The FAFSA for Graduate School: What You Need to Know

Scientist using microscope in laboratory.
•••

 Hero Images/Getty Images

Getting into graduate programs is an accomplishment worth celebrating. After the initial excitement, however, you’ll need to plan out how to prepare and pay for graduate school

Filing a Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA) is a critical step. The process for graduate school is similar to what you went through as an undergrad, but there are some key differences. 

Undergraduate vs. Graduate

When filing the FAFSA, you’re considered a graduate or professional student if you’re enrolled in or applying to any post-secondary schooling beyond a bachelor’s degree, such as a master’s degree, a medical degree, or a doctoral degree like a Ph.D. (A professional degree usually refers to preparation for a specific career, such as a law degree or pharmacy degree, for which an undergraduate degree is required.)

This distinction is crucial because graduate and professional students are almost always granted independent status on the FAFSA. (Whereas undergraduates pursuing a bachelor’s degree are mostly classified as a dependent).

As an independent student, you aren’t required to have your parents provide their financial information on the FAFSA. However, some graduate programs require or recommend that you include parental information in order to be eligible for institutional aid.

Just as with undergraduates, you’re eligible to file the FAFSA as long as you meet some basic requirements. These include being a U.S. citizen or eligible noncitizen with a valid Social Security number and being accepted or enrolled in an eligible degree program.

Types of Student Aid Offered to Graduate Students

The U.S. Department of Education and your school’s financial aid office use your FAFSA to determine if you’re eligible for student aid, and for which kinds. Some forms of aid are need-based, which means they are granted to students with a proven gap between grad school costs and their ability to pay.

Graduate students have fewer federal student aid options than undergraduates, generally speaking. However, your own university or graduate program might provide merit- or research-based assistance, and many private and nonprofit organizations offer scholarships and grants for graduate students as well.

Here are the types of federal need-based aid offered to graduate students:

  • Federal Pell Grants are largely reserved for undergraduate students, but graduate students in a post-baccalaureate teacher certification program may also be eligible for them. You don’t have to repay Pell Grants, and the maximum award is $6,345 for 2020-21.
  • TEACH Grants offer up to $3,772 for the 2020-21 school year to students in participating undergraduate, graduate, or postbaccalaureate programs who are pursuing a teaching career. To receive this aid you must sign an agreement committing to teach in a high-need area for at least four academic years, within eight years of leaving the program you received the grant for.
  • Federal Work-Study provides aid in the form of wages earned through part-time employment.

In addition, there are two types of federal loans offered to graduate students. Neither are based on financial need, though you still need to complete the FAFSA to be eligible for them.

  • Direct Unsubsidized Loans for graduate students are limited to $20,500 per school year (except for students enrolled in certain health care programs, like medical school). They carry a 4.30% interest rate for the 2020-2021 school year, and there is a one-time loan fee of 1.057% of the loan amount.
  • Direct PLUS Loans, called grad PLUS loans when taken out by grad students, don’t have a preset limit. Graduate students can borrow up to their school’s cost of attendance, minus any other aid they receive. These loans carry a 5.30% interest rate for 2020-2021, and the origination fee is 4.228% of the loan amount. 

Aid is typically paid out in two or more payments and with at least one payment per term. The Education Department pays your school, which will usually apply the money to outstanding charges from the college first. Any remaining funds will go to you.

Federal student loans can be a vital source of funding to pay for graduate and professional programs. In 2018-19, graduate and professional students borrowed $18,470 in federal loans, on average—about two-thirds of the total $28,140 average student aid.

Private student loans are also available to grad students and may offer better terms to highly-qualified borrowers relative to Direct PLUS loans.

Do Graduate Students Have to File a FAFSA?

Filing a FAFSA is required to access federal student aid, and is often a prerequisite for other types of aid as well, including grants and scholarships from state governments and universities.

Even if you don’t want or plan to get aid, filing your FAFSA can provide an important backup option for covering costs.

Steps to File Your FAFSA for Graduate School

Fortunately, filing a FAFSA online takes just 30 minutes and is fairly simple. Go to FAFSA.ed.gov to start the process. 

1. Get Set Up

A Federal Student Aid ID, or FSA ID, and account are required to sign in and start the FAFSA process. Once you’ve got those, you’ll need to indicate the school year for which you’re filing and that you’re a student, not a parent

(The FAFSA site will also prompt you to create a save key to save your progress in case you don’t complete the form in one go.)

2. Provide Student Information

Next, you’ll be asked to provide a series of personal and demographic information, such as residency and contact information, and marital status.

3. School Section

This is where you’ll enter information about all schools you’re enrolled in or considering attending. 

4. Dependency Status

Next, the FAFSA will ask you a series of questions about your dependency status. This includes a question about whether you’re beginning a master’s or doctorate program. You should indicate yes to be classified as an independent student.

5. Parent Demographics

As an independent student, you’re not required to provide parental information. However, certain graduate programs may require or recommend that you include it to better determine your eligibility for institutional aid. Check with your school to see what it recommends. 

6. Student Financial Information

Next, you’ll be asked to provide financial information from the tax return two years prior from the year for which you're requesting aid. You can do so by entering your tax data manually or using the IRS Data Retrieval Tool. Following this, there are additional questions about income, assets, and other financial details.

7. Sign and Submit

The last step is to sign the FAFSA electronically and then submit. And you’re done!

After Submitting the FAFSA

The Federal Student Aid office will process your FAFSA in three to five days and send a Student Aid Report (SAR) to you and the colleges where you’ve applied or enrolled. From there, each college will put together a financial aid package. This will list the types and amounts of student aid the college can extend to you in the coming school year.

Key Takeaways

  • Whether this is your first time applying or you are renewing assistance, review your financial aid offer and carefully decide which types of aid to accept. 
  • Use any gift aid offered first, such as scholarships and grants, followed by any offer for work-study or a fellowship stipend. This will help limit how much you need to borrow for grad school. 
  • If you need loans, max out lower-cost Direct Unsubsidized loans before you agree to PLUS loans. 
  • If you have excellent credit, investigate private loans as a potential alternative to PLUS loans.

Article Sources

  1. Federal Student Aid. "Dependency Status." Accessed Oct. 23, 2020.

  2. Federal Student Aid. "Basic Eligibility Criteria." Accessed Oct. 23, 2020.

  3. Federal Student Aid. "Federal Pell Grants." Accessed Oct. 23, 2020.

  4. Federal Student Aid Office. "TEACH Grants." Accessed Oct. 23, 2020.

  5. Federal Student Aid. "Subsidized and Unsubsidized." Accessed Oct. 23, 2020.

  6. Federal Student Aid. "Plus Loans for Graduate or Professional Students." Accessed Oct. 23, 2020.

  7. CollegeBoard. "Trends in Student Aid 2019." Accessed Oct. 23, 2020.