Guide to FAFSA for Graduate Students

By Melissa Brock · November 14, 2023 · 11 minute read

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Guide to FAFSA for Graduate Students

Graduate school can help you pursue your academic and professional interests, expand your connections, improve your marketability, and increase your earnings. But it often comes with a high price tag.

If you’re thinking about investing in your future by attending graduate school, you may be wondering, does FAFSA cover graduate school?

In short, yes. Just like undergrads, graduate students can fill out the Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA) every year in order to qualify for federal grants, work-study, and federal student loans.

Read on to learn more about getting financial aid — and other types of funding — to help pay for graduate school.

Key Points

•   Graduate students can apply for federal financial aid using the FAFSA, which may include grants, work-study, and loans.

•   Unlike undergraduates, graduate students are considered independent on the FAFSA, so parental financial information isn’t required.

•   For the 2024-25 academic year, the FAFSA form will be available in December 2023, a change from the usual October 1 availability.

•   Graduate students are eligible for Direct Unsubsidized Loans and Grad PLUS Loans, with fixed interest rates set annually.

•   Financial aid for graduate school may also include institutional grants, fellowships, and assistantships offered by the school.

Do You Have to Fill Out FAFSA for Graduate School?

While filling out the FAFSA is not required to attend graduate school, students who are interested in receiving federal student aid as graduate students will need to fill out and submit the form.

You may be familiar with the FAFSA from your years as an undergraduate student. The process of getting financial aid for graduate school is basically the same, with eligibility largely determined by financial need.

However, there is one notable difference: Graduate students are considered independent students for FAFSA purposes, so you aren’t required to provide any information about your parents’ finances. Another difference: For the 2024–25 FAFSA form, if you’re married, you’ll need to provide your spouse’s information.

💡 Quick Tip: You can fund your education with a low-rate, no-fee private student loan that covers all school-certified costs.

Grad School Financial Aid Eligibility

To be eligible for financial aid in graduate school you must meet basic FAFSA requirements. These include being a U.S. citizen (or qualifying noncitizen) enrolled or accepted in an eligible degree or certificate program. If you have any criminal convictions, have previously defaulted on a student loan, or owe a Pell Grant overpayment, that could affect your eligibility for federal aid.

FAFSA doesn’t have a maximum income cutoff, so it’s worth applying even if you have a steady income. There is also no age cutoff for financial aid, so you can complete and submit the form whether you graduated college recently or many years ago.

Some financial aid is awarded on a first-come, first-served basis, so it’s generally a good idea to fill out the FAFSA as soon as possible after its release. Due to an overhaul (and simplification) of the form, the FAFSA for the 2024-25 academic year will be available in December 2023 —- a delay from the usual October 1. Be sure to submit your FAFSA form by the earliest financial aid deadline of the schools to which you are applying, which is typically early February.

Here’s a look at what type of financial aid you may be eligible for as a graduate student.


Your financial aid package for graduate school may include federal and state grants based on your field of study, interest, or type of school.

For example, if you’re studying education, you might be eligible for the Teacher Education Assistance for College and Higher Education, or TEACH Grant. The TEACH grant provides up to $4,000 a year to education students who will teach in a low-income school or high-needs field after graduation.

Graduate students can also qualify for federal Fulbright Grants and Iraq and Afghanistan Service Grants. However, grad students are generally not eligible for the Pell Grant or Federal Supplemental Educational Opportunity Grant (FSEOG) Grant, which are largely reserved for undergraduates.

You can learn about state-based grant opportunities by contacting the department of education for your state, as well as the state where the graduate school is located.

Many graduate schools also offer grants based on financial need or academic excellence. These grants generally don’t need to be repaid, although there may be specific stipulations, such as maintaining a certain GPA.

Recommended: Grants For College – Find Free Money for Students


You may be familiar with work-study programs from your time as an undergraduate student. Graduate students are also eligible for the Federal Work-Study Program, which provides part-time jobs to students who demonstrate financial need.

Work-study is available to both full- and part-time students, though your graduate school must participate in the Federal Work-Study Program. Your school’s financial aid office can give you more details about the work-study program and the types of jobs available to you. Your program may also offer assistantships or teaching roles to help you pay for school (more on that below).

