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11 Best Graduate Student Loan Options of November 2020

Graduate students should max out federal unsubsidized loans before turning to federal PLUS or private loans to cover their remaining costs.

Anna HelhoskiSeptember 11, 2020
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The federal government and private lenders offer graduate student loans. Max out federal unsubsidized loans — likely the cheapest option — before covering remaining costs with federal grad PLUS loans or private loans.

Grad PLUS loans don't require credit and come with multiple repayment options, which will likely make them best for most borrowers. But you may pay less with a private graduate school loan if you or a co-signer has excellent credit.

Here are our picks for the best loans for grad school, as well as information on how to choose between them and manage debt while you're in school.

Summary of Best Graduate Student Loan Options of November 2020

Our pick for

All borrowers as a first option

Graduate students can take out up to $20,500 annually in unsubsidized federal student loans.

Federal Subsidized/Unsubsidized Loan

5.0

NerdWallet rating 
Federal Subsidized/Unsubsidized Loan

Fixed APR

2.75 - 4.30%

Variable APR

N/A

Min. Credit Score

None


Variable APR

N/A

Key facts

Graduate school borrowers qualify for unsubsidized student loans only.

Pros

  • More flexible repayment options for struggling borrowers than other lenders.

  • Subsidized loans do not collect interest while in school or during deferment.

  • Lower interest rates compared with private lenders.

Cons

  • You pay an origination fee.

Qualifications

  • No credit check or minimum income is needed to borrow.

  • Loan amounts for undergraduates: $5,500 year one, $6,500 year two, $7,500 year three and thereafter, up to a total of $31,000

  • Independent students and graduate students have higher loan limits.

  • Undergraduate interest rate fixed at 4.53%, while grad students get higher 6.08% rate.

Available Term Lengths

10 to 25 years once repayment begins, depending on the repayment plan.
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Our pick for

Borrowers without credit or a co-signer

Graduate PLUS loan interest rates aren't based on your credit score: All eligible borrowers receive the same fixed rate.

Federal Grad PLUS Loan

5.0

NerdWallet rating 
Federal Grad PLUS Loan

Fixed APR

5.30 - 5.30%

Variable APR

N/A

Min. Credit Score

None


Variable APR

N/A

Key facts

Best for graduate students who need to borrow beyond the federal unsubsidized loan limit.

Pros

  • More flexible repayment options for struggling borrowers compared with private lenders.

  • All borrowers who attend a school authorized to receive federal aid can qualify.

Cons

  • May have higher interest rates compared with private lenders.

  • You pay an origination fee.

  • You can’t see if you’ll qualify without a hard credit check.

Qualifications

  • Grad PLUS loan borrowers must not have adverse credit history.

  • Borrowers with adverse credit history can still receive a grad PLUS loan by enlisting a co-signer without adverse credit history or documenting extenuating circumstances for their credit history.

  • Loan amounts: Total cost of attendance minus other financial aid.

Available Term Lengths

10 to 25 years once repayment begins, depending on the repayment plan.
Read Full Review

Our picks for

Borrowers with good credit or a co-signer

Private loans may cost less than federal options if you or a co-signer has good or excellent credit.

Ascent Graduate and Health Professions Student Loan
Check Rate

on Ascent's website

Ascent Graduate and Health Professions Student Loan

5.0

NerdWallet rating 
Ascent Graduate and Health Professions Student Loan

Fixed APR

4.62 - 13.54%

Variable APR

3.65 - 12.40%

Min. Credit Score

mid-500's

Check Rate

on Ascent's website


Variable APR

3.65 - 12.40%

Key facts

Best for graduate students who want flexible payment options.

Pros

  • Forbearance of 24 months is longer than many lenders offer.

  • Grace period of 9 months is longer than many lenders offer.

  • You can see if you’ll qualify and what rate you’ll get without a hard credit check.

Cons

  • You must be enrolled at least half-time to qualify.

  • Fixed rate loan only offers 10-year repayment term.

Qualifications

  • Typical credit score of approved borrowers or co-signers: Not available.

  • Minimum income: Not available.

  • Loan amounts: up to $200,000.

