Applying for Federal Aid As a Graduate Student
From grants and student loans to scholarships, there are many financial aid options you can choose from to help fund your graduate education and stay out of debt.
Learn About Your Graduate School Financial Aid and Funding Options
Federal Graduate Financial Aid
You might already be familiar with the federal financial aid process from when you were an undergraduate student. If you needed help paying for your associate or bachelor’s degree, you likely filled out your financial aid application (FAFSA form) and waited to see if you were going to get any financial aid money. Applying for federal financial aid as a graduate student is very similar. The two main differences are 1) the type of financial information you will need to submit with your application and 2) the aid programs and amount of aid money that you can qualify for.
As far as the financial information you will need to submit – when you were an undergraduate, you likely applied as a dependent of your parents, which means you submitted their financial information on your FAFSA form. When you apply for aid as a graduate student, you will most likely apply as an independent. This means that you will submit your own financial information on your application, instead of your parents, so that the U.S. Department of Education (DOE) can determine how much aid you qualify for. If you are married, you are also required to include your spouse’s financial information.
As for the differences in the federal aid programs that you can apply for as a graduate, there are three main types of federal financial aid for graduate students: grants, work-study, and student loans.
Federal Graduate Grants
Unlike a graduate loan, a graduate grant is free and does not have to be repaid. As a graduate student, there are government-sponsored grant opportunities for qualifying students.
- Teacher Education Assistance for College and Higher Education (TEACH) Grant – An annual $4,000 financial reward is given to students who are studying to become an elementary or secondary school teacher in an in-demand field, such as science or math, and work for a school agency that serves a low-income area. You must also agree to teach for at least four full academic years within eight years after completing your graduate school degree. Prior to teaching, you’ll have to complete the TEACH Grant Initial and Subsequent Counseling, as well as the Agreement to Serve. Learn more about Teacher Education Assistance for College and Higher Education (TEACH) Grant.
- Pell Grants – Federal Pell Grants are typically only awarded to undergraduate students who haven’t earned a bachelor’s or professional degree. There are some special cases where a graduate student may qualify for a Pell Grant. One example is if a student is enrolling in a postbaccalaureate teacher certification program.
This opportunity offers paid part-time jobs for graduate (and undergraduate) students who have financial need, while they are enrolled in school. Work-study opportunities vary by institution. Universities like the University of California – Davis campus, Texas State University, and Harvard University’s College of Education offer work-study opportunities, as do many others.
Check your university’s financial aid and department web pages for their work-study openings. Learn more about Federal Work-Study.
Federal Student Loans
The most common type of government loans for graduate students are issued by the U.S. Department of Education through The William D. Ford Federal Direct Loan (Direct Loan) Program. These graduate loans are awarded as either a Direct Unsubsidized Loan or a Direct PLUS Loan.
- Direct Unsubsidized Loan – Your school will determine how much you can borrow with this loan based on your university’s cost of attendance. Generally, this loan lets you borrow up to $20,500 per school year (and possibly more if you are in certain health profession programs). You must repay the amount of the loan along with a six percent (6%) interest rate and a loan fee (typically just above one percent).
- Direct PLUS Loan – With this loan, you can receive up to the maximum amount of the cost of attendance of your school. A credit check will be performed when you apply. Along with repaying your loan, you are also charged a 7 percent interest rate.
Unfortunately, unlike grants and work-study, student loans do have to be paid back. Before you sign up for any loan, check the differences in interest rates and pay-back requirements between a government-sponsored loan and a private loan. Military members may also be eligible for special federal student loan benefits.
Where do I apply for federal graduate aid?
The U.S. Department of Education offers financial aid for graduate students. Your financial aid reward type and amount will depend on several eligibility requirements. You can apply for federal student aid at fafsa.ed.gov. Most states and colleges as well as private aid providers will use the information you submit on your FAFSA to determine your eligibility for aid.
School or Private Graduate Funding
Are there graduate scholarships or fellowships for graduate students?
Yes. If you prefer to not rely on federal student aid to cover your cost of attendance, you should seriously consider applying for scholarships or fellowships. Read more about scholarships, fellowships, and assistantships below.
Some universities offer a variety of department-sponsored scholarships, along with private scholarships funded by generous donors and organizations.
