How do you decide whether taking on student debt outweighs the professional and personal benefits of graduate school?

This decision was hard for me. I spent four years after my undergraduate studies

working for low pay at non-profits while living in expensive cities. When I was considering graduate programs I had literally no savings and my parents were not going to help me. Going to graduate school meant I was going to have to take out loans and go into debt. What made it even more overwhelming was that I really wanted to do a joint MBA/MPP program that would keep me in school for three years instead of the traditional two years for an MBA or MPP alone.

I also knew I wanted to start or join an early stage and socially focused venture after graduation that would likely not pay me as well as some more traditional post-MBA career options. What if graduate school prepared me for my dreams, but then prevented or delayed me from pursuing them because of student loans?

Financial aid opportunities for joint HBS/HKS students

As I looked more closely at joint degree programs, the financial aid available at Harvard stood out. Not only do Harvard Business School (HBS) and Harvard Kennedy School (HKS) individually offer generous aid to students in financial need, but Harvard has also created unique fellowship programs to offset the extra costs of their joint HBS/HKS program.

Many of the unique fellowship programs for HBS/HKS joint degree candidates are housed at the Center for Public Leadership (CPL), led by David Gergen and Max Bazerman. Each joint degree candidate receives different levels of financial aid based on their need, background, and professional aspirations. Most joint degree students apply for a combination of the below fellowships from the CPL:

-David M. Rubenstein Fellowship: This fellowship is specifically for first year joint degree students at HKS and HBS.

-Zuckerman Fellowship: This fellowship equips people from the fields of medicine, law, and business to provide leadership for the common good by making it possible for them to pursue public service degrees.

-George Leadership Fellowship: This fellowship is awarded to students in the HBS and HKS joint degree program who show character development and ethical leadership.

The benefit of fellowships and financial aid is more than just monetary (although that part is important). I was lucky enough to receive the David M. Rubenstein Fellowship and the George Leadership Fellowship in addition to my need-based aid from HBS and HKS. Through these fellowships I got to engage in leadership development training, develop deeper relationships with classmates, and meet world famous faculty and alumni that then became mentors. HBS also matched me with the donor of my need-based aid, and facilitated a dinner on campus with my donor. These fellowship experiences changed the trajectory of my professional and personal life.

Pursuing my dream of helping start a social enterprise

The financial aid I received from Harvard reduced my student debt load by more than half of what it would have been. Now, do not get me wrong: I still have loans to repay. But the fellowship and aid opportunities Harvard made available to me have made my debt manageable.

My fear of debt dictating my professional choices after graduation thankfully did not come to pass. After finishing the joint HBS/HKS program, I took at a job at an early stage start-up that is working to get more people with behavioral health issues the care they need, when they need it.