5 Strategies: How to Pay for Grad School

Grace Lemire
Grace Lemire

Grace Lemire is a freelance writer and editor with over five years of experience in the personal finance industry. She has been featured on a variety of publications, including NPR, CNN, FinanceBuzz, Dollar Geek, Pangea, and True Finance. Her work focuses on the intersection of personal finance and technology. In 2023, Grace was nominated for the Best Personal Finance Advice award in Debt.com’s FinTok Awards.

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Emma Östlund
Emma Östlund

Emma Östlund works as a business operations analyst at Sparrow. Emma studied Psychology, Computer Science, and Markets & Management at Duke University. With a well-rounded background in business and analytics, Emma strives to deliver data-driven conclusions and insights.

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Camden Ford
Camden Ford

Camden leads Sparrow’s business operations – everything from product management to business analytics. After graduating Cum Laude from Duke University where he studied Civil Engineering, Camden worked as a Consultant for A.T. Kearney where he worked in their Strategic Operations practice. With a strong background in analytics, Camden strives to deliver data-driven conclusions and insights.

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March 8, 2024

Earning a graduate degree is a great way to increase your income potential. In fact, Indeed reported that, on average, the earnings increase from a bachelor’s to master’s degree is roughly 20%. Nonetheless, it can be difficult to understand how to pay for grad school.

Graduate school can be expensive. According to FinAid.org, a graduate degree costs anywhere from $30,000 to $120,000, depending on the program. This makes financial decisions around paying for graduate school even more important.

While that reality may be overwhelming, there are several ways to pay for your graduate degree. Let’s break down your top 5 options: scholarships, fellowships, grants, work-study, and loans.

How To Pay for Grad School

As with any degree, there is a certain order you should follow when it comes to how you finance your education.

Scholarships, fellowships, and grants are all forms of free aid, or gift aid. Typically, scholarships, fellowships, and grants do not need to be paid back, so you’ll want to accept these first. 

>> MORE: What are the four types of financial aid for grad school?

After accepting any free money available to you, you should pursue work-study next. Federal work-study is considered earned money, meaning you have to trade your time to receive it. While not everyone will receive federal work-study, it’s a great option for those who do.

Loans should always come last in the process because they are borrowed money. When you borrow a loan, it’ll typically accrue interest, and by the time you pay it back, you’ll have paid a significant amount in interest. 

>> MORE: Compare student loan rates: how to pay for grad school

#1: Finding the Best Scholarships for Graduate School

Graduate scholarships are typically awarded based on academic or professional achievements. However, there are scholarships awarded based on other factors such as:

  1. Financial need
  2. Membership in a minority group
  3. Residency status
  4. Special interests

>> MORE: Best scholarships to help you pay for grad school

What GPA Do You Need to Get Graduate School Scholarships?

Typically, you’ll need around a 3.5 GPA to be a competitive applicant for most graduate school scholarships. That said, there are scholarship programs that have a lower GPA minimum. 

Where Can You Find Graduate School Scholarships?

You can find graduate school scholarships in a variety of places such as:

  1. Professional organizations
  2. From your school’s financial aid office
  3. Online search engines

For example, the American Bar Association offers scholarships to first-year law students from underrepresented communities through their Legal Opportunity Scholarship.

For search engines, there are a wide variety of options available such as ScholarshipOwl, Scholarships.com, Chegg, and Fastweb.

#2: Exploring Graduate Fellowship Options

A fellowship is another form of free aid that you’ll want to seek out before taking on student loans.

What is a Graduate Fellowship?

A fellowship is an award given to graduate students to subsidize the cost of education. Some fellowships are awarded simply to fund your education, similar to scholarships. Other fellowships are awarded specifically to fund academic projects such as dissertations, thesis projects, or research.

Fellowships are awarded by schools, professional organizations, and nonprofits, typically based on merit.

>> MORE: How much does grad school cost?

How Much Can You Get From a Fellowship?

The amount you receive from a fellowship depends on the specific program. For example, the NSF Graduate Research Fellowship Program is a five-year fellowship that provides three years of financial support. Recipients receive an annual stipend of $34,000 and a cost of education allowance of $12,000.

