How to Get Financial Aid for Graduate School
Can you get financial aid for grad school? Yes, you can use grants, scholarships, work-study programs and assistantships to help pay for your grad school expenses.
Submitting the Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA) and applying for scholarships every year can reduce the amount you need to borrow in graduate student loans. Here’s what you need to know about funding for graduate school.
Types of financial aid for grad school
Whether you’re looking for financial aid for your master’s degree or another advanced degree, check out the grad school funding options below before resorting to expensive student loans.
- FAFSA: The Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA) can help you access federal, state and school-based grants, as well as work-study opportunities.
- Scholarships and grants: Many government and private organizations offer a range of scholarships based on merit, demographics or field of study.
- Fellowships: In exchange for research, a fellowship can help pay your way to your advanced degree.
- Assistantships: A teaching or assistant role could provide graduate students a living stipend or tuition waiver.
- Tuition reimbursement: Some companies offer student loan repayment assistance as an employee perk.
FAFSA for grad school
You likely filled out the Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA) as an undergraduate student. The process of getting financial aid for graduate school is basically the same, with eligibility determined by financial need. However, FAFSA doesn’t have a maximum income cutoff — meaning it’s worth applying even if you think you make too much money.
While there’s no age cutoff to file the FAFSA for graduate school, there are eligibility limitations. You must be a U.S. citizen or eligible noncitizen enrolled or accepted in an eligible degree or certificate program. Furthermore, having a criminal conviction, having previously defaulted on a student loan or owing a Pell Grant overpayment could affect your eligibility for federal aid.
Since the Department of Education now considers you an independent student, your grad school award package is based solely on your (and your spouse’s, if applicable) income and assets. Your parents’ financial details aren’t typically required, except for certain professional programs, like medical school.
In addition to loans, FAFSA can help grad students receive the following types of aid:
School and state aid
Most schools offer institutional aid based on financial need or academic excellence. These are school-sponsored grants that generally don’t need to be repaid, although there may be specific stipulations, such as maintaining a certain GPA.
You should also contact the state grant agency to determine if your state offers financial aid for grad students. Even if you’re considering an out-of-state school, the relevant state agency can tell you about their available aid.
Check out the Department of Education’s map to find your state’s contact information.
Work-study programs vary by school and are offered on a first-come, first-served basis. Your award amount is based on your level of financial need, your school’s funding and when you apply.
Graduate and professional students can be paid by the hour or on a regular salary, with the funds going directly to you. However, you can choose to have your paycheck fund your school expenses.
If eligible, your aid package will include federal and state grants based on your field of study, interest or school type. For example, the Teacher Education Assistance for College and Higher Education (TEACH) grant provides up to $4,000 a year to students committed to teaching in low-income or high-needs schools after graduate school.
While federal Pell Grants are typically reserved for undergraduate students, you may be eligible for a Pell Grant for graduate school if enrolled in a post-baccalaureate teacher certification program. These are need-based funds that you won’t normally need to repay.
Scholarships and grants
Another way to get free money for graduate school is through grad school scholarships and grants. While finding a scholarship that fits your specific needs and criteria can take time, reducing your overall student loan debt is worth the effort.
There are a variety of popular scholarship websites to help you find money for graduate school, including Fastweb, Peterson’s and Scholarships.com, among others. Check out our guide to scholarship search tools for more scholarship resources.
Fellowships are merit-based grants that can cover your tuition, room and board and other living expenses. You can apply for an institutional fellowship through your school or find a fellowship offered by another organization.
Not only can these fellowships help keep your educational costs low, but they can also allow you to hone your skills in the field and build your resume. Your fellowship work might tie directly into your future career, including duties such as teaching or research in a particular area.
Assistantships, similar to fellowships, can provide living stipends for your work as a teaching or research assistant. However, these roles tend to require a significant time commitment.
The average assistantship position requires between 10 and 20 hours of work per week and often involves teaching undergraduates, conducting lab work for your professor or similar tasks. Your workload can add up fast when paired with a challenging course load.
Although assistantships are common, they can be limited in number. Reach out to your school as soon as possible to see what’s available, and apply quickly to ensure you don’t come up empty-handed.
If you already have a job and plan to keep working while in grad school, check if your employer offers tuition reimbursement. Many large companies offer this benefit to employees pursuing or paying off their higher education.
Some companies limit the amount you can be reimbursed for tuition each year, while others may have an unlimited policy. Talk to your human resources department to find out what your company offers.
Student loans for graduate school
If you’ve exhausted the grad school financial aid options above, federal and private student loans could help fill any remaining gaps in your funding for graduate school.
Federal student loans
The FAFSA is the only way to obtain federal student loans for grad school. You should prioritize federal loans over private ones since they come with lower interest rates and more flexibility, including access to income-driven repayment plans.
Remember to complete your FAFSA early to access the most funds possible. The application period opens in October before the start of the new school year — so for the 2023-24 year, you could have filed your FAFSA as early as Oct. 1, 2022.
As a grad student, you have two federal student loan options:
- Direct unsubsidized loans: With a current interest rate of 6.5% and a one-time loan disbursement fee of 1.057%, Direct unsubsidized loans can help you save on interest and fees compared to PLUS loans (see below). However, direct loans have an annual borrowing limit of $20,500 and a lifetime cap of $138,500. The lifetime limit includes federal loans from your undergraduate degree.
- Grad PLUS loans: At present, PLUS loans have an interest rate of 7.54% and a disbursement fee of 4.228%, making it the most costly type of federal loan. However, PLUS loans don’t limit how much you can borrow over your college career, allowing you to borrow up to the total cost of attendance for your school.
Unfortunately, graduate students aren’t eligible to receive subsidized student loans. If you feel like you didn’t receive adequate federal funding, you can ask for more financial aid in an appeal.
Private student loans
Unlike government-funded federal loans, private student loans are lent out by banks, credit unions and other financial institutions. It’s crucial to weigh the pros and cons of private student loans before taking on more debt.
While they can help in a bind, private loans don’t offer the same protections as federal loans, such as income-driven repayment plans or federal student loan forgiveness. Furthermore, private loan interest rates are typically higher than federal loans, costing you more.
However, your personal financial situation might make private loans a necessity. If that’s the case, research private student loan lenders to find the most competitive offer. Unlike federal financial aid, your credit score generally determines your private student loan rates and terms.