Graduate Scholarships and Financial Aid Guide

Graduate school is a significant investment with powerful returns for you and your future.

If you’re skeptical, rest assured that current graduate students agree. More than nine out of 10 grad students consider their program an investment in their futures. Salary estimates from the US Bureau of Labor Statistics support that belief. Professionals with a master’s degree earned a median weekly salary 16.84% greater than those with only a bachelor’s degree in 2020, and workers with a doctoral or professional degree earned a median weekly salary 36.36% greater than bachelor’s degree holders.

Professionals with graduate degrees earned a median of 36.36% more each week than professionals with only a bachelor’s degree.

Pursuing an advanced degree is a lucrative career move, but some prospective students hesitate when faced with tuition, fees, and cost-of-living. If this sounds like you, you’ve come to the right place. There’s a plethora of scholarships for graduate students and alternative sources of financial aid for students pursuing higher education. The key to success lies in knowing where to find scholarships and other sources of graduate level funding.

Let’s break down the different types of graduate aid, create an action plan, and learn from a dual-scholarship recipient about the best financial moves to make as a grad student. 

Types of Graduate Financial Aid

 There are several types of financial aid available to graduate students. The most common include:

  • Scholarships
  • Grants
  • Assistantships and fellowships
  • Employer aid
  • Government aid and student loans

Scholarships and Grants

Scholarships and grants fall into the category of gift aid (free money). Qualifying scholarship and grant recipients receive funds with no expectation of repayment except in very rare circumstances.

There are many different types of scholarship awards and grants available to graduate students, such as:

  • Merit based scholarships
    • Scholarships that depend on academic excellence, athletic performance, extracurricular involvement or community service are referred to as merit based scholarships. These scholarships can be based on your performance in your undergraduate studies or your performance during your grad program.
  • Need-based grants
    • If you’re worried about the competitiveness of merit based scholarships but still require aid, fear not – grants are great too. Need-based grants are usually awarded to individuals who demonstrate financial need and promise to fulfill a requirement of the grant (such as advancing a particular field of study or representing the grant provider in some capacity). While many grants are need-based, demonstrating need will not automatically qualify you for all grants. The terms and award amounts of grants vary as well, so be sure to read the fine print before accepting any funds.
  • Professional organization scholarships and assistance
    • If you’re a member of any professional organizations or associations, you’re in luck. These communities often offer scholarships for their members. Look for groups, associations, organizations or societies within your area of study, and ask about member benefits. Some organizations offer scholarships and grants. Others have partnerships with specific institutions to provide discounted tuition or other forms of financial aid. If you find an organization that meets your needs, join! These groups are great for networking and professional development as well.
  • University, college, or program-specific scholarships and grants
    • Your school’s financial aid office is a great resource too. Don’t be afraid to get in touch with your financial aid representative and ask questions. Ask if there are scholarships for your specific program, for students within your college, or for students at the university in general. If there aren’t any or you want more options, ask if they can provide a list of local, state or private scholarships the program accepts. Be sure to ask about discounts such as in-state tuition for public institutions if you are a resident. There’s no harm in asking, and there’s potentially a lot to gain.
  • Career-specific scholarships and grants
    • Some scholarships and grants are based on industry, field or career-path. Teaching, healthcare and STEM programs and organizations often offer generous funding to encourage students to pursue a career in that field.
  • Scholarships and grants for Veterans
    • If you’re a military veteran, there are many funds available to you. Check out this website to see a list of current scholarships and grants for veterans.

Fellowships and Assistantships

Graduate assistantships are more like an exchange. You still get funding in a non-loan form, but it isn’t quite the same as a scholarship or grant because you’re expected to work.

As a grad assistant, you’ll work a set number of hours in a designated position in exchange for funding. Funding for students in these positions can come in the form of tuition aid or remission, cost-of-living aid or a stipend (a salary or allowance). Graduate assistantships include roles such as teaching assistants and research assistants.

  • Teaching assistants – also called TAs – help professors teach. A TA’s responsibilities can range from grading papers and proctoring exams all the way to teaching classes and working with students in laboratory settings.

  • Research assistants – also called RAs – help professors and staff conduct research and publish their findings. RAs perform literature reviews, summarize interviews or research findings, prepare progress reports and more.

Graduate fellowships resemble scholarships more than assistantships for three key reasons:

  1. Fellowships are generally merit-based and more competitive than assistantships.
  2. While some fellowships are only offered to individuals in certain fields of study or areas of research, the fellowship recipient can usually do whatever they want with the funds if they progress adequately through the degree program or research study.
  3. Perhaps most importantly, you aren’t always required to work as a graduate fellow.

