Ways to pay for graduate school

These tips can help you figure out how to pay for your graduate degree.

How to pay for graduate school

To start, consider a 1-2-3 approach to paying for graduate school.

  1. Start with money you don’t have to pay back. Supplement your savings by applying for scholarships, grants, fellowships, and assistantship positions.
  2. Explore federal student loans. Submit the Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA) every year you need money for graduate school.
  3. Consider a responsible, private graduate school loan. If you still need money to pay for graduate school, a private graduate student loan can help cover the balance.

Compare a private graduate school loan from Sallie Mae® to the Federal Direct Grad PLUS Loan. It can be a good alternative and, if you’re highly qualified, you may receive a lower interest rate. footnote 1

Learn about our private graduate school loans

Noor’s plan to pay for grad school

Specialty graduate programs
The 1-2-3 approach to paying for graduate school still applies for medical, dental, law, and other professional degree programs. You can, however, focus your research on scholarships, fellowships, and loans specifically designed for your professional training.

If your graduate program is a specialty that isn’t listed above, you can reach out to school department heads to learn more about the scholarships, fellowships, and loans best suited to your program.


1. Start with money you don’t have to pay back

Personal savings
You can use savings to help pay for graduate school. If you do, you’ll want to make sure you can still pay your monthly bills as well as have some money set aside for any unplanned expenses. Create a budget to understand what your regular monthly expenses look like (e.g., rent or mortgage, phone bills, car payments, etc.). You can also talk to a financial advisor if you have questions.

24% of school costs are paid by grad students' earnings.footnote 2

See how they're paying the whole bill in How America Pays for Graduate School.

Graduate school-based fellowships, assistantships, and scholarships
Many schools offer fellowships, assistantships, grants, and scholarships for their graduate students. Grants are usually need-based while scholarships may be need- or merit-based.footnote 3 Graduate fellowships and assistantships are generally merit-based, so if you graduated from college with a high GPA, you may qualify for one.

Assistantships for graduate students can be research-based (RA) or teaching-based (TA). Both roles may include tuition remission, which means the school will pay for you to attend. They also may give you a living stipend to help pay for food and rent. In exchange, graduate students generally work 15 – 20 hours for a professor on campus, either assisting with research or helping teach a course. You may also have the option to work as a graduate resident assistant (GRA). This role may offer you free room and board on campus and a stipend, which will cut down on your living costs. In return, you work part-time in an on-campus residence hall, usually with undergraduates.

Graduate fellowships are like assistantships, but don’t require you to work on campus for a set number of hours. A fellowship may include tuition remission and/or a living stipend.

Schools offer different graduate assistantship, scholarship, and fellowship programs with different ways to apply. You may need to fill out a separate application or complete an essay to qualify. Check the websites of the schools you’re applying to or talk to their department heads to find out more about these ways to pay for graduate school.

Other fellowships and scholarships
Depending on your area, you may be eligible for graduate fellowships, grants, and scholarships that aren’t associated with your school (sometimes called “outside” scholarships or fellowships on college websites).

Organizations like the National Science FoundationWoodrow Wilson National Fellowship Foundation, and others offer fellowships to graduate students. These fellowships are usually awarded to outstanding students in their field of study, and give them a set amount of money to cover the cost of tuition and/or living expenses.

Professional associations related to your field also may offer grants and scholarships to graduate students, or have the resources to help you find them. For example, the American Economic Association offers information on funding for professionals and students. You can search for more graduate school scholarships for free using our Scholarship Search tool.

Ask department heads for more information on what fellowships, scholarships, and grants have helped previous students pay for grad school.

Learn more about finding graduate scholarships and grants and fellowships.

2. Explore federal student loans to pay for graduate school

After you’ve researched scholarships and assistantships, you may be able to receive federal financial aid for your graduate degree through the Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA®). You could be eligible for the following:

  • Federal Direct Unsubsidized Loans: These loans (sometimes referred to as “Stafford Loans”) have a fixed-interest rate and are unsubsidized, which means you’re responsible for paying all the interest on these loans.
  • Federal Direct Graduate PLUS Loans: Direct Graduate PLUS Loans are credit-based and have a higher fixed-interest rate than Federal Direct Loans.
  • School-funded aid: Your school may offer additional financial aid, including Federal Work-Study positions that enable students to work on campus part-time to help pay for living expenses. The type of aid available will vary, and you may need to apply for it separately. Check with your school’s financial aid office to learn more.footnote 4
  • State aid: You may also get state assistance. When you fill out your FAFSA application, you’ll get more information on whether graduate student aid is available in your state. You can also check your state’s website for opportunities.footnote 5

Learn more about applying for financial aid for graduate students.

