Guide to Graduate School Financial Aid

Guide to Financial Aid for Graduate School

Planning to attend graduate school? You probably thought the hard part would be studying, especially while balancing life, work and family. Then, of course, you started looking for graduate school financial aid.

As daunting as finding financial aid for graduate school may seem, there are a number of resources out there. Fortunately, it's now much easier to find money than it used to be, with scholarship sites and resources readily available on the internet. However, one thing hasn't changed, unfortunately. You still have to approach searching for financial aid in the same way you would if you were writing your graduate thesis. You need to do an all-encompassing, thorough search and start your research as early as possible. This is because when it comes to graduate school financial aid, as you'll discover, there are a lot of possibilities out there.

Below, you'll find the average cost of graduate school by state along with the average amount of money graduate students receive in scholarships, grants and loans. Although your actual costs may vary based on your chosen field of study, university and other factors, this tool can help you ballpark your potential costs so you can budget accordingly and search for possible funding sources. You’ll see that in many states, students are able to receive more financial aid than the cost of their tuition, helping them to pay for additional expenses, such as room and board.

Graduate School Financial Aid By State

Total graduate aid awarded per student
Average in-state tuition and fees per student
State tuition and fees rank

* Data sourced from the National Center for Education Statistics, 2012 and 2014.

Graduate School Financial Aid By Program

The cost of graduate school can vary widely depending on your chosen field of study, as can the amount of financial aid you can realistically expect. Here we've run the numbers to give you an idea of what you might have to pay versus how much aid you might qualify for based on your program type.

Field of Study Total Aid Amount (2012) Average In-State Tuition for Full-Time Graduate Students (2014) Average In-State Fees for Full-Time Graduate Students (2014)
Agriculture and related sciences $26,338 $9,571 $1,506
Anthropology $15,746 $15,412 $1,359
Architecture, planning, related services $26,417 $16,684 $1,354
Area, ethnic, and gender studies $22,732 $15,506 $1,338
Biological and biomedical sciences $34,531 $13,739 $1,311
Business, management, and marketing $16,379 $13,353 $752
Communication and journalism $20,298 $13,389 $1,122
Computer and information sciences $17,195 $13,600 $1,056
Economics $34,081 $18,320 $1,224
Education $14,121 $12,816 $786
Engineering $23,806 $14,611 $1,200
Engineering technologies/technicians $14,924 $13,389 $1,179
English language and literature/letters $20,349 $13,145 $1,205
Family, consumer, and human sciences $15,559 $12,050 $1,231
Foreign languages and literatures $26,798 $14,796 $1,244
Health professions and related sciences $26,777 $13,354 $849
History $20,558 $12,505 $1,319
International relations and affairs $21,176 $19,730 $949
Legal professions and studies $44,376 $16,277 $947
Liberal arts, sciences and humanities $15,377 $15,237 $812
Library science $10,749 $12,593 $1,394
Mathematics and statistics $25,054 $13,528 $1,336
Multi/interdisciplinary studies $19,713 $14,466 $1,128
Natural resources and conservation $24,856 $13,086 $1,316
Parks, recreation, and fitness studies $17,889 $10,884 $1,190
Philosophy and religious studies $23,360 $16,682 $987
Physical sciences $36,059 $14,264 $1,369
Political science and government $23,104 $15,203 $1,316
Psychology $24,394 $13,630 $974
Public administration/social services $19,700 $13,080 $1,042
Security and protective services $13,540 $11,702 $993
Social sciences, other $22,696 $13,925 $1,278
Sociology $23,669 $13,321 $1,415
Theology and religious vocations $13,259 $12,932 $434
Visual and performing arts $30,243 $15,780 $1,136

*Data sourced from the National Postsecondary Student Aid Study and the Integrated Postsecondary Education Data System.

Below you can find information on various forms of financial aid, such as scholarships, grants and loans. Keep reading to learn more about how to receive funding for graduate school.


Many different factors can qualify you for a scholarship, so here's a look at the range of the different types of scholarships to look into. You never know what might be out there or what you will qualify for, until you start looking.

