Filing the FAFSA: Graduate school edition

February 15, 2011 by LendKey Staff


If you have had practice dealing with financial aid as an undergraduate, then you can at least appreciate the simplicity of filing the FAFSA as a graduate student. Here is what to expect.

Less information required:

As a graduate student, you are considered independent. This means the parent tax and asset information is no longer required to complete the FAFSA. You will have to submit any tax and asset information you have personally, but no more parent tax returns!

Special requirements for verification:

Verification is when the financial aid office reviews tax documents to confirm that the information is the same as what was put on the FAFSA. If selected for verification, the student must submit their own tax returns. However, not all graduate students are employed, so they may have zero income and no tax return filed. If living with parents and not employed, the student will be required to document in-kind support from family. This can be as simple as demonstrating a monthly expense budget covering housing, food and other expenses and a statement identifying a dollar amount of support given to the student from the family. This is a simple request, but must be processed to maintain eligibility for federal funding.


If selected for verification and receiving in-kind support from the family, the financial aid office will expect you to document it. You only need to document basic living expenses as a graduate student to fulfill the verification request. This boils down to being able to demonstrate that you receive at least $8,000 a year in support from someone else (usually parents). Putting down that you receive zero support will not clear the verification requirement. If you list a number much higher than $8,000 per year then eligibility for the subsidized Stafford loan could be jeopardized.


recent budget signed into law by Obama in early August 2011 removed the subsidy for graduate level Stafford loans. Before this was passed, graduate students could apply for a subsidized Stafford loan of up to $8,500 per year if qualified on the FAFSA. A subsidized Stafford loan is where the government pays the interest on the loan while the student is in school. This was a way for graduate students to save a bit of money on interest costs, but now the option is being eliminated. The 2011-2012 academic year will be the last time any grad students can access this loan. Beginning July 1, 2012, all Stafford loans for graduate students will be considered unsubsidized and interest will accrue normally.

No more free money:

The FAFSA provides need based grants to undergraduate students pursuing their first bachelor’s degree. However, there are no need based grants for graduate level students. This is a big disappointment for former undergraduates that got a lot of financial aid in the past. Graduate students qualify for up to $20,500 in federal Stafford loans. Of that amount, up to $8,500 can be subsidized and $12,000 can be unsubsidized. The Subsidized loan amount is determined by financial need, so some students will only qualify for $20,500 in Unsubsidized Stafford loans.

Deadlines are not so critical:

As an undergraduate, filing the FAFSA on time meant everything for eligibility. This means filing the FAFSA as early as Feb 15 each year. However, for graduate students, the FAFSA can be filed sometime in the summer when you can get it done. No need based money will be lost if filed a little later.

Don’t forget to follow us on Facebook!

  • Allie

    Thank you! I am soon to be a graduate student and this information was great.

  • kammo

    Hello, I will be an L1 in the fall and am filling out my FAFSA. Question 94 asks, “How many people in your household will be in college in 2013-2014?” Does grad school count as “college” here? Are they just trying to find out who will be a student? Or do they just mean undergrad? I’m not sure whether to put 1 (myself) or zero (since I will be in law school). HELP! :(
    …please and thank you! ^_^

  • http://www.custudentloans.org/college-resource-center/ Ken


    Yes Grad School does count as college. The difference is that you will be considered an “independent” student, and will not have to include parent tax and asset information on the FAFSA.

    Unless you are married to someone also attending college, or have children attending college, the correct answer for you would be one person in college.

    Also, the FAFSA will allow you to file for a guaranteed federal Direct loan for $20,500, you may apply for additional funding for school through the Grad Plus loan.

    Just be advised that all student loans are non-dischargeable in bankruptcy, so committing to law school using student loans can be a challenging proposition. Income and job options for law graduates have been slumping for years now, you could find yourself in high debt while struggling to find a job even after passing the bar exam. Really think it through before you start in the Fall as a 1L. Here is a recent article in the Atlantic about decreasing law school applications: http://www.theatlantic.com/business/archive/2013/01/law-school-applications-are-collapsing-as-they-should-be/272729/

  • susie

    My daughter is applying for grad school i know she is considered an independent but my question is can i as a parent claim her as a dependent for last years taxes ? can she apply for her fasfa as independent even though i am claiming her?


  • http://www.custudentloans.org/college-resource-center/ Ken

    Your daughter will be considered independent for grad school no matter if you do or do not claim her as a dependent on your tax return.

    Yes, she will apply as an independent on her FAFSA simply for being a Grad student.

    You will need to confirm with a tax professional if you can claim her as a dependent on your taxes.

    If your daughter earns no wages, the FAFSA may indicate she has zero income except any support she receives from you. The school may ask your daughter for some documentation to prove how she is being supported, but ultimately the only financial aid she will qualify for is an unsubsidized Stafford loan for $20,500.