3. Consider a private graduate school loan

Private student loans for graduate school are available through banks and credit unions. These loans are credit-based, so the better your credit, the better your chance of being approved. Many private loans offer both fixed and variable interest rates.

As with federal student loans, you’ll have to pay back the money you borrowed, plus interest. Graduate student loans offer a few options for how repayment can work. For example, the Sallie Mae® Graduate School Loan gives you the option of making in-school payments or deferring until after you leave school.footnote 6 

Deferring undergraduate student loans

If you have private or federal student loans from your undergraduate degree, you may be able to defer them while you’re in graduate school. Contact your loan servicer to find out what options you have. Be aware that although you won’t have to make monthly payments on your undergraduate loans while you’re studying, the loans will likely still be accruing interest.

Learn more about graduate student loans.

How to borrow responsibly
Borrowing is often a necessary part of getting the education you need to start or further your career. But it’s important to borrow responsibly so you can pay back your loans on time after you earn your graduate degree. Limit your borrowing to the amount you’ll need for the cost of tuition and related expenses. Evaluate what your anticipated monthly loan payments might be versus how much you expect to earn in your post-school career. You can research your potential salary through professional associations and the U.S. Department of Labor, which lists the median pay for many fields.

Related topics

footnote 1. Explore federal loans and compare to make sure you understand the terms and features. Private student loans that have variable rates can go up over the life of the loan. Federal student loans are required by law to provide a range of flexible repayment options, including, but not limited to, income-based repayment and income-contingent repayment plans, and loan forgiveness and deferment benefits, which other student loans are not required to provide. Federal loans generally have origination fees, but are available to students regardless of income.

footnote 2. Source: How America Pays for Graduate School, from Sallie Mae and Ipsos.

footnote 3. This information was gathered on 08/29/23 from https://studentaid.gov/understand-aid/types/grants.

footnote 4. This information was gathered on 08/29/23 from https://studentaid.gov/understand-aid/types.

footnote 5. This information was gathered on 08/29/23 from https://studentaid.gov/help-center/answers/article/state-aid.

footnote 6. Advertised APRs for Graduate School Loan, MBA Loans, and Graduate School Loan for Health Professions assume a $10,000 loan with a 2-year in-school period. Interest rates for variable rate loans may increase or decrease over the life of the loan based on changes to the 30-day Average Secured Overnight Financing Rate (SOFR) rounded up to the nearest one-eighth of one percent.  Advertised variable rates are the starting range of rates and may vary outside of that range over the life of the loan. Interest is charged starting when funds are sent to the school. With the Fixed and Deferred Repayment Options, the interest rate is higher than with the Interest Repayment Option and Unpaid Interest is added to the loan’s Current Principal at the end of the grace/separation period. To receive a 0.25 percentage point interest rate discount, the borrower or cosigner must enroll in auto debit through Sallie Mae. The discount applies only during active repayment for as long as the Current Amount Due or Designated Amount is successfully withdrawn from the authorized bank account each month. It may be suspended during forbearance or deferment.

footnote Sallie Mae does not provide, and these materials are not meant to convey, financial, tax, or legal advice. Consult your own financial advisor, tax advisor, or attorney about your specific circumstances.

footnote External links and third party references are provided for informational purposes only. Sallie Mae cannot guarantee the accuracy of the information provided by any third parties and assumes no responsibility for any errors or omissions contained therein. Any copyrights, trademarks and/or service marks used in these materials are the property of their respective owners.

footnote FAFSA® is a registered service mark of U.S. Department of Education, Federal Student Aid.

footnote This completion service is not affiliated with or endorsed by the US Department of Education. The FAFSA® (Free Application for Federal Student Aid) form is available for free at studentaid.gov.