Attending graduate school is a dream for many people, but it’s not one that comes easily.
While a master’s degree provides multiple benefits — new skills and knowledge, a higher potential earning power and the ability to level up in one’s career, among others — it’s also an endeavor that takes time, dedication and most crucially, a significant amount of money.
On average, a master’s degree ranges between $30,000 and $120,000, according to Education Data Initiative, although the final amount is heavily impacted by where you choose to go, what you study and what kind of program you select.
Luckily, there are financial aid options for those who want to attend graduate school, but don’t want to scorch their pockets in pursuit of higher education. Scholarships, loans, work-study programs, grants and other kinds of financial assistance are on the table — but to know your options, you’ll need to fill out the FAFSA.
The FAFSA (also known as the Free Application for Federal Student Aid) is undoubtedly familiar for those who have completed their undergraduate studies, and it is available for master’s degree programs as well, albeit in a slightly different way.
Below, we’ve outlined everything you need to know about FAFSA during your grad school application and admission process.
How Does FAFSA Work?
The Free Application for Federal Student Aid is a simple document one fills out to get financial aid from the federal government to help pay for college. It’s a must if you want to get any federal assistance whatsoever for higher education. It’s also used by many educational institutions to determine how much financial aid of their own they’ll hand out.
In general, to be eligible for this kind of federal aid, you need to be a U.S. citizen (or an eligible non-citizen), enrolled in an eligible degree at an accredited university and demonstrate financial need, according to the Federal Student Aid website.
On the form, which is free to file, you’ll give information about your personal finances to help the government make its decision. And while you may think you don’t qualify, you or your family do not have to be low-income in order to acquire assistance. There is no income cut-off, and many factors, including family size and program length, are taken into consideration. Plus, many work-study programs and scholarships actually require you file a FAFSA application to even be considered.
In total, more than 13 million students who file the FAFSA get more than 100 billion dollars in financial aid from the U.S. Department of Education, according to the College Board. But despite all that, there are still millions of dollars that are “left on the table by students who didn’t file a FAFSA,” the site reported. So, make sure to take advantage.
Can FAFSA Be Used for Grad School? How it Differs From Undergraduate Studies
People who have earned their bachelor’s degree are likely familiar with FAFSA – and the good news is, it’s part of the graduate school process as well. In fact, 58 percent of graduate students receive some form of financial aid, while 41 percent of graduate students qualify for federal student loans, according to Forbes.
Of course, it does function a little differently than it does for undergraduate students.
One major distinction is that when you file for undergraduate aid, you’re usually considered “a dependent.” That means you’re giving your family’s financial information to help the federal government determine the amount of aid you receive.
When you apply for graduate school, however, your family’s financial status is no longer relevant: You are now considered independent. You’ll be reporting your own income, which can lead to a very different outcome.
The other big difference is the type of loans and aid options graduate students can get. Direct subsidized loans are only available for undergrads, for example, and most graduate students cannot receive a Pell grant. The only loans graduate students can be awarded are direct unsubsidized or grad PLUS loans.
These kinds of loans work differently than the ones available for undergraduate students and have particular borrowing limits. Do your research when finding out which kinds of loans the federal government is offering you.
Of course, it’s not just loans you’ll have access to — many graduate students also are eligible for grants or work-study programs.
Steps to Filing the FAFSA
Thankfully, filling out FAFSA is not only free, but also very easy to do so. For most people, it only takes about 30 minutes to complete.
You can submit your FAFSA application as early as October 1 each year, although the actual deadline is June 30. Nevertheless, it’s best to be prepared and know your options early.
Even if you’re unsure about enrolling in graduate school the following year, it’s a good idea to submit your application anyway — it’s a quick process, and it’ll ensure you have aid options if you do choose to attend school.
Before you get started, you’ll want to have your Federal Student Aid (FSA) ID (if you’ve never done it before, you can make a new one online), your Social Security or Alien Registration number, account balances for your checking and savings accounts, information about any investment accounts you may have and your federal income tax returns on hand.
When you’re ready to fill out the form, you can complete it by hand or online. Head to ed.gov to fill out the form, or download the myStudentAid app. If you’d prefer to use the mail, you can print and fill out a FAFSA form and mail to the address it requests.
Then, you’ll provide your basic personal information, a list of the schools and programs you’re considering, and your financial information before you sign and submit.
After that, all you have to do is wait to hear what your options are. Once you know how much and what type of aid is granted, you can determine which is best for you and your graduate school pathway.
The Bottom Line
Graduate school is a considerable investment, but you shouldn’t let that deter you from achieving this major goal. Filling out the FAFSA is the first step to making your master’s degree aspirations a reality, and you may be surprised by what financial aid options you’re eligible for.
Still, if you’re disappointed by what you’re awarded by the government, keep in mind that it’s not the end of the road. If you have good credit, there are other private loan companies you can turn to, for example.
Plenty of people also choose to keep working as they attend graduate school in order to mitigate costs — online classes make this an easier option than ever, as does picking a part-time program so you can successfully juggle both work and school at the same time.
There are so many ways to make graduate school an affordable achievement. And once you’ve earned your master’s degree and see how it impacts your career path, it will certainly feel well worth it.
Learn about USC’s online graduate degree programs today.