Scholarships by Location

Some scholarships are available based on your state or city of residence, so it's worth researching those options. For instance, as of June 2016, the Rhode Island Foundation has 150 scholarships available for a variety of Rhode Island residents, including graduate students. There are numerous other scholarships available to residents of other states and cities, so searching for scholarships by location is a good place to start.

Scholarships by University

Whatever college you're attending or are interested in applying to, it probably offers scholarships. Now, that doesn't mean it offers a scholarship you'll qualify for, but you'd be crazy not to look. In fact, you may be surprised that the eligibility requirements of many university scholarships are designed to make the scholarship available to a wide range of students. Many college scholarships simply require students to write an essay answering a specific prompt. However, to be eligible for some scholarships, you just have to be nominated by a fellow student. There are even some academic scholarships that are granted without requiring an application, provided the students meet a certain GPA. It never hurts to look for university scholarships you may qualify for. However, also branch out and look for scholarships from private organizations or institutions.

Scholarships by Field of Study

Some graduate scholarships are offered to a narrower set of students based on their field of study. Many professional associations award scholarships to students pursuing graduate study and intending to pursue a career in that field. While it may be harder to meet the eligibility requirements of these subject-specific scholarships, there may be fewer students applying for them, giving you an increased chance of being awarded the scholarship money.

Scholarships by Academic Excellence

Special scholarships are often available to grad students with high GPAs, test scores or other measures of academic excellence. Your chosen university may award merit-based scholarships, or a high GPA might qualify you for scholarships from an outside organization or community group.

Scholarships by Community Groups

Numerous community groups award scholarships. These are more plentiful at the undergraduate level, but it's still worth researching scholarship opportunities for graduate students. Start by looking into community groups, religious organizations or fraternal organizations that you or your parents belong to. Then expand your search to other community groups in your area to see what scholarships might be available.

Scholarships for Minorities

Minority students may qualify for special scholarships intended to further the education of groups that haven't been traditionally represented in higher education. Some organizations award scholarships to students from specific ethnic minorities. On the other hand, female students in some academic fields where women are the minority (particularly science, technology, engineering and math, or STEM for short) may qualify for special scholarships. Other scholarships are available to graduate students with disabilities. Students who identify as being gay, lesbian or transgender also have an increasing number of scholarships available to them.

For specific graduate school scholarship listings, check out GradSource’s Guide to Graduate School Scholarships.

Next Steps:
How to Apply for Scholarships
  1. Research your scholarship options. 
    Remember that you may qualify for scholarships from a variety of sources including your university, government entities, community groups and others.

  2. Create a list of scholarships you plan to apply for. 
    Narrow down your options to the scholarships you think you may qualify for. Then make a list that includes application deadlines and required materials to help you stay organized.

  3. Gather your application materials. 
    Different scholarships may have different application requirements such as letters of recommendation, personal essays and official or unofficial transcripts. Give yourself plenty of time to gather these materials instead of waiting until the night before the application is due.

  4. Submit your applications. 
    Once you've gathered your application materials, you're ready to apply for scholarships! Pay attention to the format in which the scholarship committee wants to receive materials so you're not disqualified.

3 Tips for More Efficient Scholarship and Financial Aid Research

Applying for graduate scholarships can be overwhelming, so here are a few things to remember.

  1. Start a list of potential scholarships. The format is up to you, but a spreadsheet could help you keep track of application requirements, deadlines and links.

  2. Add deadlines to your calendar. Write application deadlines in your calendar and give yourself reminders a week or two before the deadline so you don't miss out on the opportunity to get money for graduate school that you don’t have to pay back.

  3. Set up alerts. If you're interested in scholarships in a particular geographic area or academic discipline, consider setting up Google Alerts so you'll get an email whenever new information or scholarships that fit your search criteria are  posted. For instance, you might set up an alert for "graduate school" AND "scholarship" AND "anthropology".

