When applying for financial aid for college, the first step is always to fill out the Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA). But, what happens when you want financial aid for graduate school?
Just over 2.1 million graduate degree-seeking students filled out the FAFSA in the 2015-2016 applications year.
While there’s a lot that’s similar to filling out the FAFSA at the undergraduate level as at the graduate level, there are several key distinctions to keep in mind. It can seem confusing at first, but it’s not so difficult once you know the facts.
Here’s everything you need to know about how to fill out the FAFSA for graduate school.
FAFSA eligibility requirements for graduate school students
As with undergraduate federal financial aid, you must demonstrate financial need (for most programs). You must be a U.S. citizen or eligible noncitizen, and be enrolled or accepted for enrollment as a regular student in an eligible degree or certificate program.
“The main difference,” says financial aid expert Mark Kantrowitz, “is that when graduate students fill out the FAFSA, they are considered independent. That means that what they’re awarded will be based on their income and assets, and possibly their spouse’s. For undergraduates, their parents’ income and assets are what are taken into consideration.”
Kantrowitz explains that certain intense professional programs — such as medical or law school — can sometimes take parents’ incomes into consideration. It varies by program and school.
There is no age limit when it comes to filing for the FAFSA for graduate school, but there are some eligibility limitations. “Everyone can apply other than those who have drug-related offenses while receiving previous financial aid,” says Charlie Javice, founder and CEO of FRANK, a platform dedicated to making college education more affordable for every student.
Abril Hunt, the outreach manager of ECMC, a nonprofit focused on helping students and families plan and pay for college, adds that those applying cannot be in default on a prior student loan or owe a Pell Grant overpayment to the Department of Education.
Who’s considered a graduate school student?
“Someone who is pursuing a degree beyond a bachelor’s is considered a graduate student,” says Kantrowitz. “Once you receive a bachelor’s degree, you are no longer eligible for Pell Grant, which is available to undergraduate students.”
The only time a Pell Grant would be available is if a student enrolls in a post-baccalaureate teacher certification program. This applies to everything from a student getting their master’s, doctorate, or Ph.D., to professional programs such as law and medical school.
It can get a bit tricky if someone is doing a joint undergraduate/graduate program. Some schools consider you a graduate student as soon as you start taking graduate level classes, according to Kantrowitz. Also, if you go on to get a second bachelor’s degree, you could be considered a graduate student when it comes to receiving financial aid. This is determined on an individual basis and it’s best to talk to your school about these unique scenarios.
Types of financial aid available to graduate students through FAFSA
When you apply for the FAFSA, there are two main types of financial aid available to graduate students: the Federal Stafford Loan and the Federal Grad PLUS loan.
“For both of these, the graduate student is the borrower, not the parent,” says Kantrowitz. “The Stafford tends to be less expensive, but comes with higher interest rates (4.45 percent for undergrad versus 6 percent for graduate).”
He adds, “The Grad PLUS loan is similar to the Parent PLUS loan and can cover up to the full cost of education.”
Perkins Loans and Direct Unsubsidized Loans are also available in addition to the following, according to Javice:
- School-based aid: The individual institutions decide what amount to award you based on need and merit.
- Work-study: As part of your package you could receive a work-study option where you work an on-campus job where the salary would apply towards your tuition.
- Scholarships: State aid will have scholarships available by field of study, interest, or school type.
How to file a FAFSA for graduate school
You can fill out the FAFSA forms online, or you can pick up a paper-based copy at a public library or any college.
1. Go to www.fsaid.ed.gov to obtain an FSA ID. An FSA ID is your digital signature for the FAFSA.
2. Then go to www.FAFSA.gov. You will need to know your personal demographic information, driver’s license number, Social Security number, and have copies of your prior year’s tax returns (2016 for the 2018-19 school year).
3. Choose which FAFSA form you’d like to complete. Fill out the 2018-19 FAFSA form if you will be attending college between July 1, 2018, and June 30, 2019.
4. Next, fill out the demographics section. Information will include your name, date of birth, etc.
5. In the School Selection section, add every school you’re considering, even if you haven’t applied or received an acceptance letter yet.
6. Supply your financial information. You can use the IRS Data Retrieval Tool (DRT), which allows you to import your IRS tax information into the FAFSA form with just a few clicks. To access the tool, indicate that you’ve “already completed” taxes on the student finances page. If you’re eligible, you’ll see a “LINK TO IRS” button.
If you haven’t completed your taxes, you have two options. One is to answer “not going to file.” You can skip the questions about income tax, exemptions, and adjusted gross income.
Or, you can respond “will file.” If you choose this option and your 2016 income is similar to your 2015 income, use your 2015 income tax return to provide estimates for questions about your income. If your income is not similar, click “Income Estimator” for help estimating your adjusted gross income. Then answer the remaining questions as best as possible.
7. Finally, sign and submit your FAFSA form.
Important FAFSA deadlines
Determine the school year for which you are applying for financial aid. For example, if you plan to attend college between July 1, 2018, and June 30, 2019, then you’ll want to apply for the 2018-19 School Year.
“File your FAFSA as soon as possible after October 1, the year prior to each enrollment period,” says Hunt. Why should you apply ASAP? There are a few federal student aid programs that have limited funds, so applying earlier could help your chances of getting a better financial aid package.
- Oct. 1: The new FAFSA season opens.
- June 30: Previous FAFSA year closes.
- Jan. 1 to June 30: State aid application available, but check here for exact deadlines.
- Dec. 1 to August: School-based aid (check with your specific school).
If you are applying for a summer session, check with your college to verify which application you should complete.
When you’ll hear back regarding your FAFSA application
After submitting your FAFSA, you will receive a Student Aid Report (SAR), which is a summary of the FAFSA information you provided in three to five business days. All colleges you applied to will review the SAR.
From there, the colleges who have decided to admit you will send a formal acceptance letter accompanied by a financial aid package, according to Javis. This could take a few weeks to a few months, depending on the time of year you applied.
The average award amounts for graduate school
“The average grant size is about $10,000 and average loan size is about $20,000, assuming you are a full-time grad student,” says Javis.
But this varies depending on school and program, according to Kantrowitz. “There are different costs for different programs,” he says. “So, for example, the professors in computer science are likely to get more research grants to support students as opposed to someone in the English literature department.”
In general, the financial aid package will typically include a mix of grants or scholarships, loans, and work-study jobs.
The disbursement of your financial aid
“Disbursements are sent directly to the school and first applied to the student’s outstanding balance of tuition and fees, and other institution-based charges,” says Hunt. “ Any remaining balance is refunded to the student for living expenses.”
Important FAFSA support resources
If you still have questions, there is some important contact information you should have on hand.
For general information about federal student financial assistance programs, help to complete the FAFSA, or to obtain federal student aid publications, visit studentaid.gov or call 1-800-4-FED-AID (1-800-433-3243).
The hours of operation are as follows:
- Monday–Friday: 8 a.m. to 11 p.m. EST
- Saturday–Sunday: 11 a.m. to 5 p.m. EST
You can also email them here.
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