Originally Posted: Jul 3, 2019
Last Updated: Mar 22, 2021
Financial aid isn’t just for undergraduates (although 90% apply for it)—many graduate students utilize it as well. According to data compiled by the College Board, approximately 39% of graduate students took out a federal loan for the 2016–2017academic year.
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.”
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.”
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!’”
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.”
The importance of 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.”
Research your options
Do some 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.
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