The Complete Guide to Financial Aid for Grad School

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With 65% of seniors graduating from college with student loan debt, you likely want to find financial aid for grad school. After all, there is no need to add to your stack of student loans if you can avoid it.

The good news is that funding your graduate degree does not need to be expensive. With many options available for financial aid for graduate students, you might even be able to avoid student loans altogether.

How to get financial aid for grad school

Whether you’re looking for financial aid for your master’s degree or another advanced degree, there are a number of opportunities available to you. Check out the options below before resorting to expensive student loans.

Apply for a fellowship

If you’re looking to enter a specific field, a fellowship can be an excellent way to secure funding for your education. Fellowships are merit-based grants that can not only cover your tuition but also your room and board, and other living expenses.

Fellowships can come from a variety of places. You can apply for them through your school for what’s called an institutional fellowship, through federal funding and from outside organizations.

Not only can these fellowships help keep your educational costs low, but they can also help you hone your skills in the field and build your resume. For example, the work you do in your fellowship might tie directly into the work you hope to earn a living for someday, such as teaching or research in a particular area. These are as much educational opportunities as financial ones, so be sure to do your research on fellowships for which you could be eligible.

You can do this easily by signing up for sites such as ProFellow, which offers a searchable database of fellowships as well as application tips to help you in the process. You can also search for fellowships with the help of a database maintained by UCLA.

Search for scholarships

Another way to get money for graduate school is through grad school scholarships. This is a great option because you don’t have to repay the funds. There are a wide variety of ways you can earn a scholarship.

For example, you might find scholarships based on merit, field of study, location and even your heritage. Don’t leave any stone unturned in your search for scholarships you might be eligible for.

Below are a few tools to help you find scholarships specifically for graduate study:

For more scholarship resources, check out Student Loan Hero’s guide to scholarship search tools to aid in your hunt.

Ask about tuition reimbursement

If you already have a job and plan to keep working while you are in grad school, then check if your employer offers tuition reimbursement. Many large companies offer this benefit to their employees who choose to pursue higher education.

Some companies set limits on the amount that you can be reimbursed for tuition each year, while others may have an unlimited policy. Talk to your human resources department to find out what your company has to offer.

Research nonprofits for help

Some prospective students are surprised to learn that they can look for financial aid from nonprofits. What you want here is a nonprofit that helps fund education for people like you — whether that’s based on how much income you have, where you come from, or even the field of study you’re interested in.

This could take a little more digging than the previous options, but you can get started by looking at resources like QuestBridge, which helps low-income students gain access to education.

Find work-study opportunities

Another way to find financial aid for grad school is to look for work-study opportunities. Federal work-study programs are awarded based on need and are available for both graduate and undergraduate programs.

These programs vary by school and are offered on a first-come, first-served basis. If you’re interested, then hurry up and fill out your Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA), which you can do for the next school year as early as the fall of the previous year.

You are awarded a certain amount based on your level of financial need, your school’s funding and when you apply. Graduate and professional students can be paid by the hour or on salary, and that pay would go directly to you. However, you can choose to have your paycheck fund your school expenses.

As for the kind of work you can do with work-study, that will depend on the program you’re in. There might even be cases when you work off-campus if your school has a partnership with a private company in an industry relevant to your degree.

Get hired in an assistantship role

Many grad students turn to assistantships to help fund their education and life while in school. However, these roles, either as a teaching assistant or research assistant, tend to be a lot of work.

The average assistantship position requires 20 hours of work per week of teaching undergraduates, conducting lab work for your professor or similar tasks. And that time commitment can add up fast when paired with a challenging course load.

Although assistantships are common, they can be limited in number. Reach out to your school as soon as possible to see what’s available and apply soon to make sure you don’t come up empty-handed.

A clinical social worker-turned-blogger and entrepreneur, Andrea Imafidon used her role as a graduate assistant to gain a higher degree without incurring too much debt. With the help of the financial aid office at her school, Imafidon found a 20-hour-per-week post as a graduate assistant, which helped her avoid additional debt and earn a decent living as a student.

“I made more than enough money to live on, travel and save money with,” Imafidon said. “My graduate assistantship was one of the highest-paying gigs on campus … [and] covered my tuition, out-of-state fees, books and housing.”

Seek out state and school aid

After you’ve scouted out your fellowship, work-study and assistantship options, the next thing to look for is aid. Two places that might offer aid are your state and your school.

First, find out if your state offers financial aid for grad students by contacting the state grant agency. Even if you are considering an out-of-state school, you should reach out to that state agency to find out if they can offer you aid. The Department of Education has a map to help you find the contact information for various agencies in each state.

Besides state aid, your school might offer financial aid. Most schools offer some form of financial aid, so it is important to find out if yours does. And if you find aid for which you could be eligible, be mindful of turning in your application on time.

