The FAFSA for Graduate School: What You Need To Know

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Getting into graduate programs is an accomplishment worth celebrating. After the initial excitement, however, you’ll need to plan out how to prepare and pay for graduate school

Filing a Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA) is a critical step. The process for graduate school is similar to what you went through as an undergrad, but there are some key differences. 

Key Takeaways

  • Just as with undergraduate school, filing a FAFSA is the first step in getting financial aid for graduate school. 
  • Most grad students are considered independent, which means you may not have to provide your parents' financial information on the application. 
  • Grants and loans are both available to graduate students. 
  • FAFSA applications can be filed Oct. 1 to the following June 30.

Undergraduate vs. Graduate

When filing the FAFSA, you’re considered a graduate or professional student if you’re enrolled in or applying to any post-secondary schooling beyond a bachelor’s degree, such as a master’s degree, a medical degree, or a doctoral degree like a Ph.D. (A professional degree usually refers to preparation for a specific career, such as a law degree or pharmacy degree, for which an undergraduate degree is required.)

This distinction is crucial because graduate and professional students are almost always granted independent status on the FAFSA. (Whereas undergraduates pursuing a bachelor’s degree are mostly classified as a dependent).


As an independent student, you aren’t required to have your parents provide their financial information on the FAFSA. However, some graduate programs require or recommend that you include parental information in order to be eligible for institutional aid.

Just as with undergraduates, you’re eligible to file the FAFSA as long as you meet some basic requirements. These include being a U.S. citizen or eligible noncitizen with a valid Social Security number and being accepted or enrolled in an eligible degree program.

Types of Student Aid Offered to Graduate Students

The U.S. Department of Education and your school’s financial aid office use your FAFSA to determine if you’re eligible for student aid, and for which kinds. Some forms of aid are need-based, which means they are granted to students with a proven gap between grad school costs and their ability to pay.

Graduate students have fewer federal student aid options than undergraduates, generally speaking. However, your own university or graduate program might provide merit- or research-based assistance, and many private and nonprofit organizations offer scholarships and grants for graduate students as well.

Here are the types of federal need-based aid offered to graduate students:

  • Federal Pell Grants are largely reserved for undergraduate students, but graduate students in a post-baccalaureate teacher certification program may also be eligible for them. You don’t have to repay Pell Grants, and the maximum award is $6,895 for the 2022–23 award year (July 1, 2022, to June 30, 2023).
  • TEACH Grants offer up to $3,772 for the 2022-23 school year to students in participating undergraduate, graduate, or postbaccalaureate programs who are pursuing a teaching career. To receive this aid you must sign an agreement committing to teach in a high-need area for at least four academic years, within eight years of leaving the program you received the grant for.
  • Federal Work-Study provides aid in the form of wages earned through part-time employment.


The TEACH Grant Program actually provides grants of up to $4,000 a year for the 2022-23 school year, but under the Budget Control Act of 2011, grants disbursed between Oct. 1, 2022 and Sept. 30, 2023 are cut by 5.7% from the amount the student would have otherwise been eligible for. That means the maximum award amount is $3,772.

In addition to grants, there are two types of federal loans offered to graduate students. Neither are based on financial need, though you still need to complete the FAFSA to be eligible for them.

  • Direct Unsubsidized Loans for graduate students are limited to $20,500 per school year (except for students enrolled in certain health care programs, like medical school). They carry a 6.54% interest rate for the 2022-2023 school year (loans disbursed July 1, 2022 through June 30, 2023), and there is a one-time loan fee of 1.057% of the loan amount for loans disbursed before Oct. 1, 2023.
  • Direct PLUS Loans, called grad PLUS loans when taken out by grad students, don’t have a preset limit. Graduate students can borrow up to their school’s cost of attendance, minus any other aid they receive. These loans carry a 7.54% interest rate for 2022-2023, and the origination fee is 4.228% of the loan amount. 

Aid is typically disbursed in two or more payments and with at least one disbursement per term. The Education Department pays your school, which will usually apply the money to outstanding charges from the college first. Any remaining funds will go to you.

Federal student loans can be a vital source of funding to pay for graduate and professional programs. In 2020-21, graduate and professional students borrowed $17,540 in federal loans, on average. They made up 47% of annual federal student loans.


Private student loans are also available to grad students and may offer better terms to highly qualified borrowers relative to Direct PLUS loans.

Do Graduate Students Have To File a FAFSA?