Available Term Lengths

7, 10, 12 or 15 years

Disclaimer

Ascent Student Loans are funded by Richland State Bank (RSB), Member FDIC. Loan products may not be available in certain jurisdictions. Certain restrictions, limitations; and terms and conditions may apply. For Ascent Terms and Conditions please visit: www.AscentStudentLoans.com/Ts&Cs. Rates are effective as of 11/01/2020 and reflect an automatic payment discount of either 0.25% (for credit-based loans) OR 2.00% (for undergraduate future income-based loans). Automatic Payment Discount is available if the borrower is enrolled in automatic payments from their personal checking account and the amount is successfully withdrawn from the authorized bank account each month. For Ascent rates and repayment examples please visit: AscentStudentLoans.com/Rates . 1% Cash Back Graduation Reward subject to terms and conditions. Click here for details. Cosigned Credit-Based Loan student borrowers must have a minimum credit score. The minimum score required is subject to change and may depend on the credit score of your cosigner.
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College Ave Graduate Student Loan
Check Rate

on College Ave's website

College Ave Graduate Student Loan

4.5

NerdWallet rating 
College Ave Graduate Student Loan

Fixed APR

4.24 - 11.98%

Variable APR

1.89 - 10.97%

Min. Credit Score

Mid-600s

Check Rate

on College Ave's website


Variable APR

1.89 - 10.97%

Key facts

Best for graduate students who'll need extra time before starting repayment.

Pros

  • You can see if you’ll qualify and what rate you’ll get without a hard credit check.

  • International students can qualify with a co-signer.

  • Nine-month grace period is longer than other lenders offer.

Cons

  • You must be at least halfway through your repayment term before you can request a co-signer release.

Qualifications

  • Typical credit score of approved borrowers: Mid-700s.

  • Minimum income: $35,000 per year.

  • Loan amounts: $1,000 up to the total cost of attendance.

Available Term Lengths

5, 8, 10 or 15 years

Disclaimer

College Ave Student Loans products are made available through either Firstrust Bank, member FDIC or M.Y. Safra Bank, FSB, member FDIC. All loans are subject to individual approval and adherence to underwriting guidelines. Program restrictions, other terms, and conditions apply. As certified by your school and less any other financial aid you might receive. Minimum $1,000. Rates shown are for the College Ave Undergraduate Loan product and include autopay discount. The 0.25% auto-pay interest rate reduction applies as long as a valid bank account is designated for required monthly payments. Variable rates may increase after consummation. This informational repayment example uses typical loan terms for a freshman borrower who selects the Flat Repayment Option with an 8-year repayment term, has a $10,000 loan that is disbursed in one disbursement and a 7.78% fixed Annual Percentage Rate (“APR”): 54 monthly payments of $25 while in school, followed by 96 monthly payments of $176.21 while in the repayment period, for a total amount of payments of $18,266.38. Loans will never have a full principal and interest monthly payment of less than $50. Your actual rates and repayment terms may vary. This informational repayment example uses typical loan terms for a freshman borrower who selects the Deferred Repayment Option with a 10-year repayment term, has a $10,000 loan that is disbursed in one disbursement and a 8.35% fixed Annual Percentage Rate (“APR”): 120 monthly payments of $179.18 while in the repayment period, for a total amount of payments of $21,501.54. Loans will never have a full principal and interest monthly payment of less than $50. Your actual rates and repayment terms may vary. Information advertised valid as of 11/2/2020. Variable interest rates may increase after consummation. Lowest advertised rates require selection of full principal and interest payments with the shortest available loan term.
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Discover Private Student Loan
Check Rate

on Discover's website

Discover Private Student Loan

4.5

NerdWallet rating 
Discover Private Student Loan

Fixed APR

4.59 - 12.99%

Variable APR

1.59 - 11.99%

Min. Credit Score

Does not disclose

Check Rate

on Discover's website


Variable APR

1.59 - 11.99%

Key facts

Best for students who may need wiggle room on payments.

Pros

  • More flexible repayment options for struggling borrowers than other lenders.

  • No late fees.

Cons

  • You can’t see if you’ll qualify and what rate you’ll get without a hard credit check.

Qualifications

  • Typical credit score of approved borrowers: 750+.

  • Minimum income: Did not disclose.