The International Dissertation Research Fellowship (IDRF), however, provides a one-time stipend that varies depending on the research plan of the recipient. On average, each IDRF recipient receives $23,000.

When searching for a graduate fellowship, pay close attention to the length of the program and how the funds are disbursed to you or your university.

Is a Fellowship Better Than a Scholarship?

Fellowships and scholarships are both forms of free money, but you may have to complete an academic project to receive fellowship funding. If you’re interested in a particular academic project, a fellowship may be a solid option for you. If you’d prefer to receive free money with no strings attached, a traditional scholarship may be better for you.

While one is not necessarily better than the other, it’s important to understand how each one works to make an educated decision.

#3: Finding the Best Grants for Graduate School

Grants are similar to both scholarships and fellowships — they are free money you don’t need to pay back.

Who is Eligible for a Grant for Graduate School?

Typically, grants are awarded based on financial need. Some grant providers may have additional eligibility requirements such as having a certain GPA or enrollment in a specific program. Some may even require you to have specific research goals.

>> MORE: Best grants: How to pay for grad school

How to Find Grants for Graduate School

Graduate school grants can come from a variety of sources such as the federal and state government, your school, and professional organizations.

Federal Grants

To be eligible for any federal grants, you must complete the FAFSA. The information you provide on the FAFSA is used to determine your financial need, which is then used to determine your federal grant eligibility.

Does the Pell Grant Cover Graduate School?

As a graduate student, you are not eligible for the Pell Grant. The Pell Grant is intended for undergraduate students, minus a few exceptions.

State Grants

State grants are provided by individual U.S. states, and thus, each state grant program runs a little differently. Reach out to your state’s department of education to learn more about the grants they may offer.

School Grants

Some universities offer grants to students pursuing a graduate degree at their institution. Check with your specific program to learn more about the grants offered for your field of study. Don’t hesitate to ask the school’s financial aid office as well. There may be generic institutional grants available to both undergraduate and graduate students that you qualify for.

Professional Organization Grants

Professional organizations focus on advancing individuals within a particular profession or with specific interests. Because of this, they tend to offer financial assistance to those pursuing degrees within their field. For example, the American Bar Association and the American Marketing Association provide grants to eligible individuals pursuing related degrees.

>> MORE: Ultimate guide to college grants

#4: Getting a Work-Study Job for Graduate School

Work-study is a federal aid program that provides part-time jobs to undergraduate and graduate students with financial need. To be eligible for work-study, you must complete the FAFSA. Your application will determine if your level of financial need meets the minimum requirement of the work-study program.

>> MORE: How to fill out the FAFSA: application requirements

Who is Eligible for Work-Study?

Both full-time and part-time graduate students are eligible for work-study. If you accept the work-study aid offered to you, you will be responsible for finding a work-study role through your college/university. Speak to your school’s financial aid office for specific information regarding how work-study functions at your school.

How Much Money Can You Get in Work-Study?

The exact amount you receive in work-study will depend on the school you attend. Although, at minimum, work-study roles must pay the federal minimum wage. However, there are some work-study roles that offer more generous hourly rates.

>> MORE: What is a work study?

#5: Finding the Best Student Loans for Graduate School

Student loans should always be the last option when determining how to pay for grad school. The more you borrow, the more you will have to pay back due to the interest that accrues. That makes selecting a good student loan that much more important. 

>> MORE: Compare graduate student loan rates

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What Makes a Graduate School Student Loan Good?

Cosigner vs No Cosigner

A cosigner is an individual that signs onto a loan alongside you, taking full responsibility for the loan if you’re unable to pay it back. A creditworthy cosigner can help you secure a lower interest rate and better terms.

If you don’t have access to a cosigner, that is okay, too. Non-cosigned loan options are available, but they may have higher interest rates.

>> MORE: Best student loans for without a cosigner

Minimum Income Requirements

If you are pursuing a graduate degree immediately after your undergraduate degree, you may not have a substantial full-time income just yet. Some private lenders have minimum income requirements, so if you plan to take out the loan without a cosigner, you’ll need to make sure you meet that income threshold.

