Can I get a scholarship to go to grad school?

A grad student studying nursing works at her laptop in a lecture hall.

The short answer? Yes. Now, let’s talk about how to find them to help cover your grad school costs.

If you’re thinking about continuing your education — congratulations! Getting an advanced degree can increase your earning potential — we’re talking earning 15% more — and help you deepen your knowledge within your field.1 As you consider your options, make a plan to pay for this next step.

Unlike your undergraduate education, where scholarship and financial aid options are regularly discussed, the options for grad school can take a little extra digging to uncover. But that doesn’t mean they don’t exist! To help you find options that might work for you, we’ve answered six common questions to help you start your search for financial aid and scholarships for graduate school.

Q: When do I need to begin making my plan to pay for graduate school?

A: If you’re set on getting your advanced degree, start planning early. Don’t wait until after you’ve been accepted — begin when you’re researching and applying to graduate programs. If you’re pursuing certain careers like nursing, teaching, or the military, you might be able to qualify for debt forgiveness or loan repayment help after graduation.

Q: Do graduate school scholarships exist? How do I find them?

A: Yes! There are a number of places that you can look for grad school scholarships, but the university where you’re getting your undergraduate degree is a good place to start. To attract top students, many use their own funds to offer full or partial rides to those undergraduates with strong academic performance. As you begin your grad school search, ask the admissions office early on what kind of academic record you would need to qualify for a scholarship.

Often, graduate school scholarships are evaluated on a first-come, first-served basis, so if you’re really interested, get your application in early. This isn’t something you want to wait to explore until after you’ve already been accepted to a graduate program. Get all the information as early as possible to make an informed decision on where you’d like to study.

Also, explore scholarships available based on your field of study — particularly if your expertise is in short supply. This is commonly seen in the STEM concentrations, but you never know what might be available to you. Check with corporations you might consider working for in the future, professional organizations associated with your field of study, and foundations that support the work you plan to do.

Another option would be to look for scholarships that are targeted toward specific demographics or locations. Just like in your undergraduate program, if you’re part of a minority population, there’s a chance that some scholarships are available specifically for you. Also, if you’re looking at an in-state university, there may be some state-specific options as well. You can check with your state’s Department of Education to learn more.

Q: Do I still need to fill out the FAFSA like I did in undergrad?

A: Yes, you still need to complete the Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA). Finding and securing financial aid for grad school is very similar to the process for undergrad. You will need to file it every year to qualify for scholarships, federal and state grants, and federal loans. Two notable differences between graduate school loans and undergraduate loans are:

  • Instead of being associated with your parents, most graduate students are considered independent, so all the information included on your FAFSA will be your own.
  • There is no option for subsidized federal loans. All federal graduate loans are unsubsidized, meaning that interest begins accruing the moment you take the loan out, rather than being deferred until graduation.

Q: Do other forms of financial aid exist for graduate school? How do I know if I qualify?

A: Yes — they include grants, fellowships, employer tuition assistance, and financial aid.

Grants — Grants are usually offered through the federal or state government, an individual school, or a private organization. They can be need- or merit-based, but to qualify for federal and state grants, you’ll have to fill out the FAFSA. To find out how to qualify for grants from individual schools and organizations, contact the financial aid offices and professional organizations offering the grants.

Fellowships — Fellowships tend to be particularly popular if you’re pursuing a research-based graduate degree, but they also can help you gain real-world experience while you continue your education. They can be found in many different fields and usually offer perks like a stipend and housing subsidies. To find fellowships you could qualify for, ask your academic advisor or reach out to professional organizations related to your field of study.

Employer tuition assistance — Tuition reimbursement from your employer is a win-win benefit. Your employer pays all or part of your tuition expenses for grad school (which are tax-deductible for them), and in return they get a more skilled and highly educated employee. If you chose to enter the workforce between undergrad and grad school, talk to your boss to see if your company offers this perk and if they have any restrictions. While it may take longer to get your grad degree, attending school while working can help leave you with less debt to pay off.

Financial aid — By completing the FAFSA, you will automatically apply for Federal Direct Loans and Direct Graduate PLUS Loans. Also, FAFSA isn’t just used by financial aid offices. It can also be used by your university to award scholarships and grants — so it’s worth exploring even if you’re not planning to take out loans.

Federally funded loans aren’t the only option, however. You could also explore private loans. These are typically offered by a bank or credit union and really should be considered a last resort. The interest rates tend to be higher and the payoff timelines more aggressive.

Q: If I have student loans from my undergraduate education, do I have to pay those while I am enrolled in graduate school?

A: That depends. In most cases, if you’re enrolled at least part-time, you can defer your undergraduate loans while you’re in grad school. This is true for both federal and private education loans. However, interest will continue to accrue if you have any unsubsidized undergraduate loans, and of course, interest will be accruing on your graduate loans because there isn’t an unsubsidized option. If you choose not to pay anything during grad school, that accruing interest can increase what you owe in the end; so, with that said, if you can pay anything on your undergraduate loans — you should. It will help you owe less in the long run.

Q: Can I use my family’s 529 plan savings to pay costs?

A: It depends on what you use them for. Qualified expenses would be directly related to your education, like textbooks and tuition. However, 529 funds won’t cover expenses like food or travel, so be specific about how you’re planning to allocate those dollars across your budget. One big advantage of using funds from your 529 is that they’re tax-free when you use them to pay for your education — so this can be a great option if you or your parents started saving early enough to have a significant balance.

Deciding to go to graduate school is a big deal and a really exciting opportunity — but the first step in tackling the next phase of your education is making a plan to pay for it. Take your time and do your research to find the options that work best for you, and prioritize the free money from scholarships and grants before pursuing other ways to pay.

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