Your FAFSA for Grad School Essentials Guide


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As an undergraduate student, you may have had to apply for student loans, and you may now be concerned about beginning your repayments. And if you’re now planning to go to graduate school; how will you pay for that? Will you be able to apply for grants and scholarships as you did for your undergraduate degree? Will you have to rely on student loans?

As a graduate student, do you still have to fill out a FAFSA each year if you want to qualify for financial aid? Will you be able to qualify for need-based aid or will it be solely merit-based?

Graduate students do fill out a FAFSA annually. However, you can expect a few changes in your filing process now that you’re a graduate student. Also, you will no longer be eligible for certain forms of aid, such as the Pell grant but you can still qualify for work-study funds, as well as scholarships.

What is the FAFSA?

FAFSA is the acronym for the Free Application for Federal Student Aid. You should have filled a form out for each academic year you were in school as an undergraduate student. Every student, whether undergraduate or graduate, is required to complete, sign, and file their FAFSA before the deadline for their school if they want the opportunity to receive most financial aid, even scholarships.

Graduate students are considered to be independent students—that is, they don’t rely on their parents or guardians for any financial assistance. An independent student is defined as a student working on a degree beyond a bachelor’s; a parent who pays the majority of financial support for their dependents; Married or separated, but not divorced; at least 24 years old; a veteran or currently in the Armed Forces; been a ward of the court, in foster care, or an orphan at any point after 13 years of age; emancipated as a minor, as determined by a court judge; homeless youth or at risk of becoming homeless, as determined by HUD.

What’s Different About Completing the FAFSA for Graduate School vs. Undergrad?

Section Three of the FAFSA asks several questions of the students filling out the form in order to determine if they are independent students; if you answer six of these questions or more with a “yes,” the Department of Education (DOE) will consider you to be an independent student.

If an undergraduate student answers any of these questions with a “yes,” they will be classified as independent students as well. For both graduate and undergraduate students, this classification means they aren’t required to give any parental information in their FAFSA.

All of this has implications for your future federal aid. Graduate students are primarily eligible for federal and private student loans. These include the Federal Direct Stafford Unsubsidized Loan, and the Grad PLUS Loan. This second loan is credit-based, which means, if your credit report indicates any issues, you may need a co-signer to get approval.

To apply for federal student financial aid, you need to meet several conditions: be a US citizen or legal resident; hold a legal Social Security Number; register with the Selective Service (male, between 18 and 25); be enrolled half-time in a program eligible for federal aid; keep your grades up; stay current on previous student loans; have not borrowed the maximum aggregate limit on student loans.

How to Complete Your FAFSA

As a graduate student, you should already have some experience in filing out your annual FAFSA, though some changes are occasionally made to the application process and to the form itself. Before you begin filling out the form, you have to have an FSA ID. This allows you to electronically sign your FAFSA before you file it. It takes up to three days for the DOE to verify your request for an FSA ID. Until you receive yours, you won’t able to fill your FAFSA out, renew it, or sign your application online.

Now that you are an independent student, you don’t have to obtain your parents’ tax information. This means they don’t have to obtain an FSA ID, which may shorten the process for you.

Navigate to the FAFSA website (fafsa.gov). Even though you have filled a form out annually since you applied your first time, read and follow the instructions carefully—some information and instructions may have changed. Decide which form you need to complete. Each one is designated by academic years. If you already know you’ll be in school during both academic years, fill out the academic form for the first year and then, once it has processed, you can fill out the academic form for the later year.

Don’t forget to create a save key. This is a temporary password allowing you to save your application and complete filling it out at a later time.

If you are new to filling out your FAFSA, complete the Student Demographics area (name, date of birth, and other information. Input your information just as it shows on your Social Security card.) As a graduate student, you don’t need to worry about this.

If you haven’t started graduate school yet, include each school you’re considering attending—this applies even if you haven’t been accepted or applied yet. If a school decides not to accept you, the FAFSA form will be disregarded. If you choose a new school, you can remove schools you included earlier.

Answer each question in Section Three—the dependency status section. You’ll see questions about different areas of your life so that the DOE will be able to determine whether you are a dependent student or an independent one. As a graduate student, you are much more likely to be independent. Congress established the dependency guidelines, which are nothing like those the IRS uses. As an example, you may still be classified as a dependent student, even if you pay your own bills and live separate from your parents.

Step 6 requires parents of dependent students to fill out the Parent Demographics section. In the next step, you’ll input your financial information. FAFSA has an IRS Data Retrieval Tool which makes it much easier for you to obtain this information. You’ll sign your FAFSA electronically using your FSA ID. This is the quickest signature method because it allows your application to be processed much faster.

Why File for FAFSA Early?

Filing deadlines have changed in recent years. The 2019-2020 form was to be filed by the first of October in 2018. However, different schools have different filing deadlines, so be careful to check with your school’s Financial Aid office for the deadline of your school. You want to have your FAFSA submitted before then.

Financial aid is decided on and distributed on a “first-come, first-served” basis. This means that the earlier you apply, the more likely you are to receive a larger financial aid package. It’s important to file early so the agency has time to analyze your application and send results to your school. Even if you haven’t requested admission to a particular school, you should apply for financial aid.

As soon as the FAFSA is available in the current academic year, you should fill it out. Universities and states can run out of financial aid money early.

What Types of Aid are Available to Graduate Students?

Graduate students are eligible for several types of financial aid. These include direct aid, which is given straight to the student. A stipend which is part of a scholarship or fellowship is one example of direct aid.

Another type of aid is indirect aid. Indirect aid includes health insurance, tuition, and fee subsidies. You may qualify for federal work-study or assistantships (research or teaching), which also provide financial assistance.

Graduate scholarships, which you must apply for separately from your FAFSA, are another form of financial aid. The Federal Direct Unsubsidized Loan (up to $20,500 aggregate) is also available. Awards are based on merit, such as block grants, fellowships, stipends, and scholarships are another form of aid.

Veterans Benefits/Aid

While this type of financial aid is not related to FAFSA, it does assist students currently in the military or those who are veterans. Examples include the G.I. Bill, which subsidizes their education. Here, the veteran/service member/student does not have to repay the financial assistance. They worked for the aid during their time in the military, so it belongs to them for the purpose of education.

This aid is paid directly to the student, which means your school may require you to sign a promissory note. Or you may have to apply for student loans to pay for your education. Then, you can repay the loans with payments from your G.I. Bill. However, you are not required to fill out the FAFSA to obtain this aid.