Scholarships and financial aid for online graduate school
Only 1 in 4 Americans believe postsecondary education is affordable. However, we’ve pulled together a list of many resources available to help with expenses.
The first option for covering academic costs is getting scholarships. These are usually preferred because they don't need to be repaid and can be awarded for a broad spectrum of qualifying reasons. The second option is financial aid. This typically involves student loans, which have to be repaid with interest.
Ultimately, the more you can secure through scholarships and financial aid, the less you will have to pay out-of-pocket for tuition, textbooks, and other materials required to earn your online master's education.
Who can receive a scholarship?
Many graduate school scholarships are merit-based, which means eligibility is determined by academic performance – possibly represented by your undergraduate grade-point average or GMAT score. While academic achievement is a major point of consideration, there are other types of graduate scholarships offered for:
First-generation graduate students
In-state or regional students
Students who have won an essay, innovation, or scholastic contest
Students in particular business, health care, or IT majors
Students focused on specific careers, such as certified accountant, nurse, public comptroller, or information security analyst
Students with developmental or physical disabilities
To promote diversity and representation, there are additional scholarships available for students who identify as:
Black, Hispanic, American Indian, or another nonwhite ethnicity
Gay, lesbian, or transgender
Who offers graduate scholarships?
There are thousands of scholarships offered by public and private sources including:
Professional trade associations
Local chambers of commerce
Nonprofits and memorial foundations
Publications and media agencies
Fraternities and sororities
The U.S. military
Federal, state, and local government agencies
Private businesses, including mid-sized enterprises and multinational corporations
Your current employer may even have a scholarship that incentivizes employees to return to school and learn new skills. Keep in mind that to receive the award, you may need to stay with your employer for a certain number of years after earning your master's degree.
Also, the schools you’re applying to may offer student scholarships that cover half or full tuition. It’s best to keep your options open and compare scholarships. This could factor into your decision-making.
Take note of the fine print
There is no cap on the amount of scholarship money you can accumulate from sources outside of the schools, but it may affect any financial aid you would receive from the government. With that said, it's important to pay attention to stipulations about how the money can be spent.
Also be aware of ongoing qualifications. Scholarships can be revoked if your grades lapse or other conditions are not upheld, so be sure to check and maintain your academic standing.
In terms of physically receiving the funds, you might get the money directly in the form of a check, money transfer, or automatic deposit. Alternatively, the funds may be sent to your school, which will manage disbursements.
What's the difference between scholarships and fellowships?
Scholarships and fellowships are similar; both give a monetary award to graduate students to support their studies. But, here are some key differences:
Work component: The biggest difference is that fellowships include not only a monetary award, but also an internship or work experience opportunity. Most fellowships are granted to graduate students in defined career fields (such as health care, economic research, or public works). To receive the money, you'll need to fulfill the service commitment, which typically lasts a year.
Application exam: Whereas scholarships may require an essay, fellowship programs might administer an exam to assess applicants.
Research focus: While each fellowship is different, many are focused on supporting graduate students conducting research in a specific discipline or subject area.
Continued communication: Fellows often have an ongoing relationship with their awarding program. They may report back periodically or make a presentation at the end. Scholarships have fewer touchpoints between the organization and recipient.
How to apply for graduate scholarships
Maximize your chance of receiving scholarship funds by following these steps:
Step 1: Research available scholarships
It’s important that you understand your options. So, do your research first.
Search all potential sources of scholarships online, including universities, graduate degree programs, public organizations, private institutions, corporations, and federal, state, and local governments. Doing this will help you find the graduate scholarships that are best for you.
Many online directories are actively updated to help make the search less time-consuming. The Department of Labor also has a useful site to search for scholarships.
Some examples of online graduate school scholarships include:
The Association of Insurance Compliance Professionals (AICP) Scholarship Program
Jeannette Rankin Foundation Scholarships
The Association of Latino Professionals for America (ALPFA) Annual Scholarship Program
Veterans United Foundation Scholarship
Step 2: Gather application materials
Every scholarship application is different, but there are a few common requirements that you can gather:
Bachelor's degree and the accreditation of the program
Your undergraduate GPA; most will require at least 3.0
A personal statement of objectives
Letters of recommendation, whether from past professors or current managers
GMAT or GRE scores
Proof of citizenship or permanent residency in the United States
A unique essay about why you're right for the scholarship
Work experience in a relevant field
Evidence of leadership, critical thinking, or community service
Step 3: Prep for the interview
If you've made it to the final stages of consideration, you may have an interview with the scholarship committee. This is your last chance to make an impression on the decision-makers, so take all the steps you can to prepare:
Read up on the institution's culture and history of the scholarship program
Research questions that will likely be asked
Practice talking about yourself, your background, and accomplishments in front of the mirror so you can be comfortable in the interview and let your personality shine through
Dress appropriately — this goes for video interviews, too
And once you've gone through the interview process, don't forget to send a thoughtful and appreciative follow-up.
