Meet the Expert
Abril HuntManager of Outreach and Financial Literacy, Educational Credit Management Corp.Read More
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Katy McWhirterRead More

The FAFSA and Graduate School

Gathering the information required to fill out the FAFSA may seem like a headache at first glance, but it’s well worth students’ time to complete this document. In addition to qualifying learners for a whole host of federally provided funds, information provided on the FAFSA is what many colleges and universities use to award institutional grants, scholarships and assistantships.

When sitting down to fill out the form, students need to ensure they have all the information required to fully complete the application. Some of the information requested includes:

  1. Social security number and proof of U.S. citizenship.

  2. Information about your high school and college education (this information may also be required about parents, depending on the program to which a student applies).

  3. Details of any previous federal aid received at the undergraduate or graduate level.

  4. Information about any prior convictions for illegal drug use while on federal aid.

  5. Details about the schools to which you plan to apply, including each institution’s federal code.

  6. Information concerning any dependent(s) you may have.

  7. Material demonstrating your income and tax statuses — this is gathered via tax returns, 1040s, bank statements and any applicable business records.

  8. In some cases, details about parental income may be requested, even if the student is considered independent. This is most commonly seen in professional programs such as law or medical school.

Making sure all the required documentation is easily on hand is important for successfully filling out the FAFSA, but students must also ensure they submit their applications on time or all will be for naught. Beginning in 2016, the U.S. Department of Education changed the submission parameters to more closely mirror the school year. The following table outlines the submission periods for students planning to start graduate programs in 2019 or 2020.

Intended School Year FAFSA Release Date Period of Submission Year of Tax Information Required
2019 October 1, 2018 October 1, 2018 – June 30, 2019 2016
2020 October 1, 2019 October 1, 2019 – June 30, 2020 2017

As with earlier versions of the FAFSA, applications are accepted on a rolling basis, so learners should submit the form as soon as possible to have the best chance of receiving funding.

How is the FAFSA Process Different from Undergrad?

As mentioned throughout this guide, one of the biggest considerations that sets undergraduate and graduate students apart is whether they are considered dependent or independent from their parents. The vast majority of the time, graduate students file as independent students, meaning they are not usually required to provide parent information. Prospective graduate students should review the following questions to get a better sense of their statuses:

  1. When enrolling in a graduate program, will you be 24 years of age or older by the end of the year?
  2. Are you working toward a degree that’s considered graduate level or professional?
  3. Are you or have you previously been married or separated?
  4. Are you a mother or father providing at least 50 percent of overall support to the child(ren)?
  5. Do you have any other dependents receiving at least 50 percent of overall support from you?
  6. Do you currently serve in a branch of the U.S. military?
  7. Are you a veteran of the U.S. military?

Students who answer yes to one or more of these questions are likely considered independent students for the purposes of the FAFSA. Those applying to law or medical schools may still need to provide financial information about their parents, but students should check with the schools to which they apply to learn more.

Once dependency status is determined, the other main difference at the graduate level is that students aren’t eligible for subsidized loans. While enrolled as an undergraduate, a student may receive a subsidized federal loan, meaning the U.S. government pays interest on the loan while the student is in school (and often for a few months after the student graduates). When working toward graduate and professional degrees, students can only apply for unsubsidized loans, meaning interest accrues from the time the loan is taken out — and if the loan goes into deferment or forbearance. The U.S. Department of Education typically awards subsidized loans on the basis of financial need, while those taking out unsubsidized loans can come from any income bracket. As of 2018, the U.S. Department of Education charges an interest rate of 6 percent for unsubsidized graduate loans.

Even though graduate students aren’t eligible for subsidized loans, a number of federal grants exist that don’t have to be repaid. The Federal Pell Grant is open to students working toward certain types of post-baccalaureate certification programs, while the Teacher Education Assistance for College and Higher Education (TEACH) Grant provides up to $4,000 annually for students who plan to become teachers. Federal work-study funds may also be given in exchange for working on campus or in the community.

Your Step-by-Step to Filling Out the FAFSA

Since many students filled out the FAFSA as undergraduates, the process shouldn’t seem too foreign to them the second (or third) time around. Outside of having access to different types of federal loans, grants and work-study programs, the most significant difference for graduate students lies in whether they apply as dependents of their families or as independent individuals. The following section outlines each step of the FAFSA completion process to help guide learners along the way.

