Finding financial aid for graduate school can be a difficult task, but, believe it or not, getting money is not nearly as confusing as you might think. Unfortunately, for graduate students the most widely available form of assistance is student loans. However, it pays to be diligent.
A good first step is to check with your school about what financial aid for graduate students is available.
Before seeking student loans to help cover the costs of grad school, start by using our financial aid flowchart to guide you through a series of questions that will help you explore every possible way to pay for school.
Simply respond to each question with a "yes" or "no" and, depending on your answer, you'll be taken to the next logical step that you should take when pulling together your financial aid plan. Completing this short exercise may open your eyes to alternative ways to funding your college education.
The Basics of Financial Aid for Graduate School
Every student, whether you're an incoming freshman or pursuing a Master's degree, should always apply for financial aid even if you think won't qualify. You may qualify for a Direct Student Loan or your school may decide to award you work-study based on financial need. There are many variables at play, and it's best to be sure rather than make any assumptions.
Filing for the Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA) is essential because it determines eligibility for Direct Student Loan programs as well as for many scholarship programs, private grants, and fellowships.
If you think you'll apply for federal student loans, the FAFSA also serves as your application, so be sure to file the FAFSA if you want to take advantage of these low cost loan programs.
For grad students, financial aid is a fellowship, loan, or assistantship program. The majority of graduate students rely on some form of financing (such as Direct Student Loans) to pay for their college tuition and expenses.
Be sure to contact both your school's graduate admissions office and your program's department to inquire about the availability of assistantships, tuition remission, and/or school-specific fellowships. You should also search for outside scholarships.
What Can You Borrow?
A graduate student can borrow as much as $20,500 (health professional students can borrow as much as $38,500) through the Federal Unsubsidized Direct Student Loan Program.
Grad students can also borrow through the Federal Grad PLUS program. The Grad PLUS loan is based on credit, and repayment begins within 60 days after the second disbursement (payment can be deffered while you are enrolled half-time or more).
Under the Federal Grad PLUS program, you can borrow as much as your Cost of Attendance (COA) minus other financial aid including other loans.
There are also private student loan options to help meet costs not covered by the Direct Student Loans. If you are attending school enrolled part-time or more, you can apply to defer full repayment until after you graduate (some private stuent loans require interest-only payment or a small proactive payment while you are in school).
If you do have to borrow, borrow only what you need. Keep in mind your expected salary after graduation and factor it into how much you will be able to afford to repay when the time comes.
Filing the FAFSA for Graduate School
The quickest way to file the FAFSA is by doing so online. You can sign your FAFSA electronically with a PIN you can obtain from the PIN Site. Make a note to complete the FAFSA as soon as possible after October 1st of the prior year in which you will need funding.
It will be easier to fill out the FAFSA if you have these items handy:
- Your Social Security card and driver's license
- Your W-2 Forms or other records of earned-income (and your spouse's, if you are married) federal income tax return.
- Records of other untaxed income you received, including welfare benefits, social security benefits, TANF, veteran's benefits, and military or clergy allowances
- Your current bank statements and records of stocks, bonds, and other investments
- Your business or farm records, if applicable
- Your alien registration card (if you are not a U.S. citizen)
Other Applications You May Need to Complete
Institutional Aid Applications
Some schools require you to complete a form they provide you. This is called an institutional aid application. On this form you will tell the school about outside scholarships you expect to receive and whether you're interested in other types of aid such as work study.
Often you can also use this form to explain any special circumstances not taken into account on the FAFSA. If your grad school program requires one of these applications, they will mail it to you.
Eligibility for Graduate School Financial Aid
Your eligibility for financial aid will be determined by your school's financial aid office, in conjunction with their review of your processed FAFSA data. The FAFSA calculates a number called Expected Family Contribution, or EFC.
The EFC, when subtracted from your college's Cost of Attendance (COA) determines your financial need. Your college or university determines the COA. The amount will include tuition, room and board, fees and estimated living expenses including books and supplies.
COA – EFC = Financial Need
Financial need is an official term for how much need-based financial aid you're eligible for. Your financial need is calculated by subtracting the EFC from the COA. In order for you to receive need-based aid, your COA must be greater than your EFC.
