Loans for graduate and professional degrees make up about 40 percent of all student loan debt in America, even though undergrads outnumber graduate students by more than 5 to 1. There are a lot of opportunities out there to fund a graduate school education — and not just with loans.
The question is, how to get enough financial aid for grad school? Read on to learn about all the options available to you.
9 paths to getting financial aid for grad school
When evaluating your options for getting financial aid for grad school, there is an order of importance. This list will go from least expensive to most expensive so you can see how to optimize your chance at free or inexpensive money for school before trying other possibilities.
Apply for a fellowship
If you’re looking to enter a specific field, a fellowship can be an excellent way to secure free funds for your education. Fellowships are merit-based grants that can not only cover your tuition, but also pay your room, board, and other living expenses.
Fellowships can come from a variety of places. You can apply for them through your school in what’s called an institutional fellowship, through federal funding, and from outside organizations.
Not only can 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 an educational opportunity as a financial one, so be sure to do your research on fellowships that you could be eligible for.
You can do this easily by signing up for sites such as ProFellow, which has a searchable database of fellowships. ProFellow also has application tips to help, and you can do another search for fellowships with the help of a database maintained by Cornell University.
Search for scholarships
Another way to get free money for graduate school is through scholarships. It’s a great option since you don’t have to repay the funds, and 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 students:
And here are just a few more scholarship search tools to aid in your hunt.
Seek out state aid
After you’ve scouted out your fellowship, work-study, and assistantship options, the next thing to look for is free aid. A good place to start is to look for aid from your state.
Find out if your state offers financial aid for grad students by contacting your state grant agency. The Department of Education has a map to help.
If the school you’re considering is out of state, look up that state as well. They might have a grant available to students committing to studying and then working in their state.
See if your school’s program offers aid
Besides state aid, your school might offer financial aid. According to Federal Student Aid, this is not uncommon.
“Statistics show that schools may provide nearly as much student aid as the federal government does. To find out what your school offers, contact the financial aid office, as well as a faculty member in your area of study.”
And if you find aid that could apply to you, be mindful of turning your application in on time. Not doing so could cost you free money for your schooling.
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 about 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 steps, but you can get started by looking at sources 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 for both graduate and undergraduate programs.
These programs vary by school and are on a first-come, first-served basis. If 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 fall of the previous year.
According to the Office of Federal Student Aid, you are awarded a certain amount based on your level of 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, if you prefer direct deposit or to have your pay go to your tuition and other educational costs, you can request that.
As for what kind of work you can do with a work-study, that’ll 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, which are positions as either a teaching assistant or research assistant, are 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 common, every school won’t have an assistantship open for every grad student. Reach out to your school as soon as possible to see what’s available and apply to make sure you don’t come up empty-handed.
A clinical social worker turned full-time blogger and entrepreneur, Andrea Imafidon, used a 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. My graduate assistantship was one of the highest paying gigs on campus … [and] covered my tuition, out of state fees, books, and housing.”
Fill the gap with federal loans
If you’ve exhausted all other options, look to federal 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 free 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, offering advantages like access to income-driven repayment plans.
Federal Student Aid lists the options available to you as a graduate student, for which you’ll apply when you submit your FAFSA:
- William D. Ford Federal Direct Loan
- Teacher Education Assistance for College and Higher Education (TEACH) Grant
- Federal Work-Study Program
- Federal Pell Grant
Knowing your options is always helpful, but it’s not dire in this scenario. That’s because submitting just one FAFSA each year enables you to see all of the above programs that you can qualify for.
And, if you’re offered more than one, be sure to take any grants (free money) 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.
If you don’t feel like you received enough federal funding, you can ask for more financial aid in an appeal.
Last resort: private student loans
And if you’re completely out of all other options for financial aid for grad school, you can close the gap with private student loans.
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. For her, it 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. In turn, I work hard and spend carefully to pay off the loans as quickly as possible.”
It’s this balanced viewpoint which has helped Sweeney stay above water on her student loan debt while also working on her other goals:
“I believe in investing in yourself when needed and then working hard to make the most of that investment and ultimately to pay off debt as quickly as possible. So far, it has worked quite well for me.”
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 choices that government loans do, such as income-driven repayment plans or federal loan forgiveness.
What’s more, their interest rates can end up being higher, which can cost you more money overall and keep you in debt for a longer period. A listing of private student loan lenders by FinAid shows rates from just above 2% all the way up to 12% and higher.
If you’re thinking of using private student loans to supplement financial aid for grad school, weigh the costs and risks carefully before you proceed.
Take a beat before you take a leap
Grad school is the dream of many who wish for career advancement, a career change, or 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, it 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 pros and cons to evaluate. Make your pro/con list before you make up your mind.
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.
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1 Important Disclosures for College Ave.
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.
2 Sallie Mae Disclaimer: Click here for important information. Terms, conditions and limitations apply.
3 Important Disclosures for Discover.
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.
Offered terms are subject to change and state law restrictions. Loans are offered through CommonBond Lending, LLC (NMLS #1175900).
5 Important Disclosures for Citizens.
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 of December 1, 2019, the one-month LIBOR rate is 1.70%. Variable interest rates range from 2.80% – 11.06% (2.80% – 10.91% 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 Bank 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.
Please Note: International Students are not eligible for the multi-year approval feature.
|2.84% – 10.97%1||Undergraduate, Graduate, and Parents|
|2.87% – 10.75%*,2||Undergraduate and Graduate|
|2.80% – 11.37%3||Undergraduate and Graduate|
|3.52% – 9.50%4||Undergraduate and Graduate|
|2.80% – 11.06%5||Undergraduate and Graduate|