Federal Student Loans

The federal student loans you can access in graduate school are slightly different from those you can take out in undergraduate school. For example, you cannot take advantage of Direct Subsidized Loans, which are loans in which the government pays the interest while you are in college and during the six month grace period after you graduate. Direct Subsidized Loans are only available to undergraduate students with demonstrated need.

Here’s a look at the two types of federal loans available to grad students.

Direct Unsubsidized Loans

Federal Direct Unsubsidized Loans are loans made to eligible undergraduate, graduate, and professional students, but eligibility is not based on financial need. And, unlike a Direct Subsidized Loan (which is need-based), the government does not pay the interest while you’re in school or for six months after graduation. Interest will accrue while you are attending grad school and get added to your loan balance.

The interest rate is higher on Direct Unsubsidized student loans for graduate students than it is for undergraduate students.

If you are a graduate or professional student, you can borrow up to $20,500 each year in Direct Unsubsidized Loans. The interest rate is fixed at 7.05% for loans first disbursed between July 1, 2023, and July 1, 2024.

Grad PLUS Loans

If you need to borrow more than the annual limit for Direct Unsubsidized Loans to pay for grad school, you can also access a Federal Grad PLUS loan, which is also called a Direct PLUS Loan.

These federal loans are exclusively for graduate/professional students and parents of dependent undergraduate/professional students. Eligibility is not based on financial need, but a credit check is required. Borrowers who have an adverse credit history must meet additional requirements to qualify.

Grad Plus Loans are the most costly type of federal loan. For loans disbursed between July 1, 2023, and July 1, 2024, the interest rate is a fixed 8.05%. You’ll also pay a one-time disbursement fee of 1.057%.

Grad Plus Loans come with higher borrowing limits than other types of federal loans. You can borrow up to the cost of attendance of your graduate school program minus other financial assistance you get.

To apply for a Grad PLUS Loan, you need to fill out the Direct PLUS Loan Application.

Tips on Filling Out FAFSA as a Grad Student

Filling out the FAFSA as a graduate student is similar to filling out the form as an undergrad. However, your dependency status will differ because you’re no longer considered a dependent student. As a result, you typically do not need to input your parents’ information onto the FAFSA. You’ll only need to supply information about your (and if, you’re married, your spouse’s) income and assets, the graduate schools you want to receive your FAFSA information, and then sign and submit your form.

When Will You Hear Back?

It typically takes the education department three to five days to process the FAFSA if you submitted electronically; seven to 10 days if you mailed in a paper form.

If you provided a valid email address, you’ll receive an email notification that includes a link to your electronic Student Aid Report (SAR) at You’ll get a paper SAR through postal mail if you didn’t provide a valid email address. You’ll want to review your SAR carefully to make sure it’s complete and accurate and correct/update information if necessary.

The graduate schools you apply to will then review your FAFSA information and other documents and send you a financial aid award letter that details the scholarships, grants, and federal student loans you are eligible to receive. You may receive your financial aid award not long after you receive your acceptance letter to the graduate school. However, every school is different, so it’s a good idea to ask the admission or financial aid office of your school for more information.

Average Disbursed Amount

The average graduate student loan debt balance (from graduate school alone) is $78,118, according to the Education Data Initiative.

The maximum amount you can borrow under the Federal Direct Unsubsidized Loan program for graduate school is $20,500 a year, with a maximum lifetime limit of $138,500 (including undergraduate loans).

In comparison, a Grad PLUS Loan allows you to borrow up to the cost of attendance, minus any other financial aid received.

FAFSA for Grad School vs Undergrad

Graduate school financial aid is similar to undergraduate financial aid, but there are a few key differences. Here’s a look at how the two compare.

Graduate Student Financial Aid

Undergraduate Student Financial

FAFSA Status Independant Dependant (typically)
Use financial information for Student (and, if applicable, spouse) Student and parents
Federal loans eligible for Unsubsidized Direct Loans and Grad Plus Loans Unsubsidized and Subsidized Direct Loans
Interest rate for Federal Direct Unsubsidized loans 7.05% 5.50%
Eligible for work-study? Yes Yes
Pell and FSEOG grant eligible? No Yes

Alternatives to Federal Aid

Federal aid isn’t the only way to pay for graduate school. Here’s a look at some other sources of funding.

