Wed. Apr 21st, 2021

Student loans are a necessary evil for many college students. That’s especially the case if you’re planning to attend graduate school, which is often more expensive than an undergraduate degree on a per-year basis.

What’s more, scholarships aren’t as plentiful for graduate students as they are for undergraduates, and students no longer have access to federal Pell Grants. If you’re thinking about borrowing money to get your graduate degree, it’s important to understand how graduate student loans work and whether they’re worth it. Here’s what you’ll learn in this article:

  • How do graduate student loans work?
  • How do you apply for a graduate student loan?
  • How much can you get from a graduate student loan?
  • Is getting a graduate student loan worth it?
  • What credit score do you need to get a graduate student loan?

Best Student Loans for Graduate School

Earnest

3.74% to 13.03% Fixed APR
No maximum Max. Loan Amount
650 Min. Credit Score

College Ave

3.74% to 13.24% Fixed APR
No maximum Max. Loan Amount
Not disclosed Min. Credit Score

Sallie Mae

4.5% to 12.84% Fixed APR
Not disclosed Max. Loan Amount
Not disclosed Min. Credit Score

Discover

4.49% to 13.24% Fixed APR
No maