Filling out the Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA) is still required for graduate school. Federal Student Aid (FSA) is the nation’s largest source of student financial assistance and students will complete the FAFSA to qualify for federal aid and grants. Yet similar to when you completed your FAFSA as a student there are a few changes.
In this post:
How is the FAFSA for graduate school different from undergrad?
The basic eligibility requirements actually stay the same for receiving any kind of federal aid. Here are the basic requirements:
Be a U.S. Citizen
Demonstrate financial need
Be enrolled in an eligible program
Maintain satisfactory academic progress
Not be in default on any federal student loan
You can find the full list with details on basic eligibility on the Federal Student Aid website.
You’ll file the FAFSA just as you did with your bachelor’s degree. The difference is the award you can qualify for and the information you provide.
Filling out the FAFSA: The big difference for grad students
One major difference as a graduate student is that you’ll file the FAFSA as an independent student. An independent student is at least one of the following:
At least 24 years old
A graduate or professional student
A member of the armed forces
A ward of the court
Someone with legal dependents other than a spouse or your own children
An emancipated minor
Someone who is homeless or at risk of becoming homeless
As an independent student, you won’t be required to provide your parent’s information as you did when you were a dependent (undergraduate) student. This is a general rule, so there are a few exceptions. Your program will notify you if you need to provide parental information.
When you complete the FAFSA as an independent student in graduate school, Federal Student Aid will use the financial information provided to see which loans and grants you’re eligible for.
What loans are available to grad students after filing the FAFSA?
Graduate and professional students have two options for federal student loans. You can receive both Direct Unsubsidized student loans and Direct PLUS Loans.
Direct Unsubsidized student loans
Direct Unsubsidized student loans were available during your undergraduate program as well, so you may have already seen these — or taken out a few. The interest rate is higher on Direct Unsubsidized student loans for graduate students at **6.08%.
Direct Unsubsidized student loans collect interest during deferment and grace periods. This interest, if unpaid, is added to the principal balance of your loan once you enter repayment. It’s called capitalized interest, which you’ll want to avoid if at all possible.
You have an annual limit to how much you can borrow with Direct Unsubsidized Loans. The total you can borrow annually is $20,500.
However, there’s also an aggregate (total overall) limit to how much you can borrow, which is $138,500 for graduate and professional students. This total includes any Direct Unsubsidized and Subsidized Loans you took out during your undergrad. No more than $65,500 of this can be subsidized student loans from your undergrad.
Because of this limit, you may need to take out Direct PLUS Loans to complete your program.
Direct PLUS Loans
Direct PLUS Loans, also called Grad PLUS Loans, are available to help fill the gap after you’ve taken out the Direct Unsubsidized Loans. This is because they carry a high interest rate and require an additional application.
Grad PLUS Loans have a fixed interest rate of **7.08%. You can use a Grad PLUS Loan to fund the rest of your educational needs as there’s no limit. Instead, there’s a formula. A Grad PLUS Loan will cover the cost of attendance minus any other financial aid you received. The cost of attendance, which is determined by the school, can include things like housing and materials.
Again, you must complete an additional application for a Direct PLUS Loan after you file the FAFSA and receive your award letter. This is typically filled out on StudentLoans.gov, but sometimes your school will have its own application. Check with your financial aid office before applying.
Each of these student loans can be important to help fund your education. But keep in mind, your school will also use the information provided on the FAFSA to check for grant eligibility or award scholarships within the school, so it’s important to file the FAFSA on time.
6 steps to submit a FAFSA as a graduate student
The FAFSA typically opens October 1 in the year prior to the start of your graduate school program. For example, if you plan to begin graduate school in the fall of 2021, you’ll file your FAFSA as early as Oct. 1, 2020. The FAFSA typically closes June 30 (in this example, it would be June 30, 2021). However, most schools have an earlier deadline for FAFSA completion.
To file the FAFSA, you’ll need to complete the following steps:
1. Create or find your FSA ID. You probably created one of these during your undergrad. If so, you can use the same ID.
2. Log into the FAFSA website and complete the online application. You’ll need to have your:
Drivers license number
Social Security number
Federal income tax returns, W-2s, and any records of money earned
Bank statements and records of investments (if applicable)
Records of untaxed income (if applicable)
Be sure to choose the correct year when completing the FAFSA.
