How to Pay For Grad School: 4 Best Options for Graduate Student Loans

graduate student loans

Every year, about 3 million students enter graduate school programs, a number that the National Center for Education Statistics expects to rise to nearly 3.3 million by 2026.

Since most of these grad students are financially independent, they have to find ways to cover the costs of higher education.

If you’re heading to grad school, first look for grants and scholarships that you don’t have to repay (in other words, free money). Once you’ve run out of those, you might need to take out student loans to pay tuition.

Your options for graduate student loans are a little different than the ones you had for undergrad. Read on for all your options.

2 federal options for graduate student loans

Just as it does for undergraduates, the Department of Education (DOE) offers federal student loans to grad students. The loan limits tend to be higher, but unfortunately, so are the interest rates. To qualify for these federal graduate student loans, you’ll need to submit the FAFSA first.

Direct Unsubsidized Loans

Just like undergraduate students, grad students can borrow Direct Unsubsidized Loans from the DOE. Since these loans aren’t based on need, you aren’t required to demonstrate financial hardship to qualify. Beyond meeting citizenship requirements, all you really need to do is enroll in school at least half-time.

Your school will decide exactly how much you can borrow in Direct Unsubsidized Loans. That being said, the government sets an annual limit of $20,500 per year and a lifetime limit of $138,500.

As unsubsidized debt, these graduate school loans collect interest from the date they’re disbursed. They all have a fixed interest rate of 6%. Plus, they come with a loan fee of 1.066 percent.

Since these graduate school loans are federal, they’re eligible for federal repayment plans, like income-driven repayment and deferment. Plus, you could qualify for loan forgiveness, depending on your profession.

Grad PLUS Loans

If your Direct Unsubsidized Loans don’t cover the full cost of grad school, you might consider borrowing a Grad PLUS Loan. You can borrow up to the cost of attendance of your school, minus any other aid you’ve already received. As of 2017, 1.1 million borrowers have taken out $56.6 billion in Grad PLUS Loans, according to the Office of Federal Student Aid.

PLUS Loans have a fixed interest rate of 7% and an origination fee of 4.264 percent. Unlike Direct Unsubsidized Loans, PLUS Loans require that the borrower doesn’t have an adverse credit history. If you have low credit, you might need to apply with a creditworthy co-signer.

Beyond submitting the FAFSA, you might have to fill out another application for a PLUS Loan. Your school’s financial aid office will tell you how to apply. Before getting the loan, you’ll also sign a PLUS Loan Master Promissory Note agreeing to all the terms.

You can take out private graduate school loans

Besides federal options for graduate student loans, you can also borrow money from private lenders. Citizens Bank and College Ave, for example, both lend fixed- and variable-rate student loans to people going back to school.

Each private lender sets its own requirements for borrowing a loan. Most look for a steady income and decent credit score. If you don’t qualify, you could try applying with a creditworthy co-signer.

Keep in mind, though, that private lenders aren’t always as flexible as the DOE when it comes to repayment. They typically don’t offer income-driven repayment plans, nor do they grant student loan forgiveness.

Before agreeing to a private loan, make sure you read the fine print about repayment. Use a student loan calculator to anticipate your monthly payments and how much you’ll have to spend on interest. And speak with the lender about your options in case you run into financial hardship later.

Private student loans help many students finance an advanced degree — but you should know what you’re getting into before going too much into debt.

Some colleges have credit unions that grant loans

Finally, it’s worth noting that some universities can hook you up with a low-interest loan from their own credit unions. Harvard has its own credit union, for instance, as does the California State University system.

College-based credit unions tend to have competitive rates and excellent customer service. Speak with your financial aid office to find out whether this option is available to you.

Funding school with graduate student loans

Going back to school for your master’s or Ph.D. is an investment in your education and career. Hopefully, your degree will pay for itself by increasing your earning potential.

But before taking out graduate student loans, consider the return on investment of your graduate degree. Figure out what your student loan repayment will look like and how you’ll manage it.

Furthermore, explore all your options for graduate school student loans. Look for competitive interest rates, flexible repayment terms, or whatever other factors best suit your needs.

With careful planning, you can avoid taking on too much student debt. Then, you can focus on earning your advanced degree and achieving your personal and professional goals.

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