  • Loan amounts: $1,000 up to your total cost of attendance, minus other financial aid.

Available Term Lengths

15 years undergraduate, 20 years graduate

Disclaimer

Lowest APRs shown are available for the most creditworthy applicants for undergraduate loans and include a 0.25% interest rate reduction while enrolled in automatic payments. The interest rate ranges represent the lowest and highest interest rates offered on Discover student loans, including Undergraduate Loans. The fixed interest rate is set at the time of application and does not change during the life of the loan. The variable interest rate is calculated based on the 3-Month LIBOR index plus the applicable margin percentage. For variable interest rate loans, the 3-Month LIBOR is 0.250% as of October 1, 2020. Discover Student Loans may adjust the rate quarterly on each January 1, April 1, July 1 and October 1 (the “interest rate change date”), based on the 3-Month LIBOR Index, published in the Money Rates section of the Wall Street Journal 15 days prior to the interest rate change date, rounded up to the nearest one-eighth of one percent (0.125% or 0.00125). This may cause the monthly payments to increase, the number of payments to increase or both. Our lowest APR is only available to customers with the best credit and other factors. Your APR will be determined after you apply. It will be based on your credit history, which repayment option you choose and other factors, including your cosigner’s credit history (if applicable). Learn more about Discover Student Loans interest rates at DiscoverStudentLoans.com/Rates.
Read Full Review
SoFi Private Student Loan
Check Rate

on SoFi's website

SoFi Private Student Loan

4.5

NerdWallet rating 
SoFi Private Student Loan

Fixed APR

4.13 - 11.52%

Variable APR

1.78 - 11.89%

Min. Credit Score

Does not disclose

Check Rate

on SoFi's website


Variable APR

1.78 - 11.89%

Key facts

Best for flexible repayment options and no fees.

Pros

  • You can see if you’ll qualify and what rate you’ll get without a hard credit check.

  • Multiple in-school repayment options available, including interest-only and flat-fee, and deferred for undergrad and grad students.

  • Additional perks like career planning, job search assistance and entrepreneurship support available.

Cons

  • Must be a U.S. citizen.

Qualifications

  • Typical credit score of approved borrowers or co-signers: 700+.

  • Minimum income: No minimum.

  • Loan amounts: $5,000 minimum.

Available Term Lengths

5, 10 or 15 years

Disclaimer

UNDERGRADUATE LOANS: Fixed rates from 4.23% to 11.26% annual percentage rate ("APR") (with autopay), variable rates from 1.88% to 11.66% APR (with autopay). GRADUATE LOANS: Fixed rates from 4.13% to 11.37% APR (with autopay), variable rates from 1.78% to 11.73% APR (with autopay). MBA AND LAW SCHOOL LOANS: Fixed rates from 4.30% to 11.52% APR (with autopay), variable rates from 1.95% to 11.89% APR (with autopay). PARENT LOANS: Fixed rates from 4.60% to 10.76% APR (with autopay), variable rates from 1.88% to 11.16% APR (with autopay). For variable rate loans, the variable interest rate is derived from the one-month LIBOR rate plus a margin and your APR may increase after origination if the LIBOR increases. Changes in the one-month LIBOR rate may cause your monthly payment to increase or decrease. Interest rates for variable rate loans are capped at 13.95%, unless required to be lower to comply with applicable law. Lowest rates are reserved for the most creditworthy borrowers. If approved for a loan, the interest rate offered will depend on your creditworthiness, the repayment option you select, the term and amount of the loan and other factors, and will be within the ranges of rates listed above. The SoFi 0.25% autopay interest rate reduction requires you to agree to make monthly principal and interest payments by an automatic monthly deduction from a savings or checking account. The benefit will discontinue and be lost for periods in which you do not pay by automatic deduction from a savings or checking account. Information current as of 11/04/2020. Enrolling in autopay is not required to receive a loan from SoFi. SoFi Lending Corp., licensed by the Department of Business Oversight under the California Financing Law License No. 6054612. NMLS #1121636 (www.nmlsconsumeraccess.org).
Read Full Review

RISLA Private Student Loan

4.5

NerdWallet rating 
RISLA Private Student Loan

Fixed APR

3.64 - 5.46%

Variable APR

N/A

Min. Credit Score

680


Variable APR

N/A

Key facts

Best for students who may need wiggle room on payments in the future.

