Black female with notebook & pen thinking, money-related icons floating around

Financial Aid for Grad School: What's Different This Time Around?

Financial aid isn't just for undergrads, but it's a little different for grad students. Here's what you should know about applying for aid in grad school.

Financial aid isn’t just for undergraduates (although 90% apply for it)—many graduate students utilize it as well. The biggest difference in financial aid for graduate students compared to undergraduates is the type of aid available. Instead of using a mix of grants, scholarships, work-study, and loans, graduate students must primarily rely on student loans.

“Federal grants are only available to students pursuing their first undergraduate degree, and most institutions have limited scholarship funds for graduate students,” explains Paula Kohles, Financial Aid Director at Creighton University in Omaha, Nebraska. “Federal Direct Loans are the primary funding source for graduate students, namely the Federal Direct Unsubsidized Loan and Grad PLUS Loan, due to the lack of scholarship and grant funds for graduate students.”

Available funding

Work-study is a common funding method for higher education, but as Marcus Hanscom, Director of Graduate Admissions at Roger Williams University in Bristol, Rhode Island, explains, there are far fewer work-study jobs for graduate students available. “Many schools offer graduate assistantships that provide some sort of scholarship and/or stipend in exchange for administrative, research, or teaching work completed outside of typical degree requirements,” he says. “To further complicate things, there is a broad perception that graduate school offers a lot of funding." The funding opportunities are particularly limited at the master’s level. “However,” he continues, “at the doctoral level—and this is where the misconception comes from—there tends to be a fair amount of funding for PhD students to do research or teach courses in exchange for tuition remission and various stipends. Master’s students unfortunately have fewer of those opportunities, but check with institutions to learn about what is available.”

Graduate teaching assistantships are their own form of aid. Cristen R. Alicea, Assistant Director of the Office of Financial Assistance at University of the Incarnate Word in San Antonio, Texas, says students often misunderstand these awards. “These are great opportunities, but many students assume these benefits are on top of any financial aid they are receiving,” she says. “Funding from any source must be considered as part of the total financial aid package and will reduce the amount of loans you are allowed to borrow.”

Related: Financial Aid for Grad School: What You Need to Know

Applying for financial aid

Graduate students apply for aid the same way as undergrads—by completing the Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA)—although in most instances, parents’ financial information is not needed. “We recommend you complete the FAFSA, even if you don’t plan to take loans,” Alicea says. “Some scholarships include a need component on their award, and it’s important to have that information available so you don’t miss out on the opportunity to apply. Some scholarships even require you to include the parent information on the FAFSA, even though you’re considered independent as a graduate student.”

Besides federal aid, schools may have institutional aid available, such as assistantships. These opportunities are often bundled with scholarships, so students may receive a paid work placement that offers a scholarship, hourly work, or both. “Unlike federal loans, institutional aid is typically not dependent on the receipt of a FAFSA. However, if an institution offers need-based scholarships or grants at the graduate level, they may use the FAFSA to formally determine a student’s eligibility,” Hanscom says. “Students should keep in mind that if schools do offer some sort of institutional aid, it’s imperative that the student adhere to all stated admission deadlines. To be eligible for institutional aid, students often have to apply earlier in the pipeline to ensure consideration.”

One mistake many graduate students make, according to Alicea, is not applying for aid at all because they (mistakenly) assume there’s nothing available. “It takes a lot of legwork to find and apply for scholarships, but every bit of a loan you can avoid borrowing makes a big difference in your after-school finances,” she explains. One piece of advice she gives every student she meets with: apply for scholarships throughout your degree program, and minimize loan borrowing as much as possible. “We often see students trying to maintain a particular lifestyle they’re used to rather than trimming down their expenses and borrowing only what’s needed to cover their tuition and fees,” she says. “We always say, ‘Live like a student now so you aren’t forced to live like one after graduation!’”

Related: How to Find Fellowships and Grants for Grad School


Financial aid packages can be generous, but if you’re applying to graduate school while you’re still an undergrad, this is the perfect opportunity to hone your budgeting skills. Kohles says adequate planning and financial projections are two of the weakest areas for many grad students applying for aid. “Graduate students need to budget carefully when determining how much funds to borrow,” she says. “Schools are required to include the total cost of attendance in attending the degree program and will award up to the full cost of attendance between the available loan types. However, many students don’t need to borrow the full cost of attendance if they’re working and can cover part of their living expenses.”

