How do graduate students qualify for federal financial aid?

To qualify for federal sources of financial aid, graduate and professional school students must complete and submit the Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA). The FAFSA is a prerequisite for the unsubsidized Federal Stafford Loan and the Federal Grad PLUS loan. Submit the FAFSA form as early as possible after January 1.

Submitting the FAFSA determines eligibility for federal student aid by:

  • Applying a standard financial aid eligibility calculation to the student’s demographic and financial information
  • Conducting data matches with other government agencies, such as the Social Security Administration, Department of Homeland Security and Selective Service System, to confirm that the applicant is eligible for federal student aid.
  • Electronically forwarding a record of the application to the school or schools specified by the applicant.

Differences for Graduate and Professional School Students

Graduate and Professional School students are handled differently on the FAFSA than undergraduate students. Virtually all graduate and professional school students qualify as independent students, which means that parental financial information is not required to complete the FAFSA. If the graduate or professional school student is married, however, the spouse’s income and asset information must be reported on the FAFSA, regardless of any prenuptial agreements.

Before filing the FAFSA (electronically or not), gather several important pieces of information:

  • Social Security card and driver’s license
  • W-2 Forms or other records of income earned in the prior tax year
  • Federal income tax returns for the student (and spouse, if married)
  • Records of other untaxed income received such as welfare benefits, Social Security benefits, TANF, veteran’s benefits, or military or clergy allowances
  • Current bank statements and records of stocks, bonds and other investments
  • Business or farm records, if applicable
  • Alien registration card (if the student is not a U.S. citizen)

School information on the FAFSA

One important piece of information that applicants provide on the FAFSA is a list of the schools to which the student is applying for admission, or the school where the student is enrolled. Listing the school on the FAFSA enables the school to receive a copy of the student’s FAFSA information. The Institutional Student Information Record (ISIR) is forwarded electronically to each school’s financial aid office to allow them to begin determining a student’s aid eligibility.

After submitting the graduate student or professional school student FAFSA

Once the FAFSA is submitted to the U.S. Department of Education, the information on the FAFSA is processed to determine the student’s expected family contribution (EFC) and to verify eligibility for federal student aid. The student will receive a notification, called a Student Aid Report (SAR), from the U.S. Department of Education. The SAR lists the student’s EFC and allows the applicant to review the information provided on the FAFSA and make corrections, if necessary.

Once the student has completed the FAFSA and received the SAR, the U.S. Department of Education will transmit an electronic record of the application to the schools listed on the form. The schools, in turn, will determine a student’s aid eligibility. If the student is determined eligible, the college will assemble a financial aid package, summarized in a financial aid award letter. Some, but not all colleges require the student to formally accept the various components of the financial aid package. The student can then complete a master promissory note (MPN) and apply for Federal Grad Stafford loans, Federal Grad PLUS loans, and graduate private student loans.