Ultimate Guide to Financial Aid for Graduate Students

Jul 02, 2019 | By Justin Boyle
Article Sources


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ultimate guide to financial aid for grad students

Is a Graduate Degree Worth It?

It's no secret that a graduate degree can be an expensive prospect. Annual tuition for master's programs ranges from $10,000-$15,000 at state colleges and public universities, while students at prestigious private institutions might pay as much as three times that amount.

If you take a look at recent Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) salary data, however, it can help soothe the graduate education sticker shock. Master's degree holders reported earning around $12,000 more per year than their counterparts with only undergraduate degrees, and those who held post-baccalaureate professional degrees made over $35,000 more than the average worker with a bachelor's.

We put together this guide to financial aid for graduate students to help you effectively weigh the cost variables of an advanced education. Whether you're about to graduate with a bachelor's, thinking about earning a master's to advance in your career or going back to school in hopes to start a brand new career, read on to learn about graduate school loans and grants that can take some of the sting out of your tuition bill.


Grad School Financial Aid Tips

  1. Start planning for grad school early. If you've still got some time before applying for your grad program, you can take steps like completing some graduate-level courses during your undergrad study, consolidating any existing student loans or putting away some money as a nest egg to help with emergency expenses.
  2. Fill out the FAFSA. The most important document in the world of undergraduate student aid is no less important to those seeking financial aid for grad school. We'll go into more detail about the FAFSA in a later section, but don't forget to get yours filled out and turned in before your school's deadline.
  3. Talk to your school's financial aid office. The advisors and counselors in the financial aid office at your school are some of your best resources when it comes to getting financial aid for a master's degree. They can help you discover new sources of potential aid and work with you to handle any problems that arise.

Who is a Grad Student?

The basic definition of a graduate student is someone who has finished their bachelor's degree and moved into a Master of Science (M.S.), Master of Arts (M.A.), Master of Business Administration (MBA) or other advanced program. However, there are a few gray areas where grad student status may apply. If you're in the later years of a concurrent bachelor's-master's program or you're going back to school for a second bachelor's degree after having already completed one, you may also be considered a grad student for financial aid purposes.

How to Pay off Undergraduate Education

With the average amount of total student debt for undergraduate borrowers nearing $30,000 in 2019, it should come as no surprise that leftover debt can be one of the main financial hurdles for prospective graduate students. Fortunately, there are several tools you can use to help you manage existing debt and make grad school more affordable:

  • Loan forgiveness programs may be an option for students in certain career disciplines, particularly those in education or health care. These are often offered at the state level, so check with your state's Board of Education to see what they offer.
  • Income-driven repayment plans are designed to limit your student loan payments to monthly amounts that make sense with your current income. As of 2017, roughly 28 percent of borrowers were taking advantage of such plans.
  • Deferment and forbearance each allow you to stop making payments on most federal student loans. Deferment even suspends the accrual of interest on your loans, which can be a big help. There are a few different ways you might qualify for deferment or forbearance, such as being accepted into a graduate fellowship program or enrolling at least half-time in a qualifying college study plan.

These are only a few of the options available to help manage your undergraduate debt. Sitting down with a financial aid advisor before you graduate is a great way to pick up some tips, and the U.S. Department of Education's student loan office can give you a detailed rundown of their assistance programs.

Cost of an Online Graduate Education

Most people know by now that online education offers more schedule flexibility than a traditional, campus-based education. When it comes to cost, though, are there really savings to be had by going to school in the virtual classroom? Let's take a look at the numbers.

Tuition may be the largest individual line item among the basic attendance costs at most colleges and universities, but the various fees charged at most colleges can add up quickly. At the University of Central Florida, for example, online students avoid transportation access fees, health fees, athletic fees, student activity fees and campus technology fees, which total up to more than 15 percent of the cost of each credit hour.

Graduate school tuition does tend to cost more per hour than undergrad, often by a factor of two or more, but grad school financial aid can help close some of that gap. If you're tech-savvy and looking to save some money on your graduate education, don't forget to look into online plans at your chosen school.

How Graduate Students Qualify for Financial Aid

There are a lot of different scholarship, grant and loan options for graduate school, and a single document — that all-important FAFSA — is a requirement to qualify for nearly all of them. Formally known as the Free Application for Federal Student Aid, the FAFSA helps student aid agencies determine your financial need and calculate the amount of aid you're eligible to receive.