    How do I respond to the FAFSA question: “How many people in your household will be in college in 2013-2014?” My son will start grad school, but my daughter is still an undergrad. Her school says that financial aid is only for full-time undergrads, and her brother is “not an eligible family member” for aid. He is applying for FAFSA as an independent. Thanks for your help

  • http://www.custudentloans.org/college-resource-center/ Ken

    Your Son is no longer part of your household for financial aid purposes. He is now independent because he is in grad school. Sounds like you have one in college.

  • Eddie

    I will be attending graduate school in FALL 2013 and have filled out my fafsa. I make less than $10,000 a year. My Mom makes less than $20,000 a year. Since our income is pretty low. Would it benefit me or even make a difference if I include her taxes in my fafsa.

  • http://www.custudentloans.org/college-resource-center/ Ken

    $10,000 is just enough money to document how you support yourself. Since you are independent, do not include parent tax and asset information on the FAFSA. If the school asks for more info, work with them to supply documentation if you receive in-kind support from parents, but only if the school formally requests it.

    BTW, the only federal funding that will be offered you is the $20,500 Direct unsubsidized loan @ 6.8%, and you will be able to apply for a Grad Plus at 7.9%. If you have strong credit and/or a cosigner, the cuScholar loan is also an option.

    Bigger issue: Is your Grad program the right investment of time, energy and money for you? Some benefit greatly from a Grad degree, while others have determined it a waste. Here is another article you should check out.

    Major Pressure: Students face tough task of paying debt for advanced degrees

  • Eddie

    Thank You!
    I appreciate the information, I no longer have to roll the dice. The fafsa is a back up plan, an assurance that money will be no issue. Got to have a couple of plans in the works. You would be surprised how people squander and invest in half baked ideas. If you can’t invest in yourself, then you are probably doing a lot of things wrong … lol.

  • Kelly

    When I was filing FAFSA, it said to provide my parents tax information if student is going into health profession. Should I still not provide my parents tax info?

  • Scott

    My son is graduating as an undergrad in only 3 years (instead of 4). If he goes to grad school is there any way he is eligible for needs based aid on his own as an independent for that 4th year?

  • Ryan

    I am also interested in question re: providing parent tax information if going into health profession. Why does it ask this?

  • Lora

    My daughter is going to vet school and has filed her fafsa but has never filed a federal tax return because she has never earned enough in her summer jobs to meet the filing threshold. What does she do for FAFSA purposes since she has no IRS filing history?

  • http://www.custudentloans.org/college-resource-center/ Ken

    @ Scott: Once in Grad School, the Pell Grant will no longer be available. Grant funding from State and Federal sources most likely will not extend into the Graduate program. There are basically no Need Based Grants from the same sources used to pay for an undergraduate degree.

    You should be looking into a Graduate Assistant position, a Graduate stipend, or some way to work with the department to earn some income, or tuition reduction. These can be very competitive positions to earn, as many Grad students vie for these opportunities.

    Look for full time employment and go to grad school at night to help better manage costs.

  • http://www.custudentloans.org/college-resource-center/ Ken

    @ Lora: Under the section for the student’s financial information, she can document what income she has earned from work even if she did not file a Tax return. Also there is a category for “Money received or paid on your behalf” where she can document in-kind support provided by the parents. This would include food, housing, clothing etc that parents paid for on behalf of child.

  • Blaire

    I am entering grad school this summer. I filled out my FAFSA as a dependent because my mom claimed me this year on her taxes. I was offered the full $20,500 un-subsidized for the year but it still isn’t enough to cover the costs. Should I correct my FAFSA and change it to an independent status even though my mom claimed me?? Also what other loans are suggested for grad students?? I’m at a loss on what to do. Thank you.

  • http://www.custudentloans.org/college-resource-center/ Ken


    If you were offered the $20,500 in unsubsidized Direct loan funding, the school already determined you as “independent” based on the degree program you are registering for. There is nothing on your FAFSA that can be changed to adjust eligibility for any additional funding.

    All graduate students are eligible for the same $20,500 in guaranteed unsubsidized direct loans at 6.8%. Your ability to repay, your credit, your major or expected income are not considered when awarding this loan.

    Blaire, I am sending you an email directly to clarify your situation. If you are entering a Grad program, but you are “at a loss on what to do” when it comes to payment, you need some serious review. Here is an article that will help: Advice on graduate school.

  • Pingback: So there really is no way to avoid out of state tuition, is there? - Higher education - Page 2 - City-Data Forum

  • Alli

    Is it worth filing for fafsa for graduate program? With the cost to even file and not knowing what i will get in return, i am uncertain if it is worth it to apply at all… any suggestions?

  • Ken O’Connor

    Alli, I’d recommend just filing the FAFSA so you have guaranteed access to federal loans in case you need them. However, you should be working with your program to see if you can be a graduate level assistant, and try to get funding from your department. This is a tricky time for Grad school given the state of the economy. If the school is asking you to pay the whole bill out of pocket or with loans, but they don’t need you for assistanship work, I must ask, what do you plan to do for a career with this degree ?