Guide to FAFSA for Graduate Students

By Melissa Brock · May 17, 2022 · 11 minute read

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Guide to FAFSA for Graduate Students

Graduate school can boost your marketability, help you pursue your academic and professional interests, help you make connections and potentially increase your earnings.

When you’re ready to invest in your future by attending graduate school, your thoughts may also turn to paying for grad school. Does FAFSA® cover graduate school?

In short, yes. The FAFSA application can be used by graduate students to apply for financial aid. Graduate students may qualify for federal grants, work-study, and federal student loans by completing the Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA). (You may already be familiar with the FAFSA from filing it when you were an undergraduate.) The FAFSA is a form that you must fill out every year if you want to be considered for federal student aid for your graduate school program.

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 the FAFSA. For example, you may not want to file the FAFSA if you have the money stashed away for graduate school or if you plan to pay for graduate school using a combination of tuition reimbursement money from your employer and money from your weekly paycheck.

Recommended: FAFSA Guide

Grad School Financial Aid Eligibility

How do you become eligible for financial aid in graduate school?

In addition to meeting basic FAFSA requirements, like being a U.S. citizen or qualifying noncitizen, you’ll need to fill out the FAFSA to become eligible for aid. You can file the FAFSA graduate school form after October 1 preceding the year you plan to attend graduate school. For example, if you plan to attend graduate school beginning in the fall of 2023, you can fill out the FAFSA beginning on October 1, 2022. Check on the financial aid deadlines at the graduate schools at which you plan to apply.

You’ll also need to sign up for an FSA ID (if you don’t already have one for your undergraduate years), which is your login. You can use your FSA ID to sign your Master Promissory Note (MPN) (your loan agreement), apply for repayment plans, complete loan counseling, and use the Public Service Loan Forgiveness help tool.

Grants, work-study, and federal student loans may help you in paying for grad school. Let’s walk through each of these types of financial aid.

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Grants are primarily need-based awards, though some grants are awarded based on merit. Like scholarships, grants generally do not need to be repaid once you complete your program (except in certain circumstances, such as not completing your enrollment period).

Grants can come from the federal government, your state, your graduate school, or a private or nonprofit organization.

Some grants, such as the Pell Grant and FSEOG Grant, are reserved for undergraduate students only. Furthermore, grants such as the Iraq and Afghanistan Service Grants require you to be under 24 years old or enrolled in college at least part-time at the time of a parent’s or guardian’s death. If you don’t meet those requirements, you cannot receive this type of grant.

However, graduate students may qualify for a TEACH Grant, which means that you could receive up to $4,000 per year if you plan to complete coursework related to education. You must teach at a school or educational service agency that serves low-income students for four years, teach in a high-need field and complete the required four years of teaching within eight years after you graduate.

There may be additional grants available to you depending on your course of study.

Recommended: Grants For College – Find Free Money for Students


You may be familiar with work-study programs through your undergraduate institution. 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-time or 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 offer assistantships or teaching roles to help you pay for school.

Federal Student Loans

Just like any other loan, you must repay federal student loans with interest. However, the federal student loans you can get 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 also during the grace period. Direct Subsidized Loans are only available to undergraduate students with demonstrated need.

However, you can take more money out in Direct Unsubsidized Loans compared to what you could access in your undergraduate years, which we’ll go over in the next section.

Direct Unsubsidized Loans

What exactly is a Direct Unsubsidized Loan? It’s a loan that offers a low, fixed interest rate and flexible repayment options. However, unlike a Direct Subsidized Loan, the government does not pay the interest while you’re in college and during the grace period. Graduate students can tap into up to $20,500 at an interest rate of 5.28%, for the 2021-2022 school year.

Grad PLUS Loans

To qualify for a grad PLUS loan, also called a Direct PLUS Loan, you must be a graduate or professional student enrolled at least half-time in a program that will lead to a graduate or professional degree or certificate. You must not have an adverse credit history or must meet additional criteria to be considered if you do not meet credit standards.

You can borrow up to the cost of attendance of your graduate school program minus other financial assistance you get. The current interest rate for Direct PLUS Loans for graduate students is a fixed 6.28%.

All students must meet general eligibility requirements for federal student aid to qualify for loans.

Tips on Filling Out FAFSA as a Grad Student

When you fill out the FAFSA as a graduate student, what can you expect? Continue reading for more information on when you’ll hear back and the average disbursed amount you can receive.

When Will You Hear Back?

You’ll submit your Federal Student Aid (FSA) ID and information about your Social Security number or Alien Registration Number, bank account balances and investment account information as well as federal income tax information. Your dependency status will differ, however, because you’re no longer considered a dependent student and will not input your parents’ information onto the FAFSA.

Once you submit the FAFSA form, you’ll receive a Student Aid Report (SAR) in up to three weeks and can learn basic information about your aid eligibility through that report.

It’s a good idea to contact the graduate school you plan to attend to determine any other information you must submit to qualify for other types of institutional aid.