Fill the gap with federal loans

If you’ve exhausted all other options, look to federal student loans to fill the gap in your financial aid for grad school. Remember to complete your FAFSA early so you can have access to the most funds possible.

The FAFSA can unlock access to more than just loans (since it can also lead you to work-study opportunities and aid such as grants), but it’s also the only way to obtain federal student loans. This is important to know because these loans come with more repayment flexibility than private loans, as they offer advantages like access to income-driven repayment plans.

The Federal Student Aid office lists the options available to you as a graduate student, for which you’ll apply when you submit your FAFSA. While knowing your options ahead of time is always helpful, it’s not absolutely necessary in this scenario. That’s because submitting just one FAFSA each year enables you to see all of the programs that you can qualify for.

If you’re offered more than one type of aid, be sure to take any grants before you take on loans. At the very least, you might be able to lower the cost of the debt you have to take out. And if you don’t feel like you received enough federal funding, you can ask for more financial aid in an appeal.

The last resort: Consider private student loans

If you’re completely out of all other options for financial aid for grad school, you can close the gap with private student loans.

Private student loans are a great tool for those in need of that extra bit of funding not covered by other means, but they’re still a serious financial product. Private loans don’t offer some of the protections that federal loans do, such as income-driven repayment plans or federal loan forgiveness.

What’s more, private loan interest rates can end up being higher, and those interest rates can cost you more money overall and keep you in debt for a longer period.

Still, it may be worth considering, depending on your personal financial situation. MyCorporation CEO Deborah Sweeney took out private and federal loans to supplement a scholarship she had that didn’t pay for all of her grad school — and for her, the debt was worth the investment.

“It has been a lifelong philosophy to not be afraid of taking loans for calculated reasons — to advance my education, to purchase a home and to invest in my business,” Sweeney said. “In turn, I work hard and spend carefully to pay off the loans as quickly as possible.”

If you’re thinking about using private student loans to supplement financial aid for grad school, weigh the costs and risks carefully before you proceed and then be prepared to pay them off quickly, like Sweeney did.

Take a beat before you take a leap

Grad school is the dream of many who wish for career advancement or a career change, or simply have a love of learning. But it’s not a dream that comes free, even when the tuition is covered through grants and other means.

Unless you go to school part time, the time you spend in grad school is time you won’t be working. That means losing out on your salary as well as the increases you’d have in your pay for each year of experience you gain.

That said, graduate school can also lead to a boost in your pay depending on the degree you get — and it might even open doors to careers you wouldn’t have had access to otherwise. Like all investments, there’s a list of benefits and disadvantages to evaluate. Make your own list of pros and cons before you make up your mind because grad school is not the right path for everyone.

And if you need a little help making this decision, here’s a handy guide to help you decide if grad school is worth it.

Sarah Sharkey contributed to this report.

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1 Sallie Mae Disclaimer: Click here for important information. Terms, conditions and limitations apply.

2 Important Disclosures for College Ave.

CollegeAve Disclosures

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.

(1)All rates shown include the auto-pay 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.

(2)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.

(3)As certified by your school and less any other financial aid you might receive. Minimum $1,000.

Information advertised valid as of 11/4/2019. Variable interest rates may increase after consummation.


3 Important Disclosures for Discover.

Discover Disclosures

  1. Students who get at least a 3.0 GPA (or equivalent) qualify for a one-time cash reward on each new Discover undergraduate and graduate student loan. Reward redemption period is limited. Please visit DiscoverStudentLoans.com/Reward for any applicable reward terms and conditions.
  2. View Auto Reward Debit Reward Terms and Conditions at DiscoverStudentLoans.com/AutoDebitReward.
  3. Aggregate loan limits apply.
  4. Lowest rates shown are for the undergraduate loan and include an interest-only repayment discount and a 0.25% interest rate reduction while enrolled in automatic payments. The interest rate ranges represent the lowest interest rate offered on the Discover Undergraduate Loan and highest interest rates offered on Discover student loans, including Undergraduate, Graduate, Health Professions, Law and MBA 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. The margin is based on your credit evaluation at the time of application and does not change. For variable interest rate loans, the 3-Month LIBOR is 2.00% as of January 1, 2020. Discover Student Loans will 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. Please visit discover.com/student-loans/interest-rates for more information about interest rates.
Discover's lowest rates shown are for the undergraduate loan and include an interest-only repayment discount and a 0.25% interest rate reduction while enrolled in automatic payments.

4 Important Disclosures for CommonBond.

CommonBond Disclosures

Offered terms are subject to change and state law restrictions. Loans are offered through CommonBond Lending, LLC (NMLS #1175900).

  1.  Rates are as of July 1, 2019 and include auto-pay discount. All loans are eligible for a 0.25% reduction in interest rate by agreeing to automatic payment withdrawals once in repayment. Variable rates may increase after consummation.

