Paying for Grad School: Where and How to Start

Student loan debt has grown significantly in the last decade, with 45 million borrowers owing $1.75 trillion globally as of August 2022. For many, this debt is not only a financial burden but a mental burden as well. SoFi, a private student loan lender, interviewed 1,200 of their lendees and found that over half felt anxious or depressed about their debt. The majority also reported missing out on or delaying life events, such as starting a family or buying a home, as a result of their debt. With statistics like this, it’s understandable why those embarking on graduate school might be worried about paying for their degree.

What’s less talked about, however, is the enormous amount of student aid—a.k.a free money—that is often left unclaimed by those who do pursue higher education. The class of 2017, for instance, left $2.3 billion in financial aid unclaimed simply by not filling out the Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA), a free online form provided by the U.S. Department of Education.

The biggest mistake you can make is to assume you can’t afford grad school and put your educational and career dreams on hold. With time, research, and creativity, paying for graduate school—without taking on debt—is possible. Here’s how.

Jump Ahead:

7 Types of Financial Aid for Graduate School

How to Get Financial Aid for Graduate School

Why Career Advancement is Always a Worthy Investment

7 Types of Financial Aid for Graduate School

It may seem like there is an abundance of financial aid for undergraduates and few financial options for students pursuing advanced degrees, but graduate financial aid is available—you just have to know where to look. In the 2020-21 academic year, graduate students received an average of $26,920 per full-time equivalent student in financial aid.

Just because finding money for your master’s or doctoral degree requires a different approach doesn’t mean it’s impossible. Here are the best sources of financial aid available for graduate students and where to look for them.

1. Scholarships

Start your scholarship search with online scholarship search engines, such as Sallie Mae’s Graduate School Scholarship Search and’s Scholarship Search Engine. There is virtually a scholarship available for every graduate student.

Consider all of these options to ensure you don’t miss out on scholarship money:

  • Your field of study: Whether you are studying biotechnology or earning your EdD, there are scholarships available in your field. Start by doing a web search for “[your field]” and “graduate scholarships.” Talk with the counselors in your prospective college department to find scholarships specific to your degree program.
  • Your ethnicity: Foundations like the Hispanic Scholarship Fund offer scholarships ranging from $500 to $5,000 to students with Hispanic heritage in any field of study. You don’t have to limit your search to your ethnicity, either. You can also find general minority scholarships that are available for a wide range of ethnicities. There are also aid opportunities for certain nationalities. For example, The National Italian American Foundation offers $2,500 to $12,000 in scholarships to Italian Americans that are members of the foundation.
  • Your university connections: You may be able to earn a graduate scholarship or tuition discount by applying to your alma mater. Northeastern, for example, offers the Double Husky Scholarship, which gives Northeastern alumni a 25 percent discount on their graduate education in over 110 eligible programs. Parents and siblings of Northeastern undergraduate students are also eligible to receive a 25 percent discount on their tuition through Northeastern’s Parent and Family Scholarship. Read more about all of Northeastern’s available scholarships here
  • Your unique life circumstances: Do you live with disabilities or have you overcome adversity in some way? There is a good chance there is a scholarship for your unique situation. For example, individuals who were in the foster care system can look for state scholarships and national scholarships, like the Foster Care Scholarship that awards up to $90,000.
  • Federal aid: You can access federally funded scholarships simply by filling out the FAFSA. The online application will guide you through the process seamlessly.
  • State aid: Each state has a variety of financial aid allocated for its residents. Many of these awards are designated for individuals working in public service or for degrees that are in high demand in the area, in an effort to help support the state’s workforce needs. Massachusetts, for example, designates specific scholarships for residents pursuing a degree in the STEM or healthcare fields, in addition to other state-funded scholarship programs.
  • Local aid: Check with your city’s chamber of commerce and local businesses to see if locally funded scholarship money is available.
  • Employer-sponsored scholarships: Check with your employer’s HR department to see if scholarships are available to employees, even if you are a part-time or contract worker.

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2. Grants

Grants, like scholarships, do not need to be repaid upon graduation. Typically need-based, grants are awarded by the federal government, state governments, individual schools, and private organizations.

  • Federal grants: The federally funded Pell Grant is generally awarded only to undergraduate students; however, there are several federal grant programs available to graduate students, including the TEACH Grant and Fulbright Graduate Grants.
  • State grants: State-level grants are available to residents, and in some cases, residents of nearby states. For example, both Pennsylvania and Vermont award residents grant support to attend schools in Massachusetts.
  • Institutional and organizational grants: School-funded grants are given by graduate schools to encourage diversity, support field-specific research, or help graduate students with financial need. Many private organizations also offer grants to help students pursue an education in the fields they support. Take advantage of sites like GrantForward to find these hidden sources of funding.

3. Military Benefits

If you spent time serving this country, your college costs might be covered. Look for Yellow Ribbon schools that will pay for most, if not all, of your tuition if you are a post-9/11 veteran. Northeastern has delivered more than $11.2 million in funding through the Yellow Ribbon Program, allowing more than 800 veterans, servicemembers, and their dependents to attend the university each year for minimal to no cost. Beyond Yellow Ribbon benefits, the post-9/11 GI Bill®  and U.S. Department of Veteran Affairs offer funds that can be used to cover any remaining tuition costs, living stipends, and books.

4. Work Opportunities

Graduate students who fill out the FAFSA and demonstrate a financial need may be eligible for Federal Work-Study. This federally subsidized program provides part-time employment for students.