Private Student Loans

Private student loans are offered by banks, credit unions, and online lenders. Unike federal student loans for graduate students (which come with fixed interest rates), private student loans may have fixed or variable rates.

Interest rates are set by the lender, so it can pay to shop around to find the best deal on a private student loan for grad school. Generally borrowers with excellent credit qualify for the lowest rates.

Similar to Grad Plus loans, you can usually borrow up to the full cost of attendance from a private lender. However, Grad Plus Loans come with a disbursement fee, while private lenders generally don’t charge this fee. If you have excellent credit (or can recruit a cosigner who does), you could potentially pay less with a private graduate student loan than a Grad Plus Loan. Keep in mind, though, that private student loans don’t offer the same protections (like access to forgiveness programs and income-based repayment plans) that come with federal student loans.

💡 Quick Tip: Master’s degree or graduate certificate? Private or federal student loans can smooth the path to either goal.

Grants and Scholarships

You’ll be eligible for federal, state, and institutional grants by filling out the FAFSA. However, there are also funding opportunities available outside this system. Many private organizations have created grants and scholarships to help graduates pursue an education in the fields they support.

Look for scholarships and grants from professional associations in your field. Your graduate school department or career department can often help you find scholarships based on your qualifications. There are also several scholarship websites to help you find money for graduate school, including Fastweb and

Fellowships and Assistantships

Graduate fellowships and assistantships can both help you pay for graduate school but they work in different ways.

A fellowship is like a scholarship that you can use for any costs you incur as a student. These programs are often available from professional organizations relating to your major. With a fellowship, you may perform research activities on campus or outside of your school.

An assistantship, on the other hand, is typically school-based and more likely to directly provide full or partial tuition waivers. Some assistantships also come with living stipends. An assistantship typically involves doing work on campus, usually related to your major. You might get a research job, which often entails assisting a tenured professor on an upcoming study, or you could secure a teaching job, which gives you the chance to serve as an assistant or professor at the school.

Employer Tuition Assistance

If you work for an employer that offers tuition assistance, your company may cover some or all of the costs of your graduate or professional education as long as you meet the program’s eligibility requirements.

You may even be able to access tuition assistance through a part-time job. Your human resources office will have details about tuition assistance, qualifications, and reimbursement procedures.

The Takeaway

Just like undergrads, grad students can qualify for financial aid to pay for school. Your grad school aid package might include grants, work-study, and federal loans.

As a grad student, you can take out more in federal loans than you could as an undergrad, which may make it easier to attend a more expensive school. It’s generally a good idea to tap lower-cost Direct Unsubsidized Loans before considering PLUS Loans.

Other sources of funding for grad school include: private grants, scholarships, fellowships, assistantships, and private student loans.

If you’ve exhausted all federal student aid options, no-fee private student loans from SoFi can help you pay for school. The online application process is easy, and you can see rates and terms in just minutes. Repayment plans are flexible, so you can find an option that works for your financial plan and budget.

Cover up to 100% of school-certified costs including tuition, books, supplies, room and board, and transportation with a private student loan from SoFi.


How much can FAFSA disburse for graduate school?

As a graduate student, you can borrow up to $20,500 in unsubsidized federal loans each year. Grad PLUS Loans are also an option, and allow students to borrow up to the cost of attendance for graduate school.

Graduate students may also qualify for grants (which don’t need to be repaid) and work-study by filling out the FAFSA.

Is it harder to qualify for financial aid as a graduate student?

Not necessarily. While there are fewer need-based aid options for graduate students, your university or graduate program might provide merit- or research-based assistance. In addition, many private and nonprofit organizations offer scholarships and grants for graduate students.

Do you need to make a new FAFSA account for graduate school?

No, you do not need to make a new FAFSA account for graduate school. If you created an FSA ID as an undergraduate, you can use the same ID to apply for financial aid for graduate school.

Photo credit: iStock/sturti

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