Government Grants

On the federal level, the U.S. Department of Education doesn't offer as many grants to graduate students as they do undergraduates. However, there are some prominent grants for certain majors which are detailed below. Don't forget to check with the school you're applying to, or interested in applying to, to see what grants they offer.


Those studying education should take a look at the Teacher Education Assistance for College and Higher Education (TEACH) Grant, which, as of June 2016, provides up to $4,000 a year to students who are completing or plan to complete coursework needed to begin a career in teaching. Keep in mind that you'll be required to teach for a certain length of time in a low-income area.

Fulbright Grant

If you're interested in pursuing your studies abroad, check out the Fulbright Grant. Fulbright Grants are sponsored by the U.S. Department of State's Bureau of Educational and Culture affairs to facilitate intellectual exchange between countries. As of July 2016, around 8,000 grants are awarded a year. The Fulbright Grant is designed to give students the opportunity to complete a range of projects abroad, including studying, teaching English, researching and working in foreign governments. Students of various disciplines, including arts, sciences, technology and engineering fields, can apply to the grant.  

State Grants

Some states have grants available to graduate students, so check with your state to see what grants it might offer.

Field-Specific Grants

Some grants are offered to students studying in a particular field. For example, if your focus is in science, try looking for grants offered by the National Science Foundation. Whether you're planning on studying global warming in the Arctic or want to do postdoctoral research in mathematical sciences, the National Science Foundation may offer a grant that fits your educational focus. Whatever your field of study, research grants that fit your subject matter. Although many grants may not provide tuition assistance for graduate students, they may cover research and travel.

Pell Grant

Note that federal Pell Grants are generally only available to undergraduate students.

Federal Loans

It's more than likely that most of your financial aid will come from federal and possibly state loans. Some of the federal loan programs that you'll want to investigate include the following:

Federal Direct Unsubsidized Loans

These are loans that are not based on financial need. You'll get a six-month grace period after you get your degree before you need to start repaying the loans, but interest will accrue during that time.

Loan amount

Loan interest


Up to $138,500 in aggregate


10-25 years

Federal Direct PLUS Loan

This loan provides money that you can use to help pay education expenses that are not covered by other financial aid. The U.S. Department of Education is the lender, and just a heads up, you likely won't get a loan if you have bad credit.

Loan amount

Loan interest


Up to the cost of attendance
(minus financial aid)


10-25 years

The Perkins Loan Program

This program provides low-interest loans for students who need help financing a post-secondary education. This is money that goes directly to your school, and the interest on the loans does not start accruing until nine months after you graduate. Note that changes to this loan program now mean that only graduate students who have previously received a Perkins loan will be eligible to receive this loan, and the Perkins loan program will only be available to them until the end of September 2016.

Loan amount

Loan interest


Up to $8,000 per year


10 years

Of course, you'll also want to look at your state's Department of Education website to see what loans your state offers. You can also take out loans from private institutions like banks, but be careful, if you go that route. Generally, the interest rates are variable for private student loans. While rates may be low, they're subject to the whims of the market. This means you can be taking quite a risk by taking out a private student loan since the rates could climb later. Private loans are also notorious for having fewer repayment options than federal loans. If you take out private loans for education, it should be the last place you look for money and not the first.

Next Steps:
How to Apply for Loans
  1. Gather your documents.
    You’ll need documents such as bank statements, tax returns and your social security number, so gather those items before you start filling out paperwork.

  2. Fill out FAFSA.
    Fill out your information online, checking carefully for any data entry errors.

  3. Review your financial aid letter.
    After your FAFSA is reviewed, you’ll get a letter stating what loans and other financial aid options are available to you based on your situation. 

  4. Accept the financial aid and student loans.

    Once you’ve decided where you plan to attend graduate school, accept the financial aid and student loans so you can formally enroll.

Understanding FAFSA

Remember FAFSA? Of course you do. You, or your parents, likely filled it out to learn what federal loans you were eligible to receive as an undergraduate. FAFSA stands for Free Application for Federal Student Aid and can be found by going to www.fafsa.ed.gov. The application has a reputation for being sheer drudgery to fill out. However, it has been streamlined over the years. Provided you have all of your paperwork, it should only take you, on average 23 minutes to fill out, according to the U.S. Department of Education.

