How to Afford a Network Engineering Graduate Program When You Still Have College Debt

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The return on investment, or ROI, of a network engineering master's degree is easy to calculate. The cost of a Master of Science in Network Engineering (MSNE) is not. Several factors make estimating how much you'll spend to earn your degree challenging. First, tuition is only one of several expenses you'll have as a graduate student. Second, it is doubtful you will pay the total sticker price of an MSNE out of pocket. And third, you probably won't know precisely how much financial aid, scholarships and employer tuition reimbursement you will receive until after applying to on-campus or online network engineer graduate programs.

You shouldn't let that uncertainty stop you from pursuing a master's in network engineering. Figuring out how much an MSNE will cost and how to pay for it can be challenging – especially if you still have college debt left over from your bachelor's degree days – but it's not impossible when you understand your options. This guide explores how to pay for an MSNE, cost reduction strategies that can make graduate school more affordable, and what makes Southern Methodist University Lyle School of Engineering's online Master of Science in Network Engineering one of the best programs around for value-focused network engineers.

Why You Should Enroll in a Network Engineering Graduate Program

If you want to earn more in a network engineering career or advance past network administration roles, applying to graduate school programs is an excellent first step toward meeting that goal. Network engineering bachelor degree holders earn about $77,000 while MSNE holders typically earn about $100,000 – and often have titles related to network infrastructure management and, network architecture and design. The uncertain future of network engineering may be an even better reason to pursue advanced education. Network engineering has evolved from a discipline chiefly concerned with switching and routing, optimizing network traffic, and maintaining network stability into a field closely intertwined with cloud computing, the Internet-of-Things, mobile connectivity, artificial intelligence and virtualization.

The future of networking and telecommunications may involve more specialization, software engineering and increased demand for soft skills. Enrolling in a graduate-level network engineering degree program is one of the most efficient ways to ensure you have the technical skills and adaptability to excel in the next iteration of network engineering.

Everything You Need to Know About Student Loans for Master's Degrees

SMU's 30-credit MSNE costs $1,350 per credit hour, or $43,500 in total tuition, plus fees and the cost of supplies. The program's total cost represents a substantial sum, but keep in mind that you will likely finance your master's degree using various forms of financial aid including student loans. Graduate school loans are so common that half of all loans issued by the federal government for education go to master's degree candidates.

Graduate student loans are similar to the loans undergraduates use to pay for college. You can take advantage of two types of federal student loans: low-interest Direct Unsubsidized Loans and no-limit Graduate PLUS loans. You can use Direct loans to pay for up to $20,500 of expenses annually even if you don't qualify for need-based financial aid, provided you take six credits or more per semester. Graduate PLUS loans have higher interest rates and fees but no borrowing limit, which means you can use PLUS loans to cover the entire cost of an MSNE.

To determine your eligibility for both loans, fill out the Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA) well before your anticipated enrollment date. Having moderate college debt shouldn't affect your overall eligibility for student loans but may impact how much you can borrow through the Direct loan program, which has a lifetime borrowing limit of $138,500. If you borrowed close to that amount to finance an undergraduate degree in computer science, computer engineering, information systems, or network security, you might need to use Grad PLUS or even private loans to pay for your master's.

Is Earning an MSNE When You're Still Paying Off College Loans Worth It?

Absolutely. The long-term benefits of earning a network engineering master's should ease any short-term discomfort you feel related to adding to your debt load. You should certainly think about how changing your debt-to-income (DTI) ratio will impact your personal life, how long you will be in debt after taking out additional loans, and whether paying off your undergraduate debt before enrolling in an MSNE program is a possibility. However, don't discount the increase in lifetime earning potential you'll enjoy after earning a master's degree in network engineering. You may be able to pay down a more significant percentage of your student loan debt more quickly with a graduate degree on your resume.

Ways You Can Reduce the Out-of-Pocket Cost of an MSNE

You can take other steps to reduce your out-of-pocket expenses when you're in graduate school beyond applying for loans.

First, look into employer tuition reimbursement. Someone in HR should be able to tell you whether your company has a formal tuition reimbursement program and, if so, what the terms are. Some companies offer all employees tuition assistance, while others restrict program participation to employees who have worked for a specific period and/or agree to stay for a set number of years. Most employer-sponsored tuition assistance programs pay out a specific dollar amount per semester – usually, once the semester wraps up. Reimbursements are often capped at $5,250 annually because benefits above that amount are taxable as income.