Employer Aid

Employer aid comes in two basic forms: employer reimbursement programs and employer scholarships.

  • Employer reimbursement programs allow organizations to fund or partially fund employees’ education. These programs usually only provide funding after the successful completion of a course or graduate program, so you will still need cash flow upfront to cover initial costs. About 52% of companies offer such programs for graduate students.
  • Employer scholarships are like normal scholarships. It’s money you don’t have to pay back, but sometimes there is a catch. Some employer scholarships require the recipient to commit to remaining at that organization for a certain amount of time during and after the completion of their degree program.
    • The CIA Graduate Scholarship Program is a good example. This need-based program is available to full-time graduate students. CIA Graduate Scholarship recipients attend their degree program full-time and work with the CIA full-time over the summer. After graduation, scholarship recipients are required to work with the CIA “for a period equal to 5 times the length of the college sponsorship [they] received.”

To get you started, here’s a list of 16 companies that offer employer aid:

  1. Google
  2. Disney
  3. AT&T
  4. Procter & Gamble
  5. USAA
  6. The Boston Consulting Group
  7. Bank of America
  8. L.L. Bean
  9. Fiat Chrysler Automobiles
  10. Boeing
  11. Anthem
  12. JetBlue
  13. Chevron
  14. Best Buy
  15. Home Depot
  16. Salesforce

Government Aid and Student Loans

Government aid comes in two forms: gift aid and self-help aid.

Gift aid from the government typically consists of grants, and self-help aid from the government refers to student loans or work-study programs. A loan is money you borrow from the government and will eventually have to pay back. A work-study program is like a graduate assistantship. You work part-time in a position designated by the federal program in exchange for funding to help you cover program and cost-of-living expenses.   

To learn more about state government aid, click here and search for your state or your college/university’s state.

Click here to learn about federal government aid such as student loans, work-study programs, and grants.

Create an Action Plan

Now that you know more about the various types of aid, you can create a plan to ensure your success.

Step 1: Start by assessing your educational goals, your current finances, and your financial boundaries (i.e. - what types of aid you’re willing and not willing to use). Some questions to consider:

  • What is your dream program, and how much does it cost?
    • Tuition accounts for most program costs but be sure to factor in other expenses like rent, food, transportation and additional program fees.
  • How much money can you put towards your dream program out of your own pocket?
  • Is your family willing or able to help?
  • Subtract what you and your family can contribute from the total program cost. How much money is left uncovered?
  • Are you comfortable with student loans?
  • If you aren’t comfortable with loans, what other types of aid do you qualify for and plan to use?
  • If you aren’t taking out loans and don’t qualify for other aid, are you willing to attend a similar program at a more affordable institution?

Step 2: Compile a list of scholarships, grants, assistantships, fellowships and employer aid programs. Use a spreadsheet to keep track of scholarship application requirements, application deadlines and your progress. Here’s an example:

Scholarship Name

Application Deadline

Application Requirements and Materials

Application Status

(not started, in progress, submitted)

Link to Application or Website

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

This may sound like a lot of work, but it’s worth it. Consider how much you can gain in the long run with a small amount of upfront effort. If you don’t believe me, listen to current student and dual-scholarship recipient Sabrina Hyde.

“It’s worth your time to apply to scholarships - it’s free money!” said Hyde, a student in FIU’s Master of Science in Health Informatics and Analytics program. “There are so many scholarships out there, and there are thousands of scholarships that don’t get awarded because people just don’t apply for them.”

As a full-time working professional who suffered a tragic loss before enrolling in her program, Hyde emphasizes the importance of being transparent about your life and your needs when applying to scholarships.

“Be genuine. Get personal. It’s like reading a story about you,” said Hyde. “When they’re reading [your application], let them understand what you’re going through, what your goals are and what you want to contribute to this field. Say how these funds are going to help your career and then what your impact will be when you get into this career.” 

Hyde received two scholarships – one from the Healthcare Information and Management Systems Society and one from the Florida Health Information Management Association – to help advance her career in healthcare. She encourages everyone interested in grad degrees to take advantage of scholarship and funding opportunities.

“There’s a lot of money out there,” said Hyde. “It’s worth the time. It’s worth the effort. You just have to be dedicated and be organized.”

About the Author:

Marisa McGrady is a writer and content specialist. Her passion for higher education brought her to FIU, where she works as the junior content strategist within the Chapman Graduate School of Business. When she’s not working, she’s reading, writing, or otherwise engaging in or creating worlds of her own.

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