As for that paperwork, here's what you need to have:

  • Social security number
  • Alien registration number, if you are not an American citizen
  • The most recent federal income tax returns, W-2s and other records of money earned
  • Bank statements and records of investments, if you have investments
  • Documentation of untaxed income, if you have any
  • A FSA ID, so you can sign FAFSA documents electronically. You can get your ID at the website for the U.S. Department of Education

3 Tips on Student Loans

It can all be overwhelming, so when you start looking for financial aid, here are a few things to remember.

  1. You may need to clean up your credit. If you are going to ask for federal student loans, you need to be up to date on paying back any previous federal college loans. It's fine to still owe money for your undergraduate loans, but if you are behind on your payments, you'll need to catch up. If you have a federal lien on your house, it's worth noting that you won't be eligible for federal aid.

  2. Apply for a graduate program. There's nothing wrong with doing research on loans and financial aid before actually applying to a graduate school, but you can't get federal financial aid, which will probably be your main source of funding, until you've been accepted into a graduate program.

  3. Don't rush. It takes time to research loan options. It also takes time to hear back from lenders to learn how much money they’ll loan you. Generally, it takes up to two weeks to get your FASFA processed and be sent a Student Aid Report (SAR). There are also other mistakes you could make in applying to graduate school if you're looking for financing and the right school all at once and in a short amount of time. Ideally, you should begin researching financial aid at least six months before you start classes so you’re not rushed.

Military Benefits for Education

If you've served in a branch of the military, then you may be entitled to military-specific educational benefits to help defray the cost of a graduate degree. Here's a look at several popular programs.

Montgomery GI Bill

If you're a veteran or active-duty soldier who's served at least two years and paid $100 a month during your first year of active duty, then you likely qualify for a cash education benefit under the Montgomery GI Bill Active Duty (MGIB-AD). Benefits are based on your training, how long you were/are in the service, your category and any added benefits from the Department of Defense. Your eligibility under the GI Bill ends 10 years after your last date of discharge.

Reservists who agree to serve for at least six years have a separate GI Bill known as MGIB-SR. Reservists don't have to pay into the program, but they also receive a smaller education benefit.

Post-9/11 GI Bill

Service members with least 90 days of aggregate active duty service after September 10, 2001 who are still on active duty may quality for the Post-9/11 GI Bill. Unlike the Montgomery GI Bill, which requires service members to pay $100 a month during their first year of active duty, the Post 9/11 GI Bill does not require service members to buy in. The maximum payment rate for the 2016-2017 school year under the Post-9/11 GI Bill is full tuition and fee payments for in-state students attending a public school or up to $21,970.46 per academic year for private or out-of-state schools.

Yellow Ribbon Program

Some graduate schools participate in the Yellow Ribbon Program. Through the program, if the cost of tuition and fees at your chosen school exceeds the amount covered by the Post-9/11 GI Bill (for instance, if you decide to study at a private school or a public school as a nonresident student) additional funds are made available to you. The institution you attend chooses the amount of tuition and fees to contribute and the VA matches that amount, issuing payment directly to the institution. You must be eligible for the maximum benefit under the Post-9/11 GI Bill to qualify for funds under the Yellow Ribbon Program.

Tuition Assistance

The Tuition Assistance "Top Up" benefit under the GI Bill allows active-duty service members to supplement their Tuition Assistance benefit, which is offered through military services and doesn't always cover the full tuition rate. The "Top Up" benefit can help fill the gap between what the GI Bill covers and the total cost of attendance (for example, if you decided to attend a private school or an out-of-state school).

Work Study Programs

Consider checking out the Federal Work-Study (FWS) Program, which provides part-time jobs for undergraduate and graduate students with financial need. The program allows students to earn money to help pay education expenses, and it encourages community service and work related to your course of study. Also, work-study employers must consider your class schedule when they create work schedules but regular employers may not.