Depending on your university, there may be other opportunities to gain professional experience and a paycheck while in school. Forty percent of Northeastern’s graduate programs, for example, offer full-time co-op opportunities with industry leaders that allow students to pursue paid positions in their field of study for three to six months.

5. Teaching or Research Assistantships

Graduate students can apply for several kinds of assistantships, either upon program acceptance or at any time throughout their studies, depending on the institution. Research assistants perform research duties under faculty supervision while teaching assistants help with direct student tasks, such as grading or holding office hours. Doctoral students can also apply for Stipend Graduate Assistantships which offer health benefits, a stipend, and tuition remission, which typically waives 50 to 100 percent of tuition costs.

6. Tuition Reimbursement

Over 83 percent of employers offer some type of tuition reimbursement as an employee benefit, although almost 95 percent of these funds go unutilized. In 2018, the median tuition assistance provided by employers annually was $10,500 for graduate education, which can dramatically reduce your tuition costs. Even select part-time or contract positions offer these benefits to employees. Talk to your company’s human resources department to discover if tuition benefits are available to you and how to apply for them.

If you work for a smaller company without an HR department, arrange a meeting with your boss to discuss the possibility of tuition assistance. They might have to do more research on the matter, but mention that there are tax benefits available to them if they offer partial tuition reimbursement. Share that tuition programs boost company morale, can increase employee skills directly for the company, and can even save the business money and time in regards to retaining current employees.

7. Student Loans

You’re likely familiar with the idea of student loans—federal or private funds that will need to be paid back, with interest, after graduation. Many graduate students use these loans to pay for college costs that aren’t covered by teaching assistant positions, employer tuition reimbursement, or scholarships. 

Graduate students are eligible for direct unsubsidized loans from the U.S. Department of Education, meaning that they don’t have to demonstrate financial need in order to qualify. Graduate students are eligible to borrow up to $20,500 per academic year, provided they fill out the Free Application for Federal Student Aid. Students can fill out the FAFSA as early as Oct. 1 for the following calendar year, but they can also apply for a loan after the semester has started if the need arises. In that case, it’s important to let the Office of Financial Aid know. 

In addition to direct unsubsidized loans, graduate students can also apply for a Direct PLUS loan. The maximum amount of this loan is the total cost of attendance (including living expenses) minus any other financial aid, including scholarships and loans. This amount will vary depending on the program in which a student enrolls. A credit check is required as part of the Direct PLUS loan application process, but the requirements are less strict than private loans. 

If you do need to take out a student loan, rest assured that you can make payments on your debt while in school, which will drastically alleviate your financial burden upon graduation.

If possible, federal student loans should be favored over private student loans. Federal student loans come with lower rates, fees, and the option of income-driven repayment, so you aren’t stuck with an excessive monthly payment after graduation.

How to Get Financial Aid for Graduate School

Treat the pursuit of financial aid as your job. Don’t rush your applications or essays and don’t reuse the same answers for different award submissions. Instead, take your time with each submission, personalizing it to that specific prize or opportunity. The judging committees for graduate scholarships, grants, and assistantships are looking for students who are as passionate about the program as they are.

Here are three tips to increase your odds of earning interest-free graduate aid:

1. Go the extra mile. 

If your scholarship or grant application allows you to answer optional questions or submit extra documents, such as a personal essay, take advantage of the opportunity. A Money article reports, “Students who answer the optional questions on online scholarship matching services tend to match twice as many scholarships as those who answer just the required ones.”

2. Apply all year long. 

Be on the lookout for financial aid opportunities all year long. Some scholarships or internship opportunities open up at the beginning of the year, while others align their deadlines with the school’s fall semester. New opportunities may also open up later in the school year if another student’s assistantship falls through.

3. Stay organized.

With thousands of available financial aid opportunities, it’s impossible to keep track of the details of every scholarship or program. Use a simple planner dedicated only to scholarships, grants, and other aid opportunities. Use the planner’s calendar to track submission deadlines, and make sure to mark down when you should start working on the application. Write down essential points of each aid opportunity, such as which documents to send, essay questions to answer, and reference letters to gather. Then, utilize the weekly planning pages to create an action plan to allow you to make progress on your application with the least amount of stress possible.

Career Advancement Is Always a Worthy Investment

Paying for graduate school can be daunting, but it’s possible—and worth it. With an advanced degree, you’ll enjoy increased marketability, more available job opportunities, and higher pay. In fact, master’s degree holders earn 18 percent more money annually than those with bachelor’s degrees. What’s more, you could even be eligible for a promotion within your current organization—meaning your degree might pay dividends sooner than you think.

It’s important to remember, though, that not all graduate programs are made equally. As you prepare to make this investment in your future, take the time to think critically about what it is you hope to achieve in the long run and how you can choose the best program to fit those needs. If you’re highly career-focused, for example, you might organize your grad school search in a way that prioritizes certain qualities like experiential learning and networking opportunities. Doing so will help safeguard your investment by setting you on a path directly toward your goals.

To learn more about how to fund your Northeastern education, explore Northeastern’s graduate financial aid options, or connect with a financial aid counselor to receive personalized advice.

GI Bill® is a registered trademark of the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs (VA). More information about education benefits offered by VA is available at the official U.S. government website.

This article was originally published in January 2019. It has since been updated for accuracy and relevance.