Financial Aid for Graduate School: Who Qualifies and How to Apply

Take advantage of free aid through the FAFSA and merit-based programs before considering student loans.
Cecilia ClarkJun 4, 2021

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Key takeaways

  • Financial aid for graduate school includes grants, scholarships, fellowships, assistantships and loans.

  • Exhaust all opportunities for free aid before considering student loans.

  • If you take out student loans, borrow federal direct loans first. For additional funding, compare offers between federal PLUS loans and private loans to see where you’ll get the best deal.

If you’re considering graduate school, make sure you have a funding plan in place ahead of time. Costs for graduate school can vary greatly depending on the type and length of the program, but there are opportunities to help cut down out-of-pocket costs.

Graduate students can get financial aid through:

  • FAFSA: The Free Application for Federal Student Aid provides access to federal, state and some school-based grants.

  • Organization grants: Industry-specific organizations may provide grants to those studying in relevant fields.

  • Scholarships: State governments, schools and private organizations may provide scholarships for academic excellence or other factors, like studying in high-needs fields or increasing diversity.

  • Fellowships: Schools, private organizations and government entities offer fellowships based on field of study and academic performance in exchange for research activities.

  • Assistantships: Schools may award living stipends and tuition waivers to full-time students in exchange for work.

  • Employer tuition assistance: Employers may offer to reimburse their employees’ tuition expenses as an employment benefit.

Here’s who qualifies and how to apply for each type of aid.

Grants

Complete the Free Application for Federal Student Aid, or FAFSA, as your first step to funding your graduate education. Citizens and eligible non-citizen graduate students, including permanent residents and U.S. nationals, are eligible to file.

You must file the FAFSA to qualify for federal and state-based grant awards. Many school-based grants also require the FAFSA.

Federal grants for graduate students include the Teacher Education Assistance for College and Higher Education, or TEACH, grant. The TEACH grant provides up to $4,000 a year to education students who will teach in a low-income school or high-needs field after graduation.

Contact the department of education for your state and your school’s state to learn more about state-based grant opportunities.

Contact your school’s financial aid office to learn more about school-based grants and ask your department head about industry-specific grants.

Scholarships

Scholarships are available at the state, local and school levels. These awards are based on various eligibility criteria, which can include field of study and academic achievement. Some scholarships are also need-based or allocated only for certain demographics.

Apply for as many scholarships as you qualify for to increase your chances of getting the most money.

Check the Department of Labor’s Scholarship Finder or National Association of Student Financial Aid Administrators’ state-based scholarship search tool to find programs.

Contact your school’s financial aid office and department head about specific scholarship programs you may be eligible for.

Fellowships and assistantships

Eligibility requirements and service commitments for fellowship and assistantship programs vary. While fellowships are offered by schools, private organizations or government agencies, assistantships typically only come from the school.

With a fellowship, you may perform research activities outside of your school and payment may not be directly tied to tuition. As assistantships are generally school-based, they are more likely to directly provide full or partial tuition waivers. Some assistantships also come with living stipends.

Contact your financial aid office about school-based fellowships and assistantships, including teaching and resident assistantships. Search the zintellect database, which has ties to the Department of Education and a consortium of Ph.D.-granting institutions, for government and private-sector fellowships.

Employer tuition assistance

According to a recent survey by the International Foundation of Employee Benefit Plans, or the IFEBP, about 63% of employers offer tuition assistance as part of their benefits package. This benefit is normally in the form of tuition reimbursement where the employer gives a lump sum to employees once a year after they prove their tuition expenses.

The amount of reimbursement varies by employer, but the IFEBP reports that the most common benefit ranges from $5,000-$5,999.

Contact your human resources office to ask about your company’s tuition assistance benefit. Make sure to verify that graduate school tuition qualifies. You also want to get an understanding of any service commitments that come with accepting the benefit. Some employers require you to stay with the company for a certain period after the reimbursement funds are disbursed.

Loans

If you exhaust all of your opportunities for aid that doesn’t have to be repaid, look to student loans to fill the remaining funding gaps for graduate school. Schools may include student loans as part of your aid package, but you have to repay them.

Filing the FAFSA typically qualifies you for direct unsubsidized federal student loans. As a graduate student, you can borrow up to $20,500 each year. These loans will accrue interest while you are in school, but typically come with lower interest rates than their private loan counterparts. They also offer repayment options that private student loans don’t, like income-driven repayment.

If you still need more funding, compare offers between the Grad PLUS loan from the federal government and options available with private student loan companies.

Unlike other federal student loans, PLUS loans require a hard credit check and may come with a higher rate than you can get with a private lender. But if you think you’ll need the protections of federal student loans, they’re still a better option.

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