Financial Aid Guide for Graduate Students
By Bethanny Parker
Reviewed by Mary Louis
Published on August 26, 2021
- Graduate students should fill out the FAFSA, like they did as undergraduates.
- Scholarships, grants, fellowships, tuition reimbursement, and student loans are options.
- Before borrowing money for school, be sure to apply for other types of financial aid.
- Some fellowships cover the cost of tuition and provide a stipend for living expenses.
While graduate students make up only 26% of all student loan borrowers, they incur 48% of the federal student loan debt, according to data from the 2016 Survey of Consumer Finances. Some students have so much student loan debt that their balances keep rising — even as they make income-based minimum payments.
Fortunately, grad students can reduce their need for loans by applying for financial aid. Graduate school scholarships, grants, assistantships, and fellowships don't need to be repaid. By applying for as many scholarships as possible, you can minimize the amount of student loan debt you take on.
Can I Get Financial Aid for Graduate School?
Yes, you can get financial aid for graduate school. Many scholarships, assistantships, and fellowships are available for graduate students.
To apply for financial aid for graduate school, you need to fill out the FAFSA. Although Pell Grants are not available to graduate students, the FAFSA is used to apply for many other types of aid, such as federal work-study, scholarships through the university, and federal graduate student loans.
Graduate students are considered independent for the FAFSA, meaning they don't need information from their parents to fill out the form. This makes it quicker and easier to file.
Students should expect to provide information from their tax returns, bank accounts, and other financial documents when filling out the FAFSA.
What Kind of Graduate School Financial Aid Is Available?
There are many types of financial aid for graduate students, including scholarships, grants, assistantships, fellowships, tuition reimbursement, federal student loans, and private student loans. Students should start by looking for grad school scholarships and fellowships that do not need to be repaid before considering student loans.
Here are the main types of financial assistance available to graduate students:
Scholarships | Grants | Fellowships and Assistantships | Tuition Reimbursement
Federal Student Loans | Private Student Loans
Most scholarships are based on merit, not financial need. Some scholarships can be used to cover supplies and living expenses, while others must be applied to tuition.
Many organizations such as Fastweb, Cappex, and Scholarships.com list scholarships for graduate students. You can apply for as many scholarships as you want. Individual schools also offer scholarships, as do companies and organizations. Scholarships offered by corporations may be limited to employees or children of employees; however, that is not always the case.
Unlike student loans, scholarships do not have to be repaid.
Popular Scholarships for Graduate Students
- March of Dimes Nursing Scholarship: This $5,000 scholarship is open to registered nurses who are studying maternal-child nursing at the master's or doctoral level.
- Dr. Nancy Foster Scholarship Program: The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) offers this scholarship for graduate students whose research closely aligns with NOAA's mission. The organization encourages scholarship applications from women and minorities.
- AICP Scholarship Program: The Association of Insurance Compliance Professionals awards three $1,500 scholarships each year to recipients who are studying in an insurance or business-related field and have a cumulative GPA of at least 3.0.
- Education Matters Scholarship: Unigo awards this $5,000 scholarship to one applicant who is enrolled in an accredited postsecondary institution. Applicants must submit a short essay about why education matters.
Grants are typically need-based and normally do not need to be repaid. If, however, you withdraw from school or fail to meet the requirements of the grant, you may have to repay it. For example, if you got a TEACH Grant and failed to complete the service obligation, the grant would be converted into a loan that you would need to repay.
Grants can come from the state or federal government, your school, or an organization. Usually, there must be a gap between the cost of school and the amount the student is financially able to pay. Students can find grants on sites such as Fastweb.
Popular Grants for Graduate Students
- Teacher Education Assistance for College and Higher Education Grant: The TEACH Grant provides up to $4,000 per year to students who want to become teachers. Eligible students must promise to spend four years teaching low-income students in a high-need field.
- Fulbright Program: The Fulbright U.S. Student Program offers more than 2,200 grants each year to students who will be studying in a foreign country. Grants may include funding for tuition, books, research, and language study programs.
- American Association of University Women Career Development Grant: The Career Development Grant provides $2,000-$12,000 grants to women with bachelor's degrees who want to change or advance their careers.
Fellowships and Assistantships
A fellowship is a special type of grant that's typically offered only to graduate students. Often, there is a service requirement attached to the fellowship. For example, the fellowship recipient may be required to teach classes or conduct a specific research project.
Assistantships are similar, though they almost always require the recipient to carry out specific work tasks like research and teaching. Assistantships are usually offered directly by the graduate school where you're studying, while fellowships can be offered by your school or external organizations.
Fellowships and assistantships can cover tuition, books, and supplies and do not need to be repaid. Some come with a stipend — which can be quite large — to help cover living expenses. For instance, the DOE NNSA Stewardship Science Graduate Fellowship comes with a yearly $36,000 stipend.
Popular Fellowships for Graduate Students
- Dolores Zohrab Liebmann Fund: This fund provides fellowships to students with financial need who have an outstanding undergraduate record and who attend a designated institution. The fellowship covers tuition and provides an $18,000 stipend.