The university will then review your FAFSA information and other documents and send you a financial aid award that details the scholarships, grants, and federal student loans you can 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

Graduate Unsubsidized Loans have borrower caps. Again, you can access $20,500 at a current interest rate of 5.28%. Direct PLUS Loans have no maximum amount you can borrow and the fixed interest rate is 6.28%. You can borrow up to the cost of attendance for the institution with a Direct PLUS Loan.

Recommended: What Is Cost of Attendance?

FAFSA for Grad School vs Undergrad

Let’s take a look at all the amount of money you can receive based on the FAFSA results across both undergraduate and graduate school, including the limits to unsubsidized loans. (The unsubsidized amount is aggregated across all years of graduate and undergraduate school.)


Dependent Students

Independent Students

First-Year Undergraduate Annual Loan Limit $5,500 (not more than $3,500 in subsidized loans) $9,500 (not more than $3,500 in subsidized loans)
Second-Year Undergraduate Annual Loan Limit $6,500 (not more than $4,500 in subsidized loans) $10,500 (not more than $4,500 in subsidized loans)
Third Year and Beyond Undergraduate Annual Loan Limit $7,500 per year (not more than $5,500 in subsidized loans) $12,500 (not more than $5,500 in subsidized loans)
Graduate or Professional Student Annual Loan Limit Not applicable (graduate students are independent students) $20,500 (unsubsidized only)
Subsidized and Unsubsidized Aggregate Loan Limit $31,000 (not more than $23,000 can come from subsidized loans) $57,500 for undergraduates (not more than $23,000 can come from subsidized loans); $138,500 for graduate or professional students (not more than $65,500 in subsidized loans, and this includes an aggregated amount from undergraduate school)

Alternatives to Federal Aid

What alternatives to federal aid exist for graduate school? Let’s take a look at private student loans, grants, scholarships, fellowships and assistantships, and employer tuition assistance.

Private Student Loans

Private student loans are offered by financial institutions such as a bank, credit union, or another type of private student loan lender. Just like private student loans for undergraduates, you can get private student loans for graduate school, and you may be familiar with this process if you obtained private student loans to help you pay for your undergraduate education.

Private student loans usually carry a higher interest rate than federal student loans. Your interest rate will be based on factors including your credit score and income. To get a private student loan, you’ll fill out an application and the lender determines your rates and terms. It’s often possible to hear back from a private student loan lender quickly.

However, it’s important to recognize that you lose out on several federal benefits with private student loans, including income-driven repayment programs (where you pay back your loans based on your income level), loan forgiveness (in which you don’t have to repay your loans), and deferment options (where you put off paying off your loans).


You can find research grants at the graduate and professional level, such as the Research Publication Grants in Engineering, Medicine, and Science through the American Association of University Women . Certain grants are only restricted to graduate students, such as the prestigious Fulbright Graduate Degree Grants , sponsored by the U.S. Department of State.

Your state may also distribute grant money for students based on need or interest. The financial aid office at your graduate school will have more information about both graduate school-specific and organization-specific grants.


Just like grants, you can receive scholarships from a number of sources, including your graduate school, local organizations, philanthropic associations, and more. Also similar to grants, you do not have to pay scholarships back.

Look for scholarships from professional associations in your field. Your graduate school department or career department can often help you find scholarships based on your qualifications.

Fellowships and Assistantships

Graduate fellowships provide financial support to graduate students and vary widely in their purpose, duration, and requirements. They are often awarded at a specific stage in the educational continuum.

An assistantship, on the other hand, also provides financial support, except they provide experience in a profession under a faculty or staff member. They vary depending on the academic department’s needs, funds available, and graduate student qualifications. They may include teaching, research, or administrative duties.

Graduate departments can offer more information about fellowships and assistantships.

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 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

When you’re trying to put together the best ways to finance your graduate school education, it often requires you to take a look at many different sources of money, including saving money for grad school, grants, scholarships, fellowships and assistantships, federal student loans, private student loans, and more. And the answer to the question, “Do you fill out FAFSA for grad school?” is yes — if you want to qualify for federal aid.

Private student loans are one of the most common ways to finance your graduate school education, and SoFi offers low fixed rates or variable interest rates on private student loans to fit your budget.

Learn more about how a SoFi private student loan could help you pay for graduate school.


How much can FAFSA disburse for graduate school?

Graduate students can borrow up to $20,500 in unsubsidized loans each year. PLUS loans are also an option, and allow students to borrow up to the cost of attendance.

Is financial aid harder to qualify for graduate students?

It’s not necessarily harder to qualify for financial aid. However, in terms of federal student loans, graduate students are subject to different FAFSA requirements, including dependency status — you are independent for financial aid purposes and no longer tied to your parents’ income. In addition, graduate students are ineligible for Direct Subsidized Loans and subject to borrowing limits.

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. You can keep the same FSA ID that you had during your undergraduate years. However, you will have to file the FAFSA for graduate school every year prior to the start of a new academic year.

Photo credit: iStock/sturti

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