  • Before starting the FAFSA application, every student must visit the Federal Student Aid website and sign up for an FSA ID. This username and password combination is used as a digital signature, allowing a student to sign the FAFSA application and begin the process of identifying his or her federal funding options. Alternatively, students can also visit their local library or any educational institution to pick up paper forms.

  • To begin the FAFSA application, students should ensure they have all the appropriate information listed earlier in this guide handy before they visit the FAFSA website. As of 2018, required details for the first section include personal demographics (e.g. name, date of birth, previous education completed, etc.) along with driver’s license and social security numbers. Once that information has been provided, students select the appropriate application to complete based on the year they plan to enroll.

  • In the second part of the application, known as the School Selection section, learners use forms to enter the names, locations, federal school codes and contact information for all the schools to which they plan to apply. Even if students haven’t yet applied or received acceptance letters, they should still list any potential institutions.

  • The third and fourth sections focus on dependency status and parent demographics. For most graduate students, this information is unnecessary since they’re classified as independent. Those entering professional programs or law/medical programs should check with prospective schools to ascertain whether this information is needed. Individuals with dependents of their own (e.g. children, spouse) may need to provide additional information in this section.

  • The fifth section of the FAFSA focuses on collecting information related to taxes, investments, mortgages and any other financial information relevant to the awarding of funds. Individuals who filed their taxes online can use the IRS’s Data Retrieval Tool to import all required information, while those who filed paperwork must enter the information manually. If a student hasn’t filed their taxes yet, they can either state that they aren’t going to file and bypass the questions or state that they will file them later and provide information from the previous year’s income tax return.

  • The sixth and final section allows the user to confirm whether he or she is a student or preparer, review the student terms of agreement and, finally, submit the FAFSA. Using the FSA ID, the student then electronically signs the form to state that, to the best of that person’s knowledge, all the information given is accurate and complete. After submitting, the student is taken to a confirmation page, which ensures that the Federal Student Aid (FSA) office successfully received the form.

What’s Next?

After submitting all the relevant documentation required for the FAFSA, students are often understandably anxious to learn about their federal funding options. According to the U.S. Department of Education, digital applications are typically processed within three to five days, while those submitted on paper typically require seven to 10 days. Once an application goes through the processing phase, the student receives a Student Aid Report (SAR) summarizing all the details that were provided on the application. Students should review their SARs carefully, as this provides one final opportunity to make changes or correct errors before their applications receive formal review. If any errors exist, learners should return to the FAFSA website, make corrections, and resubmit the application.

Along with the information entered by the student, the SAR also provides the Expected Family Contribution (EFC). In addition to helping Student Financial Aid determine how much money a student is eligible to receive in federal aid, by colleges and universities use this number to develop individual funding offers.

After students review their SARs for errors and make any necessary changes, their finalized SARs are sent to all of the schools they’ve listed on the FAFSA. Even though the college will add the SAR to any existing applications or other documents sent to them by learners, students should still contact the financial aid offices of all schools they received acceptance letters from and enquire about potential funding offers. Colleges don’t commonly create award packages for all students who list them on the FAFSA, so following up is key.

A small number of students may receive notices that they’ve been selected for verification. This means that they were part of a sampling of applicants who were selected, sometimes at random, to verify that the information on their SARs is correct; all schools have the right to ask for additional paperwork verifying the data reported on their FAFSAs, and students flagged for verification must provide required documentation before proceeding.

Because each EFC is unique, there is no set amount of federal funds that graduate students receive. According to the latest information provided by the U.S. Department of Education, students can borrow up to $20,500 in Federal Direct Stafford Loans per academic year and up to the cost of attendance in Graduate PLUS Loans. Prospective graduate learners should speak to their financial aid advisers about responsible borrowing to ascertain how much is needed.

After reviewing all information concerning federal grants, loans and work-study funding available, students should contact the departments of financial aid at their chosen colleges to learn about disbursement of funds. The school’s financial aid officers can explain where various pockets of money originate, when funds will be paid to the school and even how to manage loans while in school. Any student who hasn’t previously received federal aid is required to sign a promissory note and take part in online entrance counseling to become familiar with the terms and conditions of the loan.

For any student attending a program lasting more than a year, it’s important to remember that the FAFSA must be filled out each year to ensure continuation of funds throughout the degree program’s duration.

Expert Q&A

In this section, financial aid expert Abril Hunt provides answers to some of students’ most pressing questions about filling out the FAFSA when heading to graduate school. Abril brings more than 15 years’ experience within the realm of financial aid, including her work with Educational Credit Management Corporation, a nonprofit focused on helping students and families plan and pay for college.

