What You Should Know When Filing a FAFSA for Graduate School

When applying for financial aid for college, the first step should almost always be filling out the Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA). But, how do you complete a FAFSA graduate school application?

Just over 2.2 million graduate degree-seeking students filled out the FAFSA in the 2017-2018 application year. And while there’s a lot that’s similar to filling out the FAFSA at the undergraduate level, there are several key distinctions for graduate students to keep in mind.

It can seem confusing at first, but it’s not so difficult once you know the facts. Here’s everything you need to know about filling out the FAFSA for graduate school:

How to file a FAFSA for graduate school
FAFSA eligibility requirements for graduate school students
Who’s considered a graduate school student?
Types of financial aid available to graduate students through FAFSA
Important FAFSA deadlines
When you’ll hear back regarding your FAFSA application
Average award amounts for graduate school
Disbursement of your financial aid
Important FAFSA support resources

How to file a FAFSA for graduate school

As of 2018, FAFSA graduate school can only be filled out electronically, so you’ll need a computer and internet access to complete your application. Here are seven steps to filing your application.

1. Go to www.fsaid.ed.gov to obtain an FSA ID. An FSA ID is your digital signature for the FAFSA.

Federal Student Aid

2. Then go to www.FAFSA.gov. Be ready with your personal information, driver’s license number, Social Security number, and have copies of your prior year’s tax returns (2017 for the 2019-20 school year).

Federal Student Aid

3. Choose which FAFSA form you’d like to complete. For example, fill out the 2019-20 FAFSA form if you will be attending college between July 1, 2019, and June 30, 2020.

Federal Student Aid

4. Next, fill out the demographics section. Information will include your name, date of birth, and so on.

Federal Student Aid

5. Fill out the School Selection section. Add every school you’re considering, even if you haven’t applied or received an acceptance letter yet.

Federal Student Aid

6. Supply your financial information. You can use the IRS Data Retrieval Tool (DRT), which allows you to import your IRS tax information into the FAFSA form with just a few clicks. To access the tool, indicate that you’ve “already completed” taxes on the student finances page. If you’re eligible, you’ll see a “LINK TO IRS” button.

If you haven’t completed your taxes, you have two options. One is to answer “not going to file.” You can skip the questions about income tax, exemptions, and adjusted gross income.

You can also respond “will file.” If you choose this option and your 2017 income is similar to your 2016 income, use your 2016 income tax return to provide estimates for questions about your finances. If your income is not similar, click “Income Estimator” for help estimating your adjusted gross income. Then answer the remaining questions as best as possible.

Federal Student Aid

7. Finally, sign and submit your FAFSA form. And with that, you’re done.

Federal Student Aid

FAFSA eligibility requirements for graduate school students

As with undergraduate federal financial aid, you must have financial need for most programs, though there is no maximum income cut-off that would make you automatically ineligible. You must also be a U.S. citizen or eligible noncitizen, and be enrolled or accepted for enrollment as a regular student in an eligible degree or certificate program.

“The main difference,” according to Mark Kantrowitz, publisher of Savingforcollege.com, “is that when graduate students fill out the FAFSA, they are considered independent. That means that what they’re awarded will be based on their income and assets, and possibly their spouse’s. For undergraduates, their parents’ income and assets are what are taken into consideration.”

Kantrowitz added that certain intense professional programs — such as medical or law school — can sometimes take parents’ incomes into consideration. It varies by program and school.

There is no age limit when it comes to filing for the FAFSA for graduate school, but there are some eligibility limitations.

“Everyone can apply other than those who have drug-related offenses while receiving previous financial aid,” said Charlie Javice, founder and CEO of Frank, a website to help those seeking educational aid.

Abril Hunt, the outreach manager of ECMC, a nonprofit focused on helping students and families plan and pay for college, added that those applying cannot be in default on a prior student loan or owe a Pell Grant overpayment to the Department of Education.

Who’s considered a graduate school student?

“Someone who is pursuing a degree beyond a bachelor’s is considered a graduate student,” Kantrowitz said.