Related: Paying Your Own Way: Financial Aid for Graduate School

The importance of meeting deadlines

When applying for financial aid, don’t wait until the night before the application deadline to submit your information, Hanscom warns. You run the risk of getting little—if any—aid, and frankly, waiting until the last minute won’t put you in the most flattering light with the selection committee. “For the institutions that offer graduate student aid, they award it to students early in the pipeline. Schools often post priority deadlines that make it very clear students must apply by that date to receive aid,” he says. “We have some programs at Roger Williams University that offer a priority deadline and a ‘regular’ application deadline, yet students will call a month later and inquire about the scholarships they can receive. At that point, we’ve already awarded all our scholarships to students who met the priority deadline.”

Applying on time or early sends a clear message to the admission and financial aid committees that you’re serious—serious about continuing your education at that school and adding real value to your chosen program of study. But, Alicea stresses, don’t send your applications without carefully reviewing each school’s application requirements first. Every school is unique, and failure to follow their guidelines and instructions wastes everyone’s time—and could keep you from receiving the aid you’re hoping for. “If there’s a particular school you’re interested in, contact them and get as much information as you can as to how they operate, what aid options and amounts are available to you, etc.,” she says. “Knowing your options ahead of time will prevent any unwanted surprises later, especially in terms of how much aid you’re allowed to have and whether that will work for your budget or not.”

Related: Expert Grad School Financial Aid Tips You Need to Know

When it comes to financial aid for grad school, do your research and learn more about funding options beyond just student loans. “Professional associations, scholarship websites, service organizations, and other groups often provide scholarships and list them readily online,” Hanscom says. “If students are working, they should also look into employer tuition plans, which can offset some or all of a student’s tuition costs”—just be aware of potential tax consequences so you’re not surprised at tax time.

Find scholarships for grad school on CollegeXpress using our Scholarship Search tool! 

Like what you’re reading?

Join the CollegeXpress community! Create a free account and we’ll notify you about new articles, scholarship deadlines, and more.

Join Now

Join our community of
over 5 million students!

CollegeXpress has everything you need to simplify your college search, get connected to schools, and find your perfect fit.

Join CollegeXpress
Jessica Rinker

Jessica Rinker

Student, Fairhaven High School; CollegeXpress Student Writer

My high school counselor introduced me to CollegeXpress freshman year. It has made such a difference in high school, and I plan to continue relying on it in college. CollegeXpress is my go-to because it addresses each aspect of being a student. There are the articles you’d expect regarding college applications and financial aid, but you will also find advice on things like de-stressing and maintaining relationships while balancing a heavy course load. CollegeXpress will also keep you updated on current scholarships through e-mails each Saturday. (They don’t harass you with any product promotion like so many other sites do.) CollegeXpress is a lot like an older sibling who has already conquered the challenges you are facing. Now, they are reaching out a helpful hand. I say take it.

Samantha Fils-Aime

Samantha Fils-Aime

High School Class of 2019

I love that CollegeXpress has helped me find some scholarships to apply for but also helped me succeed in school with lots of tips. I also really like how they consistently email me about webinars that teach me a lot of things from the comfort of my home!

Carlie Cadet

Carlie Cadet

High School Class of 2019

CollegeXpress has helped me learn about an abundance of scholarships available to me and my situation. I was able to do research for colleges in my best interest with your website. I've had multiple colleges email me and offer me multiple scholarships and things of that nature because of this website! Thank you so much for uploading scholarships I didn’t even know existed, even if my life took a huge turn and I wasn’t able to go to college straight out of high school. CollegeXpress helped me a lot in high school to be even more motivated to get into my dream college (which I did, by the way). I'm looking forward to using the materials CollegeXpress has kindly provided me for free to look for scholarships to help pay for college.



High School Class of 2022

CollegeXpress has provided me with tips that were for college students, but as a high school junior, they were still very useful. Not only that, it also gave me an idea of what to expect when it comes to going to college or already being in college. I want to say thank you to CollegeXpress, and I hope you continue the wonderful tips until I hopefully get into college and throughout my college journey.

Bri'Yana Brown-Dunn

Bri'Yana Brown-Dunn

High School Class of 2022

CollegeXpress helped me gain interest in many colleges/universities and many scholarships. I would say the most helpful thing CollegeXpress has done for me is sending me emails that tell me certain types of colleges are interested in me as well as emails about scholarships that I can look at and possibly apply for.

College Matches

Colleges You May Be Interested In

Wagner College

Staten Island, NY