Pros

  • Income-based repayment plan available, with forgiveness after 25 years.

  • You can see if you’ll qualify and what rate you’ll get without a hard credit check.

  • Partial loan forgiveness for eligible internships; interest forgiveness for qualifying nurses.

Cons

  • Fewer repayment terms available than other lenders.

Qualifications

  • Typical credit score of approved borrowers: 768.

  • Minimum income: $40,000.

  • Loan amounts: $1,500 to $45,000.

Available Term Lengths

10 or 15 years
Read Full Review

Wells Fargo Private Student Loan

4.5

NerdWallet rating 
Wells Fargo Private Student Loan

Fixed APR

4.53 - 10.72%

Variable APR

3.39 - 10.09%

Min. Credit Score

Does not disclose


Variable APR

3.39 - 10.09%

Key facts

Best for borrowers with existing Wells Fargo student loans.

Pros

  • You are assigned a dedicated student loan advisor.

  • One of the few lenders to offer loans to borrowers enrolled less than half-time.

  • More payment reduction options for struggling borrowers than other lenders.

Cons

  • Shorter length of hardship forbearance than most other lenders.

  • You can’t see if you’ll qualify and what rate you’ll get without a hard credit check.

  • Only borrowers with existing Wells Fargo student loans are eligible.

Qualifications

  • Typical credit score of approved borrowers: Did not disclose.

  • Minimum income: No minimum.

  • Loan amounts: $1,000 to $120,000

Available Term Lengths

15 years
Read Full Review

Our picks for

International borrowers without credit or a co-signer

International students don't qualify for federal aid and have fewer private options without a co-signer who's a U.S. citizen.

MPOWER Private Student Loan

4.5

NerdWallet rating 
MPOWER Private Student Loan

Fixed APR

7.52 - 13.63%

Variable APR

N/A

Min. Credit Score

N/A


Variable APR

N/A

Key facts

Best for international students and students with Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals, or DACA, status.

Pros

  • Offers a hard-to-find option: non-co-signed student loans for international and DACA students.

  • Borrowers are assigned a dedicated student loan advisor.

  • Forbearance of 24 months is longer than many lenders offer, and borrowers can access national disaster forbearance as well.

Cons

  • Payment required while in school and during the grace period.

  • Offers only one repayment term: 10 years.

Qualifications

  • MPOWER considers future income potential but does not factor in credit scores.

  • Loan amounts: Minimum $2,001. Maximum loan is $50,000, limited to $25,000 per academic period.

Available Term Lengths

10 years
Read Full Review

Prodigy Private Student Loan

4.5

NerdWallet rating 
Prodigy Private Student Loan

Fixed APR

N/A

Variable APR

7.52 - 12.00%

Min. Credit Score

N/A


Variable APR

7.52 - 12.00%

Pros

  • Offers a hard-to-find option: non-co-signed student loans for international students.

  • You can see if you’ll qualify and what rate you’ll get without a hard credit check.

Cons

  • No fixed interest rates.

  • Not available to borrowers in all 50 states including: Alabama, Arizona, Arkansas, California, Delaware, Hawaii, Idaho, Indiana, Louisiana, Maine, Montana, Nevada, North Dakota, Oregon, Rhode Island, South Dakota, Vermont, Washington and Wyoming.

Qualifications

  • Prodigy Finance considers future income, rather than current income or credit score.

  • Loan amounts: $15,000 to $220,000.

Available Term Lengths

7, 10, 15 or 20 years
Read Full Review

Our pick for

Income share agreement

Income share agreements aren't loans, but graduate students can use them to finance their education — just make sure you understand the costs.

Stride Funding Income Share Agreement
Check Rate

on Stride's website

Stride Funding Income Share Agreement

4.5

NerdWallet rating 
Stride Funding Income Share Agreement

Fixed APR

N/A

Variable APR

N/A

Min. Credit Score

None

Check Rate

on Stride's website


Variable APR

N/A

Key facts

Best for health care and STEM students who’ll pay less than with a private student loan.

Pros

  • Payments aren’t due if you’re unemployed.