If you're familiar with the FAFSA from your undergraduate work, you likely won't have any trouble with it this time around. There are some common differences between undergraduate and graduate students — most graduate students are independent, for one, which means your parents' financial information may not be necessary — but the document itself doesn't change from one level to another.

Married students shouldn't forget to provide income and asset information for their spouses on their FAFSA as well. For more detail on the FAFSA and how it can help you find graduate student loans and other financial aid for graduate school, talk to a financial aid advisor or check out the ultimate guide to the FAFSA on this site.

Financial Aid for Grad Students


Federal Level

Federal grants, loans and scholarships

  • TEACH Grants are some of the most widely available grants for graduate school. They can award up to $4,000 each year while you study a high-need classroom subject such as science or special education.
  • Stafford Loans are similar to the federal loans offered to undergraduates. Graduate loans can contribute up to $20,500 per year and are only offered unsubsidized, which gives them a slightly higher interest rate than some undergrad loans.
  • Graduate PLUS Loans can be taken out by either students or their parents. The interest rate is typically a bit higher with these than with than Stafford Loans, and there is no borrowing limit.

Federal work-study

Federal work-study programs offer financial aid for grad students that comes with part-time employment while you're enrolled in school. If your school participates in the federal work-study program, check with your financial aid department to find out the specific benefits and qualifications that apply to students in your program.

Military benefits aid

Veterans, servicemembers and students from military families can qualify for a range of aid programs unavailable to civilian students. Some programs — such as the Iraq and Afghanistan Service Grant for the children of servicemembers who died as a result of military service following the events of 9/11 — go above and beyond to protect your eligibility for need-based aid programs.

State Level

State grants, loans and scholarships

  • California students have access to a range of state-based financial aid and grants for graduate students. One example is the State University Grant (SUG) Program, which can contribute a maximum of around $7,200 toward your university fees.
  • Licensed registered nurses in New York who return to school for graduate study can apply for the Senator Patricia K. McGee Nursing Faculty Scholarship, which can award up to $20,000 annually.
  • Florida students who are members of a demographic minority group can get help with the cost of their graduate degree in education through the Minority Teacher Education Scholars Program. Recipients must pledge to teach at least one year in a Florida public school after graduation.

Financial Aid for Graduate Certificate Programs

Master's and professional degree programs aren't the only graduate study plans available at most universities. Graduate certificate programs are non-degree plans that focus on training students in a single skill or knowledge area relevant to their profession or major study concentration.

Graduate certificate programs can be especially helpful in certain career fields. Business students, for example, can take a deep dive into niche aspects of business like organizational behavior and nonprofit management without committing to a multi-year degree plan.

There's somewhat less availability of financial aid for graduate students in certificate programs, but they can still be an affordable way to shore up your professional skillset or prepare yourself for a new career. They're typically much shorter than degree programs, for one, requiring as few as three or six credits in some cases, which tends to give them a much lower overall cost.

That said, though, institutional grants and scholarships for graduate certificate students can still be found at many schools across the country, even if you're pursuing an online graduate program. The number of credits you choose to take in a given semester can have an effect on your eligibility, as well as the density of subject-relevant coursework on your schedule.

Financial Aid as a Ph.D. Student

Financial aid is somewhat different for students pursuing a Doctor of Philosophy (Ph.D.) or other terminal degree at the doctoral or professional level. Common aid instruments such as grants and scholarships are scarce, and most financial assistance comes directly from the institution where you're studying.

The most prominent types of financial aid for doctoral students are assistantships and fellowships. Assistantships at the doctoral level function in much the same way that they do for master's students, asking recipients to work a certain number of hours per week as a teacher or research assistant in their department.

Doctoral fellowships are some of the most robust financial aid programs available, often providing a full tuition ride and a monthly stipend to help with extracurricular essentials. In many cases, students must be nominated for fellowships by members of their department, rather than applying for them on their own.

Online doctoral students may be eligible for fellowships at some institutions, although the assistantship work requirement typically restricts those programs to on-campus students. If you're thinking about an online doctorate, remember to check with the financial aid office at every school you're considering to find out what your options might be.

Other Resources for Grad Students

We've given you a comprehensive look at the basics in this guide, but there's plenty more to learn about grad school financial aid. Check out our How to Pay section for articles that go into more detail about different types of aid, and browse the scholarship database on our partner site to search for aid programs that you might qualify for. You can filter the database by enrollment level to display only scholarships for graduate students.

Sites such as scholarships.com and studentaid.ed.gov can also help you find aid sources you might not have considered, and make sure to talk with your financial aid counselor and departmental advisor about options specific to your school.

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