Roughly 3,400 schools participate in the FWS Program, and hourly wages must be at the federal minimum wage or higher. Under the FWS Program, you can work directly for your university; a federal, state, or local public agency; a private nonprofit organization; or a private for-profit organization. Your university must allocate at least 7 percent of its FWS funds to support students working in community service jobs such as reading or math tutoring or emergency preparedness and response.

To qualify for the FWS Program, you must file the FAFSA.

Company Sponsored Tuition

If you're employed at a big company, some corporations offer graduate school scholarships. You're probably well aware of this if it's a perk at your workplace, but some companies also offer other forms of financial assistance to those furthering their education. Keep in mind that if your company pays all or part of your tuition, they may require you to continue working there for a certain timeframe. If you leave the company, you may be required to pay back all or part of the tuition. As of Jun 2016, the Internal Revenue Service allows you to exclude up to $5,250 of educational assistance from your employer on your taxes. If you receive educational benefits that exceed that amount, it may be a taxable benefit.

Additional Resources

  • MyScholly.com - This scholarship-matching platform allows you to search for scholarships online or through your phone.
  • StudentLoan.gov - This website is part of the office of the U.S. Department and Education and includes comprehensive information on student loans.

Scholarships and Fellowships, Rhode Island Foundation, Accessed June 2016, http://www.rifoundation.org/WorkingTogether/ForScholarshipSeekers/ScholarshipFellowshipOpportunities.aspx

TEACH Grants, Federal Student Aid, Accessed June 2016, https://studentaid.ed.gov/sa/types/grants-scholarships/teach

The Fulbright Program, Bureau of Educational and Cultural Affairs, Accessed July 2016, http://eca.state.gov/fulbright

Federal Pell Grants, Federal Student Aid, Accessed June 2016, https://studentaid.ed.gov/sa/types/grants-scholarships/pell

NSF Graduate Research Fellowship Program, National Science Foundation, Accessed June 2016, http://www.nsf.gov/funding/pgm_summ.jsp?pims_id=6201

Subsidized and Unsubsidized Loans, Federal Student Aid, Accessed June 2016, https://studentaid.ed.gov/sa/types/loans/subsidized-unsubsidized

PLUS Loans, Federal Student Aid, Accessed June 2016, https://studentaid.ed.gov/sa/types/loans/plus

Federal Perkins Loan Program, U.S. Department of Education, Accessed June 2016, http://www2.ed.gov/programs/fpl/index.html

Text of the Federal Perkins Loan Program Extension Act of 2015, GovTrack, Accessed June 2016, https://www.govtrack.us/congress/bills/114/hr3594/text

7 Common FAFSA Mistakes, Home Room, the Official Blog of the U.S. Department of Education, Accessed June 2016, http://blog.ed.gov/2014/01/7-common-fafsa-mistakes/

Montgomery GI Bill Active Duty (MGIB-AD), U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs, Accessed June 2016, http://www.benefits.va.gov/gibill/mgib_ad.asp

Montgomery GI Bill Selective Reserve (MGIB-SR), U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs, Accessed June 2016, http://www.benefits.va.gov/gibill/mgib_sr.asp

Post-9/11 GI Bill, U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs, Accessed June 2016, http://www.benefits.va.gov/gibill/post911_gibill.asp

Post-9/11 GI Bill, U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs, Accessed June 2016, http://www.benefits.va.gov/GIBILL/resources/benefits_resources/rates/ch33/ch33rates080116.asp

Yellow Ribbon Program, U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs, Accessed June 2016, http://www.benefits.va.gov/gibill/yellow_ribbon.asp

Tuition Assistance Top Up, U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs, Accessed June 2016, http://www.benefits.va.gov/gibill/tuition_assistance.asp

Federal Work-Study Program, ED.gov, Accessed July 2016, http://www2.ed.gov/programs/fws/index.html

Employer-Sponsored Tuition, IRS.gov, Accessed June 2016, https://www.irs.gov/publications/p970/ch11.html