile collects financial information about students outside of what a FAFSA may provide. Schools may use a combination of these methods to determine financial need.

Because MPH programs generally last two years, Sadykova says schools usually award scholarships when students are admitted and don’t generally deviate from that awarding amount.

Still, students may receive financial assistance through exchanges like serving as a teaching assistant or conducting graduate research. While developing a relationship with a professor is the normal route for these exchanges, students can also pursue them at the time of admission, informing the admissions office and stating on their application that they’re interested in these opportunities.

There are also fellowships from outside the university that can be applied to an MPH, such as the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s fellowship in injury prevention. Sadykova says it’s important to understand the terms and conditions of these types of fellowships, as they might not cover all credit hours of a term.

While uncommon, it’s also possible for a student to have their employer help them pay for an MPH. Sadykova says it’s usually best to approach your employer first and ask if they have any tuition remission programs or support.

If approved, some employers will pay the school directly for their employee to attend; others may have their employee front the money, then reimburse them each term after their grades are posted. Sadykova warns students that some employer tuition remission can’t be stacked on top of a scholarship.

What are the dangers of borrowing for your MPH?

As the loans start to stack up, Sadykova says that many borrowers stop keeping track of how much money they owe; less than half of student loan borrowers know the full amount they’re borrowing.

She stresses that prospective students should make a budget while looking at the average cost of attendance listed on a school’s website. It’s important to make sure that your budget is equal to or less than the cost of attending.

Sadykova recommends prospective students use Grad Path, a tool created by the federal Consumer Financial Protection Bureau that estimates how much they’ll have to repay each month after graduating. By putting their college costs, scholarships, and loans into the tool, prospective students can get a sense of what their monthly loan repayments will be.

“It’s really important to understand the consequence of that borrowing,” Sadykova says. “Having that information up-front makes loans seem a bit more real.”

See how the schools you’re considering landed in Fortune’s rankings of the best master’s in public health programsbusiness analytics programsdata science programs, and part-timeexecutive, full-time, and online MBA programs.