Your college or university will use the need-based resources they have available to try to meet your Financial Need. In most cases for graduate students, you financial need will not come into play as there are only non-need based federal programs for graduate students. If, however, you receive and outside scholarship that is only given to needy students, your financial need would be a factor.
If you receive a need-based grant, your need comes into play when determining the maximum amount of need-based assistance you can receive.
For example, if your school has a COA of $20,000, you have an EFC of $10,000 and the outside scholarship is $12,000, you would only be able to receive $10,000 of the $12,000 award. The remainder would have to be returned to the provider.
Once the college has received your processed FAFSA data, they still might need more information in order to finalize your award. If the school needs anything to complete your package, you can be sure they'll notify you.
Things that are typically requested include federal income tax returns/transcripts, W-2 wage earnings statements, 1099′s and/or whether you'll be receiving an outside scholarship.
Be sure to respond to the school promptly because they won't be able to finish processing your aid until their requests are satisfied.
If you wish to borrow Stafford or Direct PLUS loans (if offered), you'll need to sign promissory notes. You school will be sure to get you the information you need for these loan programs.
If something trips you up, you have questions or don't understand something, call the financial aid office and ask for help — they'll be ready and willing to assist!
Types of Aid
Student loans are the primary source of financial aid for graduate students. Other sources include fellowships, grants from the institution itself, scholarships, and work programs. Learn more about the types of financial aid.
Student Loan Programs
If you think you'll need to borrow money using student loans, here's an overview of the various loan programs that are available for grad students. Visit the student loan section for more in-depth detail on all student loan types.
Federal Direct Student Loans
- Unsubsidized only – Interest on federal direct loans accrue on a daily basis. You pay the interest or defer interest until you graduate or are no longer enrolled or not in deferment. However, you are not required to pay the interest until the loan enters repayment. Any unpaid interest will be added to the principal amount of the loan when the loan enters repayment.
- Fixed interest rate of 6.08%
- Up to 25 years to repay depending on total borrowed
- Maximum of $73,500 unsubsidized only. Graduate Health Professional loan limit is as much as $38,500
- Payment begins 6 months after you graduate or are enrolled on less than a half time basis
Federal Grad PLUS Loan
- Available to graduate students
- Fixed interest rate of 7.08% with a 4.236% fee (before October 2020)
- Must meet federal credit requirements
- May borrow up to the Cost of Attendance minus other financial aid including other loans
- Payment begins within 60 days after the second disbursement of the loan, but may be deferred while attending school half-time or more. However, interest is accruing daily and any unpaid interest will be added to the principal amount once the loan enters repayment
- Up to 25 years to repay if total borrowed amount exceeds $30,000. Ten years is the standard repayment term
Private Student Loans
Financing for graduate school is available through banks and other lenders. We provide an easy-to-use private student loan comparison to evaluate your needs and find a loan program that's right fo your. Use our LoanFinder to get started.
- Generally offered to very few graduate students
- Available to students with need
- Net Federal Work Study earnings may not exceed financial need
- Award is paid directly to the student in the form of a paycheck
For more information about work study, click here.
Your college or university, also known as your institution, may provide different types of institutional aid for students. Common forms of aid include:
- Tuition Remission
- Graduate Assistantships
Be sure to check with your school to see what may be available to you.
Scholarships for Graduate School Students
Thousands of scholarships based on need, achievement, affiliation and/or a myriad of other criteria are awarded to students each year. One source to search and apply for scholarships is Unigo.com. After completing a profile about your education, background and interests, you will be matched with relevant awards. Scholarships are available for students at all levels of education — even graduate students.
Corporate / Employer Benefits for Students Attending Graduate School
If you're working part-time or full-time with a company or organization, you may be eligible for tuition reimbursement if the courses you're enrolled in are aligned with your job description or career. Take the time to check with your employer about tuition reimbursement for employees pursuing advanced degrees or loan forgiveness programs.
These programs are usually managed by your HR department and descriptions of what is offered should be in your benefits package. Even if these benefits are not offered, check with your supervisor to see if your company is willing to contribute to your education, especially if your education will directly benefit your employer or if it will clearly lead to your long-term retention.