Next, research external scholarships. There's no cap to the amount of scholarship money you can receive from external funders, but graduate student scholarships are less common than undergraduate scholarships. You can search for MSNE scholarships on sites such as FastWeb and with tools like Sallie Mae's Graduate School Scholarship Search – a database of only graduate school scholarships. Once you've identified several privately-funded scholarships that might be a good fit, the more challenging work begins. Applying for scholarships can be overwhelming, but if you stay organized and stay on top of deadlines, you can reduce your graduate school expenses significantly.

Finally, look into university payment options. As an SMU MSNE candidate, you can choose from a variety of payment plan options available during the Fall, Spring and Summer terms. You can pay your student account charges in monthly installments for most of the year instead of one lump sum with no penalties or interest.

Answers to the Most Common Questions About Financial Aid

When should I apply for student loans or scholarships?

As soon as possible. Each year's new FAFSA application period opens on October 1. Applying on or shortly after that date means you'll be eligible for federal funds awarded on a first-come, first-served basis. Private scholarships often have limited funds and operate the same way. Submitting scholarship applications on or before deadline doesn't guarantee you'll win funds but may increase your chances of success.

When will I know if I've received loans or scholarships?

You should receive your Student Aid Report (SAR) about two weeks after submitting your FAFSA application. The SAR provides a high-level estimate of your eligibility for federal student aid. While it may differ somewhat from the financial aid offer you receive from universities, it will give you an idea of how much financial assistance you can tap into while in graduate school. Meanwhile, the entities that grant private scholarships send offer letters on their own timelines. Look for information on turnaround times in scholarship application guidelines.

What if I don't qualify for any graduate student loans?

If you can't pay out of pocket and you won't receive any additional aid from scholarships or your employer, your next option is to finance your MSNE with private loans. The downsides of using private loans to fund a master's degree are that bank loans are harder to get, tend to have higher interest rates, and may have fewer or no deferral options for payback. The upside is that private loans typically have no application deadlines, so they're always available if other financing options fall through.

How can I get more information about financial aid at SMU Lyle? For more information about graduate student loans, scholarships, or how to apply for financial aid and services, visit SMU Lyle’s financial aid page, email lyleonline@smu.edu, or call (469) 613-0778.

Are Online Network Engineering Graduate Programs Less Expensive?

Yes and no. The average cost of online network engineering graduate programs is comparable to on-campus programs at most universities, so you probably won't see any discount just because you're a distance learner. You may still end up paying less for your MSNE than students who enroll in on-campus programs, however, for the following reasons:

You can study from anywhere an online network engineering graduate program – even at home. You'll save time you'd otherwise spend commuting to and from campus, and time equals money. Your transportation costs may add up quickly if you choose an on-campus program. As a distance learner, you won't pay for gas, tolls, parking passes, wear and tear on your vehicle or meals in the dining hall.

You'll save on relocation costs when you choose an online MSNE program. Relocating to attend a network engineering graduate program at a highly regarded engineering school such as SMU Lyle can cost thousands of dollars. Studying online lets you enroll in a top MSNE program even if you don't live near that program.

You don't have to sacrifice income in an online network engineering graduate program. A full-time, on-campus master's program with the same sticker price as a part-time online program still costs more if you think of lost income as an expense. You can continue working full-time, earning income and advancing in a network engineering career while in SMU Lyle's flexible online MSNE program.

Weighing the Costs and Benefits of a Graduate Degree

You shouldn't ignore cost when considering whether to get an MSNE, but don't get so bogged down thinking about tuition that you discount the many benefits of having this degree. Some of those benefits are purely financial. The highest-paid jobs in network engineering often go to master's holders, which may be why close to 25 percent of network engineers have graduate degrees. You may need to increase your debt load to become one of them, but statistics suggest you'll earn more and advance more quickly after graduation – making it easier to pay off college debt.

Then there are the numerous intangible benefits of earning an M.S. in Network Engineering. You'll hone crucial network engineering skills in SMU's online MSNE program through hands-on project work with leading companies such CITI and Verizon and learn how to adapt to the rapidly changing technological requirements that have become a defining feature of this field. You'll graduate prepared to pursue in-demand Juniper, Cisco, Amazon Web Services, Microsoft Azure and Google Cloud Platform certifications. And you'll build valuable connections with SMU Lyle alumni at leading companies such as Facebook and Google.

Whether you need a master's degree to become a network engineer remains a question with no conclusive answer. Keep in mind, however, that having a master's degree from a notable university such as SMU already signals to hiring managers that you are qualified to take on the network engineering challenges of today. As networking evolves and network engineering roles become more specialized, more employers will seek out engineers with master's degrees and the utility and value of your MSNE go up.

That makes an online M.S. in Network Engineering from SMU is an intelligent investment in your future. There's no GRE required for admission, and financial aid is available. If you have questions about admissions requirements, application deadlines, or the student experience, contact us to speak with an enrollment advisor.