At the University of Denver, graduate students can search for a scholarship based on their major, GPA, and other relevant information to find a scholarship they may qualify for. Likewise, Clark University offers Merit Scholarships to select students based on certain factors, such as GPA and letters of recommendation. Other examples of universities that offer graduate school scholarships include Eastern Michigan University, Marquette University, and University of North Florida.
What are graduate fellowships?
A fellowship, like a graduate scholarship, is a program that offers financial support to graduate students during their full-time course study. Fellowships are offered by universities as well as businesses, organizations, and foundations. Most fellowships are merit-based awards, can vary in length, and typically offer full tuition along with a stipend (a small salary), which can vary.
University-sponsored Graduate Fellowships
University-sponsored fellowships are offered by your education institution, itself. Most university-sponsored fellowships do not require you to teach or perform research while in your graduate program. If you do an internet search that includes your school’s name and “graduate fellowships”, you will most likely get directed to your university’s graduate fellowship webpage where it lists their fellowship opportunities.
Cornell University’s graduate students can search the Cornell graduate fellowship database, where there are more than 1,000 fellowships in different fields of study. Fellowships at Cornell University cover full tuition, along with a stipend and student health insurance. The University of Washington also offers a number of fellowships in a variety of academic interests.
Business- and Organization-sponsored Graduate Fellowships
Many businesses, organizations, and foundations sponsor fellowships. These groups are interested in offering these fellowships because they are able to snatch highly talented individuals early in their time at graduate school. In exchange, these fellowships offer a great way for you to offset the cost of your graduate program. The NVIDIA fellowship and the Property and Environment Research Center (PERC) fellowship are great examples, respectively, of a business- and an organization-sponsored fellowship.
If you are interested in getting a fellowship at a specific company, business, or organization, you may look online to see if they offer any fellowship opportunities or call their main headquarters to ask.
Conduct a thorough internet search for any potential scholarship and fellowship opportunities that you may qualify for. If your graduate school doesn’t offer scholarships or fellowships, you can still apply for scholarships through generic scholarship websites like fastweb.com, scholarships.com.
What is a graduate assistantship?
A graduate assistantship is a type of job at the university in a student’s chosen field of study. Similar to fellowships, assistantships cover tuition expenses and pay students a small stipend. In exchange, graduate assistants—also known as teaching assistants or TAs—help professors conduct research, teach lower-level courses, and grade class assignments.
Some examples of graduate assistantships include Boston University’s College of Communication, Mississippi University for Women, and the University of Arkansas Bumpers College of Agricultural Economics and Agribusiness. Check to see if your graduate school department offers graduate assistantships you can apply for.
Tax Credits for Graduate Students
As a graduate student, you may be able to claim the Lifetime Learning Credit (LLC). The credit allows for 20% of up to $10,000 of qualified graduate expenses. The maximum credit for the 2017 tax year is $2,000. You may qualify for this tax credit if you are enrolled at an eligible institution and if your modified adjusted gross income (MAGI) is below the amounts below.
- If you are unmarried and your individual MAGI range is below $56,000, you can claim the full credit. If it is between $56,000 to $66,000, you can claim a reduced amount of the credit.
- If you file as a married couple and your joint MAGI range is below $112,000, you can claim the full credit. If it is between $112,000 to $132,000, you can claim a reduced amount of the credit.
- If you use married filing separate status, you cannot qualify for this credit.
Learn more about the Lifetime Learning Credit (LLC).
Get As Much Free Education As Possible
As you prepare to attend graduate school, consider your options for financial aid. Become familiar with your graduate school’s scholarship, grant, fellowship, and work-study offerings. Once you find the ones you may qualify for, pay attention to their requirements and their respective deadlines. Many students often receive a combination of scholarships and student loans to pay for their education.
If you can, choose a graduate school that offers a fantastic education and also offers the greatest chances of getting a free or low-cost education; a school with plenty of scholarships and fellowships to apply for. Don’t limit yourself by thinking, “Oh, I’ll never get that grant, fellowship, or scholarship so why apply?” The simple truth is, you’ll never know until you apply.
The more financial aid you apply for, the greater your chance of receiving some. Getting funding can help relieve the stress of worrying about how you’re going to pay for school and it reduces your overall student debt when you graduate. Take advantage of every funding opportunity that is available to you, especially if it’s free.