The Key to Paying for Grad School


If you are looking into how to pay for higher education, chances are you’ve come across lots of information about financial aid available to undergraduates. What you don’t hear about nearly as much, though, is how to pay for graduate school.

Graduate funding breaks down into three main categories: Assistantships, Fellowships and Loans.

Some graduate schools do offer need-based and merit-based scholarships, but these are few and far between. Aid from individual schools usually comes in the form of assistantships and fellowships and there are no Pell grants for graduate students.

Assistantships represent the most common way for graduate students to receive full or partial funding. Usually, assistantships are confined to tuition waivers, although some schools will include fees and a small stipend. When you have an assistantship, you are usually expected to either help teach or engage in research.

Fellowships are often the results of charitable endowments to universities for specific types of students. For students in the sciences, it is possible to find fellowship programs funded by companies that want research done. IBM recently awarded a Ph.D. fellowship to a student at the University of Albany’s College of Nanoscale Science and Engineering. Christopher Miller, the recipient, will receive tuition, fees and a stipend. Fellowships often provide more generous support than assistantships. Usually, a fellowship covers nearly all the costs of completing the graduate program. The federal government offers fellowships from the National Science Foundation and through the Jacob K. Javits Fellowship Program.

There’s evidence that since the recession, assistantships and fellowships have been in short supply. Increasing numbers of students are returning to school for graduate degrees, and competition is fierce. In the Collegian, Robert Kling, an Associate Professor of Economics at Colorado State University, pointed out that the recession has induced thousands more to go to graduate school. “[A]n average student's chances of getting into his or her preferred school or obtaining funding on research or teaching assistantships are lower than normal.”

William Smith, who graduated from Utah State University in May, found out firsthand the difficulties involved with getting an assistantship. “I was on the waiting list at Ohio State,” he said. “When the admissions rep called me to tell me I hadn’t made it, she apologized. She said that usually everyone on the waiting list was taken. But this year, with the recession, and the competition, and the desperation, everyone accepted and no one from the waiting list received an assistantship.”

While fellowships and assistantships are nice, most graduate students have to resort to loans. Even for those who receive assistantships and some scholarship help, there is usually a funding gap. Mark Kantrowitz, the publisher of and, two Web sites devoted to helping all students find financial aid, pointed out that loans make up the bulk of funding for graduate students. “Graduate financial aid tends to boil down to a few basic types, but it’s mostly going to be loans.”

Kantrowitz recommends that graduate students turn first to federal student loans. “You can get Stafford loans for $20,500 a year when you are a graduate student. Beyond that, you can apply for Grad PLUS loans. You should only turn to private loans after you no longer qualify for federal loans.”

While you can find private graduate student loans through Web sites like, there is also an increasing interest in using peer-to-peer lending to fill the funding gap. TuitionU is designed as a P2P source for student loans. And, of course, there are the old P2P standbys, Prosper and Lending Club.

For married graduate students, there is one more time-tested method of covering living expenses while in graduate school: “Often, one will work while the other gets a degree, and then they switch,” Kantrowitz said. “No matter your method, though, only one source of funding is likely to prove inadequate. You should explore as many options as possible.”

Related Links:
Financial Aid: Are You Better Off Earning Less?
Is the Student Fiancial Aid System Flunking?
Higher Ed. Hidden Gems: Corporate Scholarships

Show Comments

Back to Top