5 Important Disclosures for Ascent.

Ascent Disclosures

Before taking out private student loans, you should explore and compare all financial aid alternatives, including grants, scholarships, and federal student loans and consider your future monthly payments and income. Applying with a cosigner may improve your chance of getting approved and could help you qualify for a lower interest rate. Ascent Student Loans may be funded by Richland State Bank (RSB). Ascent Student Loan products are subject to credit qualification, completion of a loan application, verification of application information and certification of loan amount by a participating school. Loan products may not be available in certain jurisdictions, and certain restrictions, limitations; and terms and conditions may apply. Ascent is a federally registered trademark of Turnstile Capital Management (TCM) and may be used by RSB under limited license. Richland State Bank is a federally registered service mark of Richland State Bank.

  1. Variable rate loans are based on a margin between 1.90% and 13.50% plus the 1-Month London Interbank Offered Rate (LIBOR) rounded to the nearest 1/100th of a percent. The current LIBOR is 1.629%, which may adjust monthly. Your interest rate may increase or decrease, based on LIBOR monthly changes, resulting in an Annual Percentage (APR) range between 3.14% and 11.88%. Fixed rate loans have an APR range between 4.09% and 13.03% based on your credit worthiness and your selected program. Competitive variable rates calculated monthly at the time of loan approval. Rates are effective as of 03/01/2020 and reflect an Automatic Payment Discount of 0.25% on the lowest offered rate and a 2.00% discount on the highest offered rate. 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. (See Automatic Payment Discount Terms & Conditions.)
  2. Payments may be deferred. Subject to lender discretion, forbearance and/or deferment options may be available for borrowers who are encountering financial distress.
  3. Making interest only or partial interest payments while in school will not reduce the principal balance of the loan. There are three (3) flexible in-school repayment options that include fully deferred, interest only and $25 minimum repayment.
  4. Flexible repayment plans may be offered up to a fifteen (15) year repayment term for a variable rate loan and ten (10) year repayment term for a fixed rate loan. Students must be enrolled at least half-time at an eligible school. Minimum loan amount is $2,000.
  5. Interest rate reduction of 0.25% for enrollment in automatic debit applies only when the borrower and/or cosigner signs up for automatic payments and the regularly scheduled, current amount due (including full, flat, or interest only payments, as applicable) is successfully deducted from the designated bank account each month. Interest rate reduction(s) will not apply during periods when no payment is due, including periods of In-School, Deferment, Grace or Forbearance. If you have two (2) returned payments for Nonsufficient Funds, we may cancel your automatic debit enrollment and you will lose the 0.25% interest rate reduction. You will then need to re-qualify and re-enroll in automatic debit payments to receive the 0.25% interest rate reduction.
  6. All applicants (individual and cosigner) are required to complete a brief online financial literacy course as part of the application process to be eligible for funding.
  7. Eligibility, loan amount and other loan terms are dependent on several factors, which may include: loan product, other financial aid, creditworthiness, school, program, graduation date, major, cost of attendance and other factors. Aggregate loan limits may apply. The cost of attendance is determined and certified by the educational institution.
  8. The legal age for entering into contracts is eighteen (18) years of age in every state except Alabama where it is nineteen (19) years old, Nebraska where it is nineteen (19) years old (only for wards of the state), and Mississippi and Puerto Rico where it is twenty-one (21) years old.
  9. 1% Cash Back Graduation Reward subject to terms and conditions. Click here for details. In order to be eligible for the 1% Cash Back Graduation Reward, borrower must meet the following criteria after graduation:
    • The student borrower has graduated from the degree program that the loan was used to fund.
    • The student borrower may change majors and/or transfer to a different school, but must obtain the same level of degree (e.g. – undergraduate or graduate)
    • The graduation date is more than 90 days and less than five (5) years after the date of the loan’s first disbursement.
    • Any loan that the student has borrowed under the Ascent loan is not more than 30-days delinquent or in a default status as of the graduation date and until any Graduation Reward is paid.
  10. Students can apply to release their cosigner and continue with the loan in only their name after making the first 24 consecutive regularly scheduled full principal and interest payments on-time and meeting the other eligibility criteria to qualify for the loan without a cosigner.

* Application times vary depending on the applicant’s ability to supply the necessary information for submission.


