The Complete Guide to Financial Aid for Grad School

financial aid for grad school

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:

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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