3.Complete the student demographic section.
Fill in the required fields with information about yourself, such as your Social Security number, contact information and details about your citizenship and level of education.
If you’ve filled out the FAFSA before, these fields might already be completed. In that case, just double-check to make sure everything is up to date.
4. Input your graduate program schools. At the end of the FAFSA, you’ll put the name of the school you plan on attending. If you applied to multiple schools, then you should list all of the ones you’re considering.
5. Input your income. You can use the IRS data retrieval tool offered in the form.
6. Sign and submit your FAFSA.
After submitting, you’ll first receive a Student Aid Report. This has a summary of all information provided on the FAFSA and the estimated number you’re expected to contribute to your education.
From here, you’ll wait to get an award letter from your graduate program outlining the student aid you’re eligible for. Don’t forget that you must file the FAFSA every year of your graduate program to stay eligible for funding.
If federal aid doesn’t cover it all, what are your options?
Not all is lost if your award letter is a lower number than you expected. Ideally, you can supplement with scholarships, but this isn’t always enough. If that’s the case, you can first try to negotiate your financial aid, and second, you can look into private student loans.
Negotiate your financial aid
Negotiating your financial aid might not sound like a possibility, but it totally is. You can appeal for additional financial aid.
Begin by contacting your financial aid office. Have a good attitude and be honest about the situation you’re in. Ask how you can make this work and then file an appeal. You can also see if you can apply for any other scholarships or work-study is available to add on. More often than not, the financial aid office will want to help make it possible for you to attend.
Shop around for a private student loan
As a grad student, if your two loan options don’t cover everything and negotiating didn’t work, you can look into private student loans. Even when considering taking out a Direct PLUS Loan, you’ll want to compare it to private student loans since the interest rate is so high.
Private student loans are available through banks, credit unions and various financial institutions. They have nothing to do with your FAFSA. You’ll complete a separate application with whatever lender you choose.
Be sure to shop around for the best grad school loans. In this case, you get to pick your lender and look at loan terms, so you should be picky. If you have good credit, you’ll probably get a lower rate, too.
Start your search with Credible to look at multiple lenders at once. You can also go individually to each site and get a quote. A “preapproval” doesn’t affect your credit score, as it’s a soft credit pull.
FAQs About FAFSA for Graduate School
Where can I get a copy of the FAFSA?
You can ask your guidance counselor for a copy. You can also get the FAFSA from the financial aid office at a local college, your local public library, or by calling 1-800-4-FED-AID. The online version of the form is available at http://www.fafsa.ed.gov.
Are photocopies of the FAFSA acceptable?
No. Only the original FAFSA form produced by the US Department of Education is acceptable. Photocopies, reproductions, facsimiles and electronic versions are all not acceptable.
How soon after October 1 should the FAFSA form be sent in? Is it better to wait until the income tax forms have been completed?
Send in the form as soon as possible after October 1. Do not wait until your taxes are done. Although it is better to do your taxes early, it is ok to use estimates of your income, so long as they aren’t very far off from the actual values. You will have an opportunity to correct any errors later. If you wait too long, you might miss the deadline for state aid. Most states require the FAFSA to be submitted by March 1, and some even as early as early or mid-February.
I sent in my FAFSA over four weeks ago but haven’t heard anything. What should I do?
If you haven’t received a Student Aid Report (SAR), call the Federal Student Aid Information Center at 1-800-4-FED-AID (toll free) or 1-319-337-5665. You must provide them with your Social Security number and date of birth as verification.
You can also write to
Federal Student Aid Programs
PO Box 4038
Washington, DC 52243-4038
to find out whether your FAFSA has been processed or to request a duplicate copy of your SAR.
I was born on January 1, when I will be 24 years old. Can I check Yes in the answer to the FAFSA question “Were you born before January 1, …” to qualify as an independent student?
The official answer is no. If you check yes, your SAR will be flagged for verification. However, most financial aid administrators would use professional judgment to override the default dependency determination for a student born on January 1 who also demonstrates financial self-sufficiency.
Filling out the FAFSA as a graduate student is a lot like completing it as an undergrad. But it might not take as much time, since you likely aren’t required to complete the parent demographics section. You also might have part of the application prefilled if you’ve already applied as an undergraduate.
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