  • Lending decisions are not based on your credit score.

  • You receive free career services, including job placement support.

Cons

  • There’s no discount for paying off your agreement early like some lenders offer.

  • Funding may not be available based on your school or major.

  • Not available in South Carolina.

Qualifications

  • Eligibility is based on factors like academic program and projected salary, not credit score.

  • Loan amounts: $3,000 to $25,000 annually; $50,000 lifetime maximum.

  • Payment cap: Two times the amount borrowed.

  • Income share percentages: Typically 6% to 9%; lifetime max is 20%.

Available Term Lengths

5 years, but can extend to up to 10 years.
Read Full Review

What are the best loans for graduate school?

1. Federal graduate student loans

Borrowers are eligible for two types of federal loans for graduate school: unsubsidized direct loans and grad PLUS loans.

  • Federal direct unsubsidized loans limit the amount you can borrow to $20,500 annually and $138,500 overall, including undergraduate loans. But these loans have lower interest rates and fees than PLUS loans, so opt for unsubsidized loans before graduate PLUS loans.

  • Federal grad PLUS loans have higher interest rates and fees than direct unsubsidized loans, but you can borrow more money — up to your total cost of attendance, minus other aid received. Use grad PLUS loans if you’ve maxed out your federal direct unsubsidized loans and still want to use federal loans to pay for graduate school.

No one can get subsidized loans for graduate school. Certain professional students may be eligible for a federal health professions student loan as well.

You can apply for federal loans for graduate school by completing the Free Application for Federal Student Aid, or FAFSA.

2. Ascent Graduate Student Loan

Ascent's graduate student loan is a good option if you or a co-signer has excellent credit.

While federal interest rates are historically low for the 2020-21 academic year, you still may get a better rate with a private graduate student loan. You'll almost certainly pay less in fees: Grad PLUS loans come with an origination fee of more than 4%, while most private lenders don't charge these fees.

Ascent's graduate student loan stands out due to its flexibility. The lender offers a nine-month grace period and 24 months of forbearance — both of which are longer than many other lenders provide.

3. College Ave Graduate Student Loan

College Ave is a good choice if you're working your way through graduate school. Unlike many lenders, including the federal government, College Ave offers graduate student loans if you're attending school less than half-time.

In addition to Ascent and College Ave, graduate students looking at private student loans may want to consider Discover, SoFi, RISLA and Wells Fargo. It's best to get quotes from multiple lenders before applying to ensure you get the best rate possible.

4. Prodigy Graduate Student Loan

Prodigy is a good choice for international graduate students who don't have a U.S. citizen co-signer. You can qualify for a Prodigy graduate student loan without a co-signer; lending decisions are based on your future income, rather than your current financial situation. Prodigy only offers variable-rate loans, which are riskier than fixed-rate options, and doesn't lend to borrowers in all 50 states.

5. Stride Funding Income Share Agreement

An income share agreement, or ISA, is not a student loan, but graduate students may be able to use one to finance their education. Stride Funding prioritizes lending ISAs to graduate students, particularly those in STEM and health care fields.

With an ISA, you promise to pay a percentage of your future income in exchange for upfront funding. You may repay more or less than you receive. Be sure to compare ISAs and student loans to understand their potential costs before borrowing.

Which graduate student loan is best for you?

If you need loans to pay for graduate school, the best option will likely be federal student loans. These offer protections that private graduate school loans lack, including income-driven repayment plans and loan forgiveness programs.

Those benefits can come in handy depending on how much you owe — the average graduate student debt is $82,000, including undergraduate loans — and your career plans. For example, you may want to pursue Public Service Loan Forgiveness if you plan to get a Ph.D. and work at a university.

If you won't work at a nonprofit or need federal benefits, compare private student loans to see what interest rate you'd qualify for. Many lenders have specific graduate student loan products based on the degree you're pursuing:

Most lenders won't require you to pay student loans while in graduate school, provided you're enrolled at least half-time. But depending on how much you get paid as a graduate student, making payments can save you money because all graduate school loans accrue interest, increasing the amount you owe.

Last updated on September 11, 2020

To recap our selections...

NerdWallet's Best Graduate Student Loan Options of November 2020

Frequently asked questions

Further reading