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13 Common Grad School Financial Aid Questions Answered

Jan 6, 2022
7 min Read
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Two adults studying options at home table.

If you’re considering earning a graduate degree, but it’s been a while since you were in school, you might have some financial aid questions that are holding you back from applying. Or perhaps you recently completed a bachelor’s degree, and you want to know how the financial aid process differs in grad school.

We’re here to help as you begin navigating your next steps.

Answers to 13 grad school financial aid FAQs

We have answers to all your burning questions about financial aid in graduate school. Learn more about the process so you can confidently proceed toward advancing your education.

1. How do I know if I’m eligible for financial aid?

Your first step in funding your education is to complete the Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA) with the U.S. Department of Education. You’re likely familiar with this application from undergrad. The process is free, and it’s the most important step in securing financial aid for graduate school.

2. What will I need to fill out the FAFSA?

Completing the financial aid forms is fairly simple as long as you have all of the necessary documents gathered ahead of time. Make sure you have the following information handy:

  • Name, address, phone number and date of birth
  • Driver’s license number
  • Social security number
  • Federal tax information or tax returns
  • Records of any untaxed income
  • Cash, savings and checking account balances
  • Any additional investments such as stocks, bonds and real estate (not including the home in which you live)

3. Do I have to complete the FAFSA again if I’ve done it before?

The answer is yes. You must file a new FAFSA application every year. Try to submit it as early as possible so that you have plenty of time to get your ducks in a row before school starts.

4. Do I need to include my parent’s financial information on the FAFSA?

The answer is no. As a graduate school applicant, your status will automatically be set as an independent student. This means that your financial aid will be awarded based on your income and assets (and potentially your spouse’s) rather than your parents.

5. When do I need to file my FAFSA?

Remember: the earlier the better. There are some federal funds that are awarded on a first-come, first-served basis. If your plan is to start grad school in August, you can file for the FAFSA as early as the preceding October.

6. How long will it take to get my report back after filing for FAFSA?

You typically will receive your Student Aid Report (SAR) within 3-5 days. In some cases, it can take up to three weeks.

7. How much financial aid can I receive for graduate school?

As a graduate or professional student, you can borrow up to $138,500 in federal loans (this includes what you took out in undergrad). For example, if you borrowed $30,000 for your bachelor’s degree, you can borrow up to $108,500 for graduate school.

8. Do I have to keep paying off my undergraduate loans while I’m in grad school?

While terms on loans can vary considerably, graduate students are often reprieved from paying off their previous federal loans while actively in grad school. You can apply for deferment if you’re in school at least part time, and your payments will be postponed until you graduate or stop studying.

If you attend less than half time, you will probably have to keep paying off your loans. If you can’t afford repayments, you may request an in-school forbearance to reduce or postpone repayment.

9. How many hours is considered a full-time grad student?

This depends according to state regulations and institutional definitions. At Creighton University in Nebraska, for example, post-graduate students are classified as follows:

  • Full-time grad student: 8 or more credit hours per semester
  • Part-time grad student: 3 to 8 credit hours per semester
  • Half-time grad student: Less than 3 credit hours per semester

10. How many credits should I take?

If you are working full time while going to grad school, we recommend taking no more than six credit hours per semester. Teaching assistants and research fellowship holders are permitted eight to twelve credit hours during semesters in which fellowship obligations are incurred.

11. What types of federal aid are available to me?

Just like in undergraduate programs, graduate students have access to a variety of loans and grants depending on their unique economic circumstances. Examples of federal graduate student aid include the following:

  • Direct Unsubsidized Loans: Not based on financial need; interest accrues while in school and during deferment.
  • Direct Grad PLUS Loans: Available for students with sufficient credit; interest accrues during all periods.
  • Private loans: Provided by private money lenders, and can come with highly variable terms and conditions.
  • Federal Nursing Loans: Offered to nursing students through the Department of Health and Human Services. The award amount varies, with the interest rate fixed at 5 percent. There is no interest while a student is enrolled at least half-time, and repayment begins 9 months after graduation or less than half-time enrollment (whichever comes first.)
  • TEACH Grant : A Teacher Education Assistance for College and Higher Education (TEACH) Grant  comes with a teaching service obligation . If you don’t fulfill the conditions, the TEACH Grant becomes a loan  that you must repay with interest.
  • FSEOG Grant : Federal Supplemental Educational Opportunity Grants (FSEOG) are administered by the financial aid office at each university and are awarded to students with the most financial need.

12. Where else can I look for funds?

Don’t end your search for grad school funds at filling out the FAFSA; you might miss out on other ways to earn money towards your education. Take time to research the options below and apply to any relevant opportunities you find.

  • Fellowships: Earning a fellowship for grad school is often very competitive, but it’s worth looking into if you’re serious about growing in your academic field of study. Fellowships are typically merit-based, and holders receive a stipend and/or funds for tuition and laboratory fees. More information about Creighton’s fellowship opportunities can be found on the Graduate Fellowships page.
  • Graduate assistant positions: Graduate assistants typically teach and/or conduct research under the supervision of a faculty member. You can offset the cost of your education and immerse yourself in the grad school experience. Check for available grad assistant positions at Creighton through Handshake.
  • Outside grants and scholarships: Make sure to look outside of your university for support; you may be surprised at how fast smaller grants and scholarships can add up. Start by looking in your local community. Jumpstart your search by using the following websites: JobStars, Fastweb and GoGrad
  • Employer reimbursement programs: These days, it’s becoming much more common for companies to pay for some (or even all) of their employees’ higher education. Some programs will loan you the money up front while others will reimburse your tuition after the completion of each course. Check with your human resources specialist to see if they currently offer (or would consider offering) this kind of education benefit.

13. How is grad school financial aid different?

One of the biggest differences between undergraduate and graduate financial aid is that Federal Pell Grants (awarded to low-income students) are not readily available for grad students. In rare cases, there are postbaccalaureate teacher certification programs that might be eligible for this grant.

Unlike loans at the undergraduate level, federal loans for graduate students are not dependent on income. The FAFSA assesses general eligibility, so as long as you meet the requirements, you’ll be permitted to borrow.

Another notable difference is that graduate and professional students who are filing for FAFSA as independent are not eligible for subsidized loans (where the government pays the interest while you’re still in school). With unsubsidized loans, the interest accrues from the time the loan is taken out and during deferment or forbearance.

Get the guidance you need to fund your future

With these financial aid questions answered, you should feel more equipped to take the next step toward earning your graduate degree. Advancing your education is a significant investment, but it’s an investment in yourself.

To learn more about your options, check out our article “How to Pay for Grad School: 6 Things to Consider."