5 Important Disclosures for Citizens.

Citizens Disclosures

Undergraduate Rate Disclosure: Variable rate, based on the one-month London Interbank Offered Rate (“LIBOR”) published in The Wall Street Journal on the twenty-fifth day, or the next business day, of the preceding calendar month. As March 1, 2020, the one-month LIBOR rate is 1.62%. Variable interest rates range from 2.72% – 10.98% (2.72% – 10.83% APR)  and will fluctuate over the term of the loan with changes in the LIBOR rate, and will vary based on applicable terms, level of degree earned and presence of a co-signer. Fixed interest rates range from 4.72% – 12.19% (4.72% – 12.04% APR)  based on applicable terms, level of degree earned and presence of a co-signer. Lowest rates shown requires application with a co-signer, are for eligible applicants, require a 5-year repayment term, borrower making scheduled payments while in school and include our Loyalty and Automatic Payment discounts of 0.25 percentage points each, as outlined in the Loyalty Discount and Automatic Payment Discount disclosures. Subject to additional terms and conditions, and rates are subject to change at any time without notice. Such changes will only apply to applications taken after the effective date of change. Please note: Due to federal regulations, Citizens One is required to provide every potential borrower with disclosure information before they apply for a private student loan. The borrower will be presented with an Application Disclosure and an Approval Disclosure within the application process before they accept the terms and conditions of the loan.

Federal Loan vs. Private Loan Benefits: Some federal student loans include unique benefits that the borrower may not receive with a private student loan, some of which we do not offer with the Education Refinance Loan. Borrowers should carefully review their current benefits, especially if they work in public service, are in the military, are currently on or considering income based repayment options or are concerned about a steady source of future income and would want to lower their payments at some time in the future. When the borrower refinances, they waive any current and potential future benefits of their federal loans and replace those with the benefits of the Education Refinance Loan. For more information about federal student loan benefits and federal loan consolidation, visit http://studentaid.ed.gov/. We also have several resources available to help the borrower make a decision at http://www.citizensone.com/EdRefinance, including Should I Refinance My Student Loans? and our FAQs. Should I Refinance My Student Loans? includes a comparison of federal and private student loan benefits that we encourage the borrower to review. 

Citizens One Student Loan Eligibility: Borrowers must be enrolled at least half-time in a degree-granting program at an eligible institution. Borrowers must be a U.S. citizen or permanent resident or an international borrower/eligible non-citizen with a creditworthy U.S. citizen or permanent resident co-signer. For borrowers who have not attained the age of majority in their state of residence, a co-signer is required. Citizens One reserves the right to modify eligibility criteria at anytime. Interest rate ranges subject to change. Citizens One Student Loans private student loans are subject to credit qualification, completion of a loan application/consumer credit agreement, verification of application information, and if applicable, self-certification form, school certification of the loan amount, and student’s enrollment at a Citizens One Student Loans-participating school. 

Please Note: International Students are not eligible for the multi-year approval feature.

Loyalty Discount Disclosure: The borrower will be eligible for a 0.25 percentage point interest rate reduction on their loan if the borrower or their co-signer (if applicable) has a qualifying account in existence with us at the time the borrower and their co-signer (if applicable) have submitted a completed application authorizing us to review their credit request for the loan. The following are qualifying accounts: any checking account, savings account, money market account, certificate of deposit, automobile loan, home equity loan, home equity line of credit, mortgage, credit card account, or other student loans owned by Citizens Bank, N.A. Please note, our checking and savings account options are only available in the following states: CT, DE, MA, MI, NH, NJ, NY, OH, PA, RI, and VT and some products may have an associated cost. This discount will be reflected in the interest rate disclosed in the Loan Approval Disclosure that will be provided to the borrower once the loan is approved. Limit of one Loyalty Discount per loan and discount will not be applied to prior loans. The Loyalty Discount will remain in effect for the life of the loan. 

Automatic Payment Discount Disclosure: Borrowers will be eligible to receive a 0.25 percentage point interest rate reduction on their student loans owned by Citizens Bank, N.A. during such time as payments are required to be made and our loan servicer is authorized to automatically deduct payments each month from any bank account the borrower designates. Discount is not available when payments are not due, such as during forbearance. If our loan servicer is unable to successfully withdraw the automatic deductions from the designated account three or more times within any 12-month period, the borrower will no longer be eligible for this discount.

2.75% – 10.65%*,1Undergraduate and Graduate

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2.84%
10.97%
2
Undergraduate, Graduate, and Parents

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2.80%
11.37%
3
Undergraduate and Graduate

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3.52% – 9.50%4Undergraduate and Graduate

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3.14% – 11.88%5Undergraduate and Graduate

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2.72% – 10.98%6Undergraduate and Graduate

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Our team at Student Loan Hero works hard to find and recommend products and services that we believe are of high quality. We sometimes earn a sales commission or advertising fee when recommending various products and services to you. Similar to when you are being sold any product or service, be sure to read the fine print to help you understand what you are buying. Be sure to consult with a licensed professional if you have any concerns. Student Loan Hero is not a lender or investment advisor. We are not involved in the loan approval or investment process, nor do we make credit or investment related decisions. The rates and terms listed on our website are estimates and are subject to change at any time.