If you’re looking into sources of student aid to fund graduate school, first things first: Give yourself a pat on the back for considering, applying to, or getting accepted to grad school. What an impressive, beautiful commitment it is to further your education and better yourself.
When it comes to obtaining student aid as a grad student, your first step is going to be the exact same as the first step that you took when you applied for undergraduate aid: filling out the FAFSA.
You likely remember the process of filling out the Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA). The FAFSA was and remains the single most important tool when it comes to paying for college or grad school.
The FAFSA is equally as important to grad students, although there are some critical differences to keep in mind when filling out the FAFSA for undergrad and graduate school, which we will discuss below. Additionally, we will go over some pointers when filling out the FAFSA for grad school.
What is the FAFSA?
The FAFSA was created by the Department of Education (DOE) for the purpose of gathering financial information about students and their families in order to determine who qualifies for federal aid. The information will not only help the DOE decide who qualifies, but what types of aid they are eligible to receive.
The types of federal aid include multiple sources of grants, loans, and work-study programs.
Some types of financial aid—subsidized loans—are reserved for students that exhibit some financial need. Still, all students should fill out the FAFSA to see what they’ll qualify for.
Here’s something important for all students to understand: The federal government isn’t the only entity using the information provided by prospective students on the FAFSA. Many states and some colleges also use information from the FAFSA to determine who receives their aid; states and colleges often have their own aid programs that are separate from federal aid.
This fact makes it that much more critical that all students fill out the FAFSA form, and that goes for both undergraduate and graduate students.
How the FAFSA is Different for Grad Students
The primary difference for undergrad and grad students on the FAFSA is that most undergrad students are classified as dependents on their parents’ taxes, while graduate students are considered independent.
The FAFSA takes dependency status into consideration. If a student is a dependent, they include their parents’ financial information. If they are independent, a parents’ financial information isn’t considered.
For an independent student, only the prospective student’s financial information ((and their spouse’s, if applicable) will be taken into consideration. This includes their income, assets, and liabilities.
What happens when you’re classified as a dependent student?
Basically, it means that you could qualify for subsidized student loans. With subsidized loans, the government pays the interest on the loans while the student is in college, during grace periods, and during periods of deferment—though always check with each deferment program to be sure. This is not the case for unsubsidized loans.
Subsidized loans aren’t available to independent students. Grad students only have access to unsubsidized loans, which do not have the interest rate perks and come with a higher rate of interest.
Additionally, graduate students may qualify for Pell Grants if they are simultaneously receiving a teaching certificate. This includes students in masters, doctorate, law, medical, and PhD programs.
Also, there are some exceptions to the parental information rule: for some high-intensity graduate programs such as law or medical school, the program may require parents’ financial information on the FAFSA. This information will not be used to determine federal aid, but a school may use it to determine theirs.
How to Know If You Are an Independent
You are considered independent if you answer yes to any of the following questions:
1. Were you born before Jan. 1, 1996?
2. Are you married?
3. Are you working on a master’s or doctoral degree?
4. Do you now have children who will receive more than half of their support from you?
5. Do you have dependents (other than your children or spouse) who live with you and who receive more than half of their support from you?
6. Are you currently serving on active duty in the U.S. armed forces?
7. Are you a veteran of the U.S. armed forces?
8. At any time since you turned age 13, were both your parents deceased, were you in foster care, or were you a dependent or ward of the court?
9. Are you an emancipated minor or does someone other than your parent or stepparent have legal guardianship of you?
10. Were you determined to be an unaccompanied youth who was homeless or was self-supporting and at risk of being homeless?
Where the designations get a bit more complicated is for undergraduate students who are taking graduate classes or for undergrads who segue directly into graduate coursework. If this is the case for you, you’ll want to check with you school’s financial aid office to see how you should be filing your FAFSA.
Tips for Filling Out the FAFSA as a Grad Student
Since it won’t be the first time that most grad students are filling out the FAFSA, the process should feel familiar. The main difference is that grad students typically won’t provide their parents’ financial information.
Read this step-by-step guide on applying for student aid, including filling out the FAFSA. The enrollment period generally opens on October 1st of the year in which a student is applying to grad schools.
FAFSA considers applications on a rolling basis, so don’t wait to turn yours in. For example, work-study programs are limited, and are offered to students on a first-come, first-served basis.
After you fill out the FAFSA, you will receive a Student Aid Report (SAR), which will detail the information you filled out on the FAFSA.
If you fill out the FAFSA online, you’ll receive your SAR in three to five days. If you mail in your FAFSA, you’ll receive your SAR in seven to 10 days. Go over your SAR and make sure that all of the information on this form is correct.
Because direct unsubsidized loans—need-based loans—aren’t available to independent grad students anyway, it will matter less what a student’s income is. Both grad students with low incomes and high incomes should qualify for direct unsubsidized loans and PLUS graduate loans.
Many students who are applying for federal student aid will qualify for something, but it might not be enough to cover the entire cost of the graduate school program. Once federal options are exhausted, students can look to private loans to make up the difference of the cost of the program.
When it comes to seeking out private loans, do some shopping around. Unlike with federal student loans, private loans will offer you an interest rate that corresponds to your financial profile. Those with higher credit scores and incomes are likely to receive a lower interest rate on their loans.
Because every bank sets their own rates and they are not overseen by the Department of Education, the rate of loans you qualify for could vary widely between lenders.
Here's a really useful calculator that will help you determine how much in student aid you’ll need for grad school.
You won’t regret filling out the FAFSA for graduate school, as it may open up opportunities for aid that would not otherwise present themselves.
Pour yourself a hot tea (or glass of wine) and spend an hour filling out the form as early in the enrollment period as possible—even before you receive acceptance letters. This could be one of the best hours you spend all year. Good luck and congratulations, again!