Additional tips for success
Competition can be fierce for some scholarships. To help you stand out, follow these best practices when applying for graduate scholarships:
Be aware of deadlines: There's nothing worse than writing a stellar essay only to realize the submission deadline was hours or days ago. Add deadline reminders to your personal calendar.
Play up your strengths: Many other graduate students will be applying for the same scholarship as you, so figure out a way to emphasize your professional strengths. For example, in an interview, talk about certifications you have or other important job experiences.
Sharpen your writing skills: Some scholarships are awarded based on an essay contest. Maybe consider starting a journal or reading up on rhetorical tips so you can craft the strongest essay. Alternatively, search for scholarships that don't require essays.
Audit your social media: Many organizations may try to get an impression of candidates by looking at their social profiles. You'll want to make sure your online presence represents who you really are, so take time to ensure your social media is aligned.
Emphasize your personal character: References and self-supplied information about your personal character will be valuable to your application. Anecdotes about community organizing, volunteering, and personal ethics can all help to set you apart.
Loan options for graduate programs
At the federal level, graduate school students have two main options: direct unsubsidized loans and direct graduate PLUS loans.
Direct unsubsidized loans
Unsubsidized loans are widely popular among borrowers. These loans are not tied to financial need and can be utilized by students of all ages. Interest is paid over the entire lifetime of the loan. This is in contrast to subsidized loans, which are only available to undergraduate students and for which the government pays the interest during active studies. These loans also include grace or loan deferment periods.
During the academic year 2018-2019, the interest rate for an unsubsidized loan was 6.6%. To be considered for an unsubsidized loan, you needed to be enrolled half or full time at a school that participates in the Direct Lending program.
For independent graduate students:
You can borrow $20,500 annually through unsubsidized loans.
You can borrow up to $138,500 in total. However, this is an aggregate limit and includes all federal loans you received as an undergraduate.
Direct graduate PLUS loans
Direct graduate PLUS loans are another type of government financing that comes with a fixed interest rate, but flexible terms and repayment schedules. They are available to graduate or professional students to help pay for educational expenses that are not covered by other financial aid.
Just like with unsubsidized loans, you do not have to demonstrate financial need to be eligible for a grad PLUS loan. However, a credit check is required for these loans. If you have an adverse credit history, you may be required to meet additional standards to qualify for the loan.
Some important facts to know about grad PLUS loans:
The interest rate is fixed over the life of the loan (i.e., 7.08% fixed interest rate for academic year 2019-2020)
The maximum amount you can borrow is the cost of attendance minus all other financial assistance you receive
If you have an adverse credit history, you will need to either obtain an endorser with satisfactory credit or document to the satisfaction of the U.S. Department of Education. You will also need to complete credit counseling regardless.
You will need to sign a Direct PLUS Loan Master Promissory Note (MPN) and complete entrance counseling if you are a first-time grad PLUS borrower.
Generally, you'll have 10 to 25 years to repay the loan, and under certain conditions can utilize loan deferral, forbearance, or forgiveness.
The first step to financial aid
Receiving government financial aid begins with filling out the Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA). While it may seem complicated at first, the form is straightforward.
The U.S. Department of Education has full instructions for how to complete the FAFSA. But generally you should prepare to:
Create a Federal Student Aid (FSA) ID, username, and password — which means having your Social Security number handy.
Provide basic personal information like your name, date of birth, address, and driver's license number.
Answer questions that determine your dependency status.
Select which schools will receive the contents of your application. Importantly, you don't have to apply for admission before listing the school.
Enter financial information such as tax returns, investments, real estate holdings, and balances of checking and savings accounts.
Sign and submit the form.
After that, keep an eye on your email for official information regarding your application. The Student Aid Report (SAR) can take anywhere from three days to three weeks.
You’ll be notified of the amount you’re being offered with an electronic or mailed award letter. After that you’ll decide how much to accept. Remember: Borrow only what you need. Calculate the amount of student loan debt — and interest — you can safely take on.
After the sum has been decided, the government will disburse the money to your graduate school, which applies funds to tuition and fees first. Whatever is left over is usually transferred to you for further education-related expenses as part of your online studies.
Applying for a direct PLUS graduate loan
There are additional steps in applying for a direct PLUS graduate loan. You must complete these requests for supplemental information in a single session, and that takes about 20 minutes.
Information you must have ready for the online application:
Your FSA ID
The school name
Open your pathways
Start applying and taking advantage of these resources. Start with your goals, and see what scholarships and financial aid are available to you.