For example: “Once you receive a bachelor’s degree, you are no longer eligible for Pell Grant, which is available to undergraduate students.” The only time a Pell Grant would be available is if a student enrolls in a post-baccalaureate teacher certification program.

Everything from a master’s or doctorate/Ph.D. to professional programs, such as law and medical school, are considered graduate studies. It can get a bit tricky if someone is doing a joint undergraduate/graduate program. Some schools consider you a graduate student as soon as you start taking graduate level classes, according to Kantrowitz.

Also, if you go on to get a second bachelor’s degree, you could be considered a graduate student when it comes to receiving financial aid. This is determined on an individual basis, so it’s best to talk to your school about these unique scenarios.

Types of financial aid available to graduate students through FAFSA

When you apply for the FAFSA, there are two main types of financial aid available to graduate students: the Federal Stafford Loan (or Direct Unsubsidized Loan) and the Federal Grad PLUS loan.

“For both of these, the graduate student is the borrower, not the parent,” said Kantrowitz.

Direct Unsubsidized Loans tend to have lower interest rates and fees than PLUS loans — for 2019-20, the former carried a 6.08% rate, while interest on the PLUS loan was 7.08%. However, Direct loans have borrowing limits, while PLUS loans can usually cover the entire cost of attendance (minus any other financial aid).

In addition loans, your FAFSA can also unlock other types of aid — specifically:

  • School-based aid: The individual institutions decide what amount to award you based on need and merit.
  • Work-study: As part of your package you could receive a work-study option where you receive an on-campus job, with the salary applied towards your tuition.
  • Scholarships: State aid will have scholarships available by field of study, interest, or school type.

Important FAFSA deadlines

Determine the school year for which you are applying for financial aid. For example, if you plan to attend college between July 1, 2019, and June 30, 2020, then you’ll want to apply for the 2019-20 school year.

You should file your FAFSA as soon as possible after Oct. 1 of the year prior to each enrollment period, notes ECMC’s Hunt. This is because there are a few federal student aid programs that have limited funds, and they’re awarded on a first-come, first-served basis.

Important dates:

  • Oct. 1: The new FAFSA season opens.
  • June 30: Previous FAFSA year closes.

Deadlines for aid from individual states and schools vary. Check with your state and the schools you’re interested in to find out about applicable deadlines for your situation.

Additionally, if you are applying for a summer session, check with your college to verify which application you should complete.

When you’ll hear back regarding your FAFSA application

After submitting your FAFSA for grad school, you will receive a Student Aid Report (SAR) — a summary of the FAFSA information you provided — in three to five business days. All colleges you applied to will review the SAR.

From there, the schools that have decided to admit you will send a formal acceptance letter, accompanied by a financial aid package. This could take a few weeks to a few months, depending on the time of year you applied.

Average award amounts for graduate school

“The average grant size is about $10,000, and average loan size is about $20,000, assuming you are a full-time grad student,” said Frank founder Javice.

But this varies depending on school and program, according to Kantrowitz. “There are different costs for different programs,” he said. “So, for example, the professors in computer science are likely to get more research grants to support students, as opposed to someone in the English literature department.”

The financial aid package will typically include a mix of grants or scholarships, loans, and work-study jobs.

Disbursement of your financial aid

“Disbursements are sent directly to the school and first applied to the student’s outstanding balance of tuition and fees, and other institution-based charges,” said Hunt. “Any remaining balance is refunded to the student for living expenses.”

Important FAFSA support resources

If you still have questions, there is some important contact information you should have on hand.

For general information about federal student financial assistance programs, help with completing the FAFSA for graduate school, or to obtain federal student aid publications, visit studentaid.gov or call 1-800-4-FED-AID (1-800-433-3243).

The hours of operation are as follows:

  • Monday–Friday: 8 a.m. to 11 p.m. EST
  • Saturday–Sunday: 11 a.m. to 5 p.m. EST

You can also email them here.

Laura Woods contributed to this report.

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