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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LenderVariable APREligibility 
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1.24% – 11.37%4Undergraduate and Graduate

Visit Discover

1.30% – 10.00%5Undergraduate and Graduate

Visit SoFi

2.73% – 13.01%6Undergraduate and Graduate

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3.52% – 9.50%7Undergraduate and Graduate

Visit CommonBond

* The Sallie Mae partner referenced is not the creditor for these loans and is compensated by Sallie Mae for the referral of Smart Option Student Loan customers.


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. Rates shown are for the College Ave Undergraduate Loan product and include autopay 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. This informational repayment example uses typical loan terms for a first year graduate student 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 7.10% fixed Annual Percentage Rate (“APR”): 120 monthly payments of $141.66 while in the repayment period, for a total amount of payments of $16,699.21. Loans will never have a full principal and interest monthly payment of less than $50. Your actual rates and repayment terms may vary.

Information advertised valid as of 7/1/2020. Variable interest rates may increase after consummation. Lowest advertised rates require selection of full principal and interest payments with the shortest available loan term.


3 Important Disclosures for Earnest.

Earnest Disclosures

  1. Rates include 0.25% Auto Pay Discount
     
  2. Explanation of Rates “With Autopay” (APD)
    Rates shown include 0.25% APR discount when client agrees to make monthly principal and interest payments by automatic electronic payment. Use of autopay is not required to receive an Earnest loan.

    Available Terms
    For Cosigned loans – 5, 7, 10, 12, 15 years. 
    Primary Only – 10, 12, 15 years

    In school deferred payment is not available in AL, AZ, CA, FL, MA, MD, MI, ND, NY, PA, and WA).


4 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 APRs shown for Discover Student Loans are available for the most creditworthy applicants for the Discover Private Consolidation Loan and include an Auto Debit Reward. 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. For variable interest rate loans, the 3-Month LIBOR is 0.375% as of July 1, 2020. Discover Student Loans may 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. Our lowest APR is only available to customers with the best credit and other factors. Your APR will be determined after you apply. It will be based on your credit history, which repayment option you choose and other factors, including your cosigner’s credit history (if applicable). Learn more about Discover Student Loans interest rates.
  5. Get a variable interest rate from 2.37% APR to 6.14% APR (3-Month LIBOR + 2.00% to 3-Month LIBOR + 5.77%) for either a 10-year or 20-year repayment term. Or lock in a fixed interest rate from 3.99% APR to 7.49% APR for a 10-year repayment term or from 4.24% APR to 7.74% APR for a 20-year repayment term. 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 0.375% as of July 1, 2020. Discover Student Loans may 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.
Lowest APRs shown for Discover Student Loans are available for the most creditworthy applicants for undergraduate loans, and include an interest-only repayment discount and a 0.25% interest rate reduction while enrolled in automatic payments.

5 Important Disclosures for SoFi.

sofiDisclosures

*UNDERGRADUATE LOANS: Fixed rates from 4.73% to 11.46% annual percentage rate (“APR”) (with autopay), variable rates from 1.30% to 10.00% APR (with autopay). GRADUATE LOANS: Fixed rates from 4.51% to 11.76% APR (with autopay), variable rates from 1.08% to 10.30% APR (with autopay). MBA AND LAW SCHOOL LOANS: Fixed rates from 4.41% to 11.67% APR (with autopay), variable rates from 0.98% to 10.21% APR (with autopay). PARENT LOANS: Fixed rates from 4.73% to 11.46% APR (with autopay), variable rates from 1.30% to 9.88% APR (with autopay). For variable rate loans, the variable interest rate is derived from the one-month LIBOR rate plus a margin and your APR may increase after origination if the LIBOR increases. Changes in the one-month LIBOR rate may cause your monthly payment to increase or decrease. Interest rates for variable rate loans are capped at 13.95%, unless required to be lower to comply with applicable law. Lowest rates are reserved for the most creditworthy borrowers. If approved for a loan, the interest rate offered will depend on your creditworthiness, the repayment option you select, the term and amount of the loan and other factors, and will be within the ranges of rates listed above. The SoFi 0.25% autopay interest rate reduction requires you to agree to make monthly principal and interest payments by an automatic monthly deduction from a savings or checking account. The benefit will discontinue and be lost for periods in which you do not pay by automatic deduction from a savings or checking account. Information current as of 6/29/20. Enrolling in autopay is not required to receive a loan from SoFiSoFi Lending Corp., licensed by the Department of Business Oversight under the California Financing Law License No. 6054612. NMLS #1121636 (www.nmlsconsumeraccess.org).


6 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. Competitive variable rates calculated monthly at the time of loan approval based on a margin plus the 1-Month London Interbank Offered Rate (LIBOR) rounded to the nearest 1/100th of a percent. The current LIBOR is 0.190%, which may adjust monthly. Your interest rate may increase or decrease, based on LIBOR monthly changes. Rates are effective as of 07/07/2020 and reflect an Automatic Payment Discount. 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.)
    1. Undergraduate Loans: Variable rate loans have an Annual Percentage (APR) range between 2.73% – 13.01%. Fixed rate loans have an APR range between 3.62% and 14.50% based on your credit worthiness and your selected program. Rates reflect an Automatic Payment Discount of 0.25% (for Credit-Based Loans) on the lowest offered rate and a 2.00% (for Undergraduate Future Income-Based Loans ) discount on the highest offered rate. (See Undergraduate Loan repayment examples.)
    2. Graduate Loans: Variable rate loans have an APR range between 5.33% and 11.42%. Fixed rate loans have an APR range between 6.14% and 11.92% based on your credit worthiness and your selected program. Rates reflect an Automatic Payment Discount of 0.25%. (See Graduate Loan repayment examples.)
  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. (See Undergraduate Loan repayment examples.)
  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 either 0.25% (for Credit-Based Loans) or 2.00% (for Undergraduate Future Income-Based Loans) applies only when the borrower and/or cosigner sign up for automatic payments and the payment amount is successfully deducted from the designated bank account each month. The amount of the discount is dependent upon the loan product and credit history of the borrower at the time of application. Interest rate reduction(s) will not apply during periods when no payment is due, including periods of in-school, deferment, grace or forbearance, unless a regular payment amount has been arranged with the servicer. If you have two (2) consecutive returned payments for Nonsufficient Funds, we may cancel your automatic debit enrollment and you will lose the interest rate reduction. You will then need to re-qualify and re-enroll in automatic debit payments to receive the interest rate reduction.(See Automatic Payment Discount Terms & Conditions.)
  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.


7 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.

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.