Interest Rate

Each student loan will have its own unique interest rate and terms. Always compare interest rates carefully to select the loan that is best for you.

>> MORE: What is the average student loan interest rate

Repayment Options

Each individual lender will offer a unique set of repayment options. While some lenders may offer a deferred repayment option, allowing you to postpone repayment while in school, others may only offer immediate repayment. This would force you to begin making loan payments while in school, which many students are unable to do. Be realistic about which repayment options would work for you and ensure the lender you select offers them.

Federal & Private Loan Options for Graduate School

As a graduate student, you will likely have access to both federal and private student loans.


Federal student loans are provided by the federal government. To be eligible for a federal student loan, you must complete the FAFSA.


Private student loans are provided by private entities such as banks, financial institutions, and nonprofits. To see what private student loans you qualify for, complete the Sparrow application.

>> MORE: Compare graduate student loan rates

Our Picks for the Best Private Student Loans for Grad School

The best student loan will always be the one that works best for you. However, the following are our top picks for graduate school student loans.

Arkansas Student Loan Authority

The Arkansas Student Loan Authority (ASLA) is an Arkansas state entity that provides educational funding for all Arkansas students who wish to attend higher education institutions. ASLA is a great option for Arkansas students.

Ascent – Cosigned Loans & Non-Cosigned Loans

Ascent is an online lender that offers three types of student loans: a traditional cosigned loan, a non-cosigned credit-based loan, and a non-cosigned outcomes-based loan. Collectively, the three options provide a great selection for those who do not have a cosigner available, are international or DACA students, or have lower credit scores.


Brazos is a non-profit lender offering private student loans to Texas Residents. They offer a wide range of loan options, covering undergraduate, graduate, MBA, law, medical, dental, veterinary, and doctoral degree programs. Therefore, Brazos is a great option if you live in Texas, have strong credit, and want competitive interest rates.

College Ave Student Loans

College Ave’s student loan offering is available for undergraduate, graduate, professional, and career school students, as well as parents of students. Accordingly, it’s best if you are seeking a more flexible repayment term that allows you to find a loan that matches your budget.


Earnest’s student loans are available to undergraduate, graduate, and professional students. It is best if you are seeking competitive interest rates, unique borrower perks, and flexible repayment options that allow you to find a loan that matches your budget.


By connecting borrowers with a network of 100+ lesser-known credit unions and community banks, LendKey allows you to work with smaller lenders with low rates and good customer service, rather than traditional lending institutions. LendKey’s student loan offering is available to undergraduate and graduate students. In addition, it’s best if you have strong credit and want generous cosigner release and forbearance policies.


MPOWER is an online lender that offers non-cosigned undergraduate and graduate student loans to international, domestic, and DACA students. Accordingly, it is best for international students and DACA students who don’t have a credit history and can’t access a qualified cosigner. 

Prodigy Finance

Prodigy Finance is an online lender that offers non-cosigned graduate student loans to international students. Accordingly, it is best for international students who don’t have a credit history and can’t access a qualified cosigner. 


SoFi is a strong option for undergraduate, graduate, law, and MBA students, as well as parents looking to fund their child’s education. With competitive interest rates, a diverse set of repayment options, and exclusive member benefits, SoFi is a good fit for borrowers with a strong credit score or a creditworthy cosigner.

Final Thoughts from the Nest

While graduate school can be a costly affair, there are a variety of ways to pay for it. When figuring out how to pay for grad school, always remember to pursue aid in the following order: scholarships, grants, fellowships, work-study, student loans.

When it comes time to check out private student loan options, start with Sparrow.

Sparrow’s goal is to give you the tools and confidence you need to improve your finances. Many or all of the products featured here are from our partners who compensate us. This may influence which products we write about and where and how the product appears on a page. However, this does not influence our evaluations. Our opinions are our own. While we make an effort to include the best deals available to the general public, we make no warranty that such information represents all available products.

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