  • How is filling out the FAFSA different for graduate students vs. undergraduates?

    Graduate students are almost always considered independent students, so this means they do not need to provide parent financial information on the FAFSA. By having completed their bachelor’s degrees, they are no longer eligible for the Federal Pell Grant or any need-based state financial aid. Most graduate students rely solely on student loans, scholarships, internships and working while they are in school to finance their continued education.

    Generally speaking, do students seeking funding for master's and doctoral degrees have more or fewer aid options than their undergraduate peers?

    They have fewer options, as undergraduate students are eligible for grant aid whereas graduate students are not. Graduate students’ federal aid consists mainly of unsubsidized Direct Student Loans of up to $20,500 per year and possible eligibility for work-study funding, where they can find jobs on campus or in the community and work to earn their award allocations.

  • How does income affect financial aid for grad students?

    Insofar as potential eligibility for work-study or campus-based scholarships and aid that observe need as measured by FAFSA data, income itself has no bearing on the graduate student’s eligibility for Federal Direct Student Loans. Because the interest is not subsidized by the federal government while the student is in school, a student’s income and credit history are not criteria for receiving the aid. If Bill Gates’ children completed the FAFSA, they would be eligible for unsubsidized Direct Student Loans. Of course, those loan amounts would be limited to $20,500 per academic year, so usually they do not cover the total cost of attendance. This is why many students turn to private loans to fund the remaining balances. Private education loans are not regulated by the U.S. Department of Education, and unless your credit history is excellent, will carry much higher interest rates and offer far fewer borrower benefits.

  • What should students do if they don't qualify for any federal financial aid?

    All students who meet the FAFSA filing criteria will qualify for some form of Federal Financial Aid. For our Dreamer (undocumented and DACA) students, I recommend they check with both the financial aid offices and the diversity offices on their colleges’ campuses. They are usually considered safe spaces (look for signage). They are a fabulous resource for local and regional scholarships. In terms of national scholarship information, I recommend Golden Door Scholars, Educators For Fair Consideration (E4FC), and the Mexican-American Legal Defense and Education Fund (MALDEF). Checking with your state and regional financial aid administrator associations also will yield valuable resources for paying for school, including internships, on-campus employment and student government activities that offer stipends for participation.

  • How does the process differ for students still considered dependents as compared with those independent of their parents?

    In a nutshell, students considered dependent must provide parent financial information on the FAFSA. But this may or may not adversely affect eligibility for aid, especially if the student comes from a larger family. The biggest challenge in parent participation on the FAFSA is overcoming parental misconception that the process is the same as when they were in college some 20 years ago. Nothing could be further from the truth. There is simply no comparison between the opportunities available to previous generations and those for today’s students.

  • What are your best tips for students navigating this process?

    I would first recommend ECMC’s College Planning Guide, “Opportunities.” This is a nationally recognized publication for college-bound students, breaking down every step of the process beginning with a student’s junior year in high school. It includes yearly to-do lists along with in-depth explanations of the college application and financial aid processes and practical tips on searching for scholarships.

    I also encourage students to use the U.S. Department of Education’s College Affordability and Transparency Center. You can view state appropriations for postsecondary education, state aid for students and tuition and fees for individual colleges and universities. From the Transparency Center, you can access College Navigator, which gives you a birds-eye view of all accredited US universities, including costs of attendance, majors, sizes of schools, campus safety and graduation rates.

    Also linked from the Transparency Center is ED’s newest development, College Scorecard, which allows you to compare data from up to 10 schools at a time and provides links to each school’s Net Price Calculator. Net price is a college's “sticker price” for tuition and fees minus grants, scholarships and education tax benefits (free money). The net price you pay for a particular college is unique to the individual because it's based on personal circumstances and the college's financial aid policies.

    ECMC’s suite of free college access services also features the College Place. Embedded in colleges in our core states of Oregon, California, Virginia, Connecticut, Minnesota and Colorado, TCP’s expert staff can help you polish your college application and untangle the red tape and paperwork of applying for financial aid. We aim to invest in opportunities in the career and technical education and training arena, focusing on those students who are not planning to attend traditional four-year or two-year colleges. We seek to help students who desire the training and skill development that leads to better job prospects by obtaining high-quality credentials — postsecondary certificates with economic and education value.