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Put a plan in place 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 for graduate school, a private graduate student loan can help cover the balance.

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.

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. 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.

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 Foundation, Woodrow 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 graduate students.

Learn more about finding graduate scholarships, grants, and fellowships.


2. Explore federal student loans

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 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.
  • 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.
  • 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.

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 Smart Option Student Loan® for Graduate Students gives you the option of making in-school payments or deferring until after you leave school. If you choose to make in-school interest payments, you could save an average of 9 – 10% on the total cost of your loan compared to the deferred repayment option. Loans for specific professional degrees, like medical degrees, may also offer lower monthly payments and extend repayments periods to up to 20 years.

Deferring undergraduate student loans
If you have private or federal student loans from your undergraduate degree, you can apply to defer them while you’re in graduate school so you have one less bill to pay. 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 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.

 This information was gathered on July 6, 2017 from https://studentaid.ed.gov/sa/types/grants-scholarships.

 This information was gathered on June 20, 2017 from https://www.usnews.com/education/best-graduate-schools/paying/articles/2013/03/12/use-these-5-strategies-to-pay-for-graduate-school.

 This information was gathered on June 20, 2017 from https://nsf.gov/funding/ and woodrow.org.

 This information was gathered on June 23, 2017 from https://studentaid.ed.gov/sa/sites/default/files/graduate-professional-funding-info.pdf.

 This information was gathered on July 6, 2017 from https://studentaid.ed.gov/sa/types#school-aid.

Interest rates for Fixed and Deferred Repayment Options are higher than interest rates for the Interest Repayment Option. You're charged interest starting at disbursement, while in school and during your six-month separation or grace period. When you enter principal and interest repayment, Unpaid Interest will be added to your loan's Current Principal. Variable rates may increase over the life of the loan. Advertised APRs assume a $10,000 loan to a first-year graduate with no other Sallie Mae loans. Graduate student pricing for this loan is limited to students enrolling in a Masters/Doctorate level degree program. Graduate Certificate/Continuing Education course work is not eligible.

Savings based on a typical loan to a first-year graduate student.