How Do You Get Financial Aid for Graduate School?

Getting financial aid for grad school is more challenging than obtaining funds as a college freshman. However, you still have many resources: a simpler FAFSA® application, new grant and scholarship opportunities, tuition waivers, and alternative funding channels such as crowdsourcing or assistantships. 

Before You Begin

When you receive the grad school acceptance letter you’ve been waiting for, your next step should be to start looking for the funds you’ll need. After all, you now know which university you’ll ask for your aid, what course of study you’re going to pursue, and where you’ll live for the duration of your grad school years.

Don’t jump right into the money-seeking pool, however. Remember that you’ve now been designated an asset by this grad school by virtue of its acceptance letter. You’ve beaten out many other students that have applied for the same program, and the university wants (and needs) your attendance. You have some bargaining power. 

Reach out to the person named on your acceptance letter. Thank them gracefully for admitting you to their program and the generous aid they’re already offering. Tell them that you would love to join their fine institution, but you’re considering other colleges that are offering you more financial aid. It’s OK to bargain on your acceptance conditions, so long as you remain respectful and reasonable at all times.

Simpler FAFSA® Application

By the time you reach grad school, you’ve perfected the art of filling out your annual FAFSA® application. Good news — graduate students no longer need to provide financial information regarding parents or guardians. You’re automatically given “independent” status, which means access to more monetary support. All you need to submit now is your personal tax return information. Calculating your expected family contribution (EFC), one of the most difficult steps when filing your FAFSA®, will now be a snap.

New Opportunities

While some forms of federal financial aid will no longer be available to you, such as the Pell Grant, grad school students have access to a whole new group of scholarships and grants. You now have a definite direction in your course of study. Perhaps you’re going into education, life sciences, or business management. You can now look into financial aid programs, fellowships, and scholarships that are specific to these fields, unlike generic undergraduate awards. Finding these is well worth the research. 

Tuition Waivers

This is a relatively rare form of financial help, but about 1 in 10 grad students qualify for a waiver on some (or all) of their tuition fees. Both your university and the Department of Education in your state can tell you about any tuition waiver programs on offer. Here are some of the ways they can be obtained:

  • Financial need
  • Your parents are state employees or work for the university
  • You or your family members have served in the U.S. Military, National Guard, or Peace Corps

Keep Trying!

Most students fire off all their efforts to seek financial aid at the beginning of the school year and then put money matters aside to concentrate on studies. While this seems like a smart strategy, keep in mind that many new scholarships and grants will become available throughout the year. It can be easy to miss them completely unless you check regularly.

Make it a habit to visit your financial aid office at least once a month. The office staff will get to know your circumstances, such as your financial situation and course of study, so they can assist you in finding new sources of money. Another advantage of seeking scholarships mid-year is that there will be far fewer students going after them. For instance, the month before final exams is the best time to go after any additional funds — since everyone is too busy studying to think about money. 

Out of the Box and Into the Wallet

Thanks to the explosive popularity of the internet, new channels such as crowdfunding have provided college students a whole new way to obtain the money needed for college. By posting on sites such as GoFundMe and Indiegogo, relatives and friends can easily provide small sums to smooth your financial road to college graduation. Instead of waiting for graduation to offer you a financial gift, they can provide money when it’s really needed. You’ll be surprised at who’ll help with your crowdfunding. Professors, fellow students, and even strangers may contribute.

Assistantships are another avenue you should explore, especially if you’re pursuing a science degree of some kind. By working for the university in some way, you can obtain part (or all) of the funds you need for school. The specifics of your course of study make you a valuable asset to your department since grad students are much more affordable than part- or full-time professors for teaching and research. You’ll gain both money and valuable experience. It’s a much better option than an off-campus part-time job that contributes nothing to your educational journey.  

If you do seek a job outside of the university, try to find one that’s associated with your major. Many employers have a system that automatically raises your salary once you secure a degree, so long as it’s one that relates to your job. In addition, many employers have programs to help pay your college tuition. 

Be sure to check whether you qualify for a Lifetime Learning Tax Credit when you file your taxes. This will allow you to deduct up to $2,000 per year on your taxes. If your adjusted gross income falls at or below $62,000 for single filers and $124,000 for married ones, you can get 20 percent of your tuition back. 

Grad school can be expensive. However, you’ll vastly boost the earning power you’ll have at your command, which lasts an entire lifetime. Instead of shouldering student loan debt that can also chase you around for life, explore every avenue to find the grants and scholarships you need. By doing so, you’ll ensure a stable financial future and achieve your dreams.