Filing a FAFSA is required to access federal student aid, and is often a prerequisite for other types of aid as well, including grants and scholarships from state governments and universities.

Even if you don’t want or plan to get aid, filing your FAFSA can provide an important backup option for covering costs.

Steps To Filing Your FAFSA for Graduate School

Fortunately, filing a FAFSA online takes just 30 minutes and is fairly simple. Go to the FAFSA website to start the process. 

1. Get Set Up

A Federal Student Aid ID, or FSA ID, and account are required to sign in and start the FAFSA process. Once you’ve got those, you’ll need to indicate the school year for which you’re filing and that you’re a student, not a parent

(The FAFSA site will also prompt you to create a save key to save your progress in case you don’t complete the form in one go.)

2. Provide Student Information

Next, you’ll be asked to provide a series of personal and demographic information, such as residency, contact information, and marital status.

3. School Section

This is where you’ll enter information about schools you’re enrolled in or are considering attending. 

4. Dependency Status

Next, the FAFSA will ask you a series of questions about your dependency status. This includes a question about whether you’re beginning a master’s or doctorate program. You should indicate that you are to be classified as an independent student.

5. Parent Demographics

As an independent student, you’re not required to provide parental information. However, certain graduate programs may require or recommend that you include it to better determine your eligibility for institutional aid. Check with your school to see what it recommends. 

6. Student Financial Information

Next, you’ll be asked to provide financial information from the tax return two years prior to the year for which you're requesting aid. You can do so by entering your tax data manually or using the IRS Data Retrieval Tool. Following this, there are additional questions about income, assets, and other financial details.

7. Sign and Submit

The last step is to sign the FAFSA electronically and then submit it. And you’re done!

After Submitting the FAFSA

The Federal Student Aid office will process your FAFSA in three to five days and send a Student Aid Report (SAR) to you and the colleges where you’ve applied or enrolled. From there, each college will put together a financial aid package. This will list the types and amounts of student aid the college can extend to you in the coming school year.

Tips for Student Aid in Grad School

Whether this is your first time applying or you are renewing assistance, review your financial aid offer and carefully decide which types of aid to accept. Then use these strategies to optimize your aid and minimize your costs.

  • Use any gift aid offered first, such as scholarships and grants, followed by any offer for work-study or a fellowship stipend. This will help limit how much you need to borrow for grad school. 
  • If you need loans, max out lower-cost Direct Unsubsidized loans before you agree to PLUS loans. 
  • If you have excellent credit, investigate private loans as a potential alternative to PLUS loans.

Frequently Asked Questions (FAQs)

What is the deadline for graduate students to submit the FAFSA?

The soonest you can begin filling out the FAFSA for the next school year is October 1. The deadline is June 30. So if you are a senior in college and know you want to attend graduate school, you could fill out the FAFSA as soon as October for attendance in a graduate program the following fall. The last day to submit the FAFSA would be the June 30 that falls after the October 1st starting date.

What if I am not sure whether I'll attend graduate school?

You should still fill out the FAFSA, even if you haven't decided to attend graduate school or haven't been accepted into a program. There is no penalty for filling one out and then not needing financial aid.

Am I allowed to fill out the FAFSA for grad school if I owe on student loans from my undergrad years?ndergraduate degree?

Even if you owe money from student loans taken out while you were an undergraduate student, you are still eligible for federal student aid as a graduate student. Only you can decide whether it makes sense to take on more debt, but whatever program you decide on, do your research to make sure you'll earn enough money after grad school to pay down the undergrad and grad school debt.

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The Balance uses only high-quality sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts within our articles. Read our editorial process to learn more about how we fact-check and keep our content accurate, reliable, and trustworthy.
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  2. Federal Student Aid. "Basic Eligibility Criteria."

  3. Federal Student Aid. "Federal Pell Grants Are Usually Awarded Only to Undergraduate Students."

  4. Federal Student Aid Office. "Receive a TEACH Grant To Pay for College."

  5. Federal Student Aid. "The U.S. Department of Education Offers Low-Interest Loans to Eligible Students To Help Cover the Cost of College or Career School."

  6. Federal Student Aid. "Direct PLUS Loans Are Federal Loans That Graduate or Professional Students Can Use To Help Pay for College or Career School."

  7. CollegeBoard. "Trends in College Pricing and Student Aid 2021." Page 4.

  8. Federal Student Aid. "FAFSA Deadlines."

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