- Humane Studies Fellowship: This fellowship offers awards of up to $15,000 per year to fellows conducting research in the social sciences and humanities.
- Ford Foundation Fellowship: The Ford Foundation awards predoctoral, postdoctoral, and dissertation fellowships through a national competition run by the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine.
- Ruth D. Peterson Fellowship for Racial and Ethnic Diversity: Applicants must come from racial and ethnic groups that are underrepresented in the field of criminology or criminal justice. Three $6,000 fellowships are awarded annually.
Many large employers offer tuition reimbursement as a benefit. In these programs, employees pay their own tuition. The company then reimburses the cost after the course is completed.
Some employers require their employees to enroll in a degree program that's related to the work they do for the company in order to qualify for reimbursement. Others will reimburse tuition in any degree field.
Employers often require employees to pass with a certain minimum grade to be eligible for tuition reimbursement. Tuition reimbursement may have to be repaid if the employee leaves the company within a certain amount of time after receiving reimbursement.
Popular employers that offer tuition reimbursement include Amazon, Apple, Ford Motors, and GEICO.
Federal Student Loans
Graduate students should first attempt to find forms of financial aid that don't need to be repaid. If you're unable to or need additional funds, you may want to apply for federal student loans. Use caution, though, and avoid taking out more student loans than you need, since many graduates struggle to repay them.
Students should opt for federal student loans over private student loans, if possible. Federal student loans usually have lower interest rates and students are not required to make payments while they're enrolled in school.
The interest rate for unsubsidized federal student loans is 5.28% for graduate students for the 2021-22 school year.
Private Student Loans
Graduate students who need funds for college should consider private student loans only after exhausting all other options. Private student loans originate through a credit union, bank, or online lender rather than through the federal government and usually have higher interest rates than federal student loans.
Some lenders offer students the option to defer making payments on their private student loans while they're in school. The interest will accrue on a private student loan if a student does not make any payments while enrolled.
Banks consider salary and credit history when determining interest rates on private student loans. Students with a solid work and credit history and/or a U.S. co-signer may be offered lower interest rates.
Graduate students seeking private student loans should compare rates and other loan criteria among lenders to find the best deal.
Popular Private Loans for Graduate Students
- Sallie Mae Graduate School Loan: This loan offers variable annual percentage rates (APR) from 2.12% to 11.64%, and fixed rates from 4.75% to 12.11%. The loan has no origination fee and offers the best rates only to the most creditworthy applicants.
- Ascent Cosigned Student Loan: Ascent allows you to see your interest rate without affecting your credit score. There are no application fees. You can apply to release your co-signer after 24 months of on-time payments.
- College Ave Private Student Loan: College Ave offers graduate student loans with rates from 1.99% to 10.97% variable APR or 4.49-11.98% fixed APR including the autopay discount. There's also a deferred payment option, but interest accrues while the payment is deferred.
- SoFi Private Student Loans: SoFi's no-fee private student loans have no origination fees, no late fees, and no insufficient fund fees. Students also get a 0.25% discount when they set up autopay.
Frequently Asked Questions About Financial Aid for Graduate School
A grant is typically awarded based on need and doesn't come with any strings attached. Fellowships (and assistantships), on the other hand, generally require grad students to teach classes, do research, or perform other tasks. In addition, fellowships are usually much larger than the typical grant, often including a stipend for living expenses.
Graduate students may qualify for many types of financial aid, including scholarships, grants, and fellowships. The FAFSA is required for many scholarships and grants. It is important for graduate students to file the FAFSA in a timely manner each year. This will ensure that the student's income information is on file when it is needed.
There is no limit to the number of scholarships and grants you can apply for, though you should check with your school to see if it has any policies about applying scholarships to your account. There is a financial limit with federal student loans. This limit is $138,500 for graduate students, which includes loans received for undergraduate study.
Graduate students are not eligible to receive the Pell Grant. The Pell Grant is a need-based award for undergraduates with demonstrated financial need. Graduate students still should fill out the FAFSA since it is used to determine eligibility for other forms of aid besides the Pell Grant.
The deadline for filing the FAFSA is June 30. However, you should apply as soon as possible since some scholarships and grants have earlier deadlines. Many colleges and universities also maintain earlier deadlines. The earliest you can file is October 1 the year before you will be attending college.
Mary Louis is a Brooklyn native who currently resides in Nashville, where she works at a state community college. She has worked in financial aid and recruitment as a registrar and bursar at city, state, for-profit, and Ivy League institutions, as well as at HBCUs. Louis's financial aid experience includes writing policies and procedures; overseeing satisfactory academic progress, state and federal aid, scholarships, private education lending, and federal verification; and assisting families with completing the FAFSA. Mary Louis is a paid member of the Red Ventures Education freelance review network.
Editor's Note: This article contains general information and is not intended to be a substitute for professional advice. Please consult a professional advisor before making decisions about financial issues.
Feature Image: warodom changyencham / Moment / Getty Images