About 40% of all graduate students in the U.S. received grants -- a form of financial aid that doesn't need to be repaid -- for college in the 2015-2016 academic year, according to the most recent data available from the National Center for Education Statistics released in 2019.
That's much lower compared with undergraduate students. More than 80% of first-time, full-time undergraduates at private, nonprofit four-year institutions received institutional grants, and about 50% of those students at public colleges received institutional grants, according to NCES data from the 2016-2017 academic year. Additionally, 32% to 36% of undergraduates at those schools received federal grants and 25% to 37% received state or local grants.
While scholarships for undergraduates are common, many students are unaware grants and scholarships exist at the graduate level. An online tool created in 2018 by Sallie Mae, a Delaware-based student loan company, can make it easier for students to find free money to pay for grad school.
The Graduate School Scholarship Search, which allows current and prospective graduate and professional students to hunt for private scholarships, is a search tool that boasts more than 950,000 scholarships worth up to $1 billion.
"There's a lack of understanding that there's availability of scholarships for grad school," says Rick Castellano, a Sallie Mae spokesman. "With grad students, they don't know where to look. When we talk to them, they'll just say they Google searched."
For prospective graduate and professional students, here are a few approaches to consider when tracking down free money to pay for an advanced degree.
Use Scholarship Search Engines
While Sallie Mae's Graduate School Scholarship Search lists scholarships and fellowships available at the graduate level, other scholarship search engines list private scholarships for grad students in addition to awards available for undergraduate college students. A few of these scholarship databases include Unigo, Fastweb and Scholarship America.
GoGrad is another online resource that lists niche scholarships for prospective and current grad students.
While grad school scholarships tend to be more modest compared with those offered to undergraduates, experts say a $1,000 award can still help reduce living costs and student loan borrowing.
Consider Free Graduate Schools
New York University's Grossman School of Medicine made headlines in 2018 when it announced a first-of-its-kind, tuition-free scholarship to all students. The scholarship amounts to $56,272 for the 2019-2020 academic year, and it is awarded to every student regardless of merit or financial need. It does not cover other fees and expenses.
More recently, in April 2019, the Washington University--St. Louis School of Medicine announced it would provide more than half of its new students with free tuition, which this year amounts to $66,913.
Students attending grad school might consider other such tuition-free programs.
Identify Scholarships Available Via Professional Organizations
Students can apply for scholarships by finding and joining professional associations in their chosen field of study. For instance, members of the National Black MBA Association Inc. can apply for a $10,000 award provided by General Electric Co. and the Lloyd Trotter Scholarship Fund.
As another example, the Dental Trade Alliance Foundation awards $5,000 scholarships to a varying number of dental students annually.
Consider Doctoral Programs
Prospective students might consider pursuing a Ph.D. over a master's degree, depending on the discipline, experts say.
"The common thing I've heard is it is much more difficult to find funding for a master's degree than a Ph.D.," says Allanté Whitmore, a doctoral student at Carnegie Mellon University. The GEM Fellowship program awarded Whitmore a full fellowship to pursue a joint Ph.D. in civil engineering and engineering and public policy.
The difference in funding is because many universities use master's degrees as revenue streams, says TJ Murphy, an associate professor of pharmacology at the Emory University School of Medicine and founder of gradschoolmatch.com, a site that matches prospective students with graduate programs.
"Many think that the standard progression is get your bachelor's and then you go get your master's and then go get a Ph.D. But usually Ph.D.s are funded by the university. So it turns out if you're good enough at the bachelor's level, in a lot of fields you can skip a master's completely and go straight to the Ph.D.," Murphy says.
Ask About Grant Money, Scholarships and Assistant Positions
Often, students submit an application without finding out more about a program, potential funding and assistantship opportunities.
Murphy, who spent several years recruiting doctoral students for the pharmacology program at Emory, advises students to introduce themselves to a program before submitting an application. "You should try to schedule a phone call with someone in the program and find out where you stand [academically] and what kind of funds are available," he says.
He says students should try to speak to someone in the program who plays a role in the recruitment process. "It's only people in those programs who are going to be able to answer those questions."
Murphy adds that prospective students can be direct with their questions. For example, a student can ask: "Am I the type of student who could receive grant money?" They can also ask: "What type of scholarships have students in your program received?"
"A lot of times students don't realize how important they can be," Murphy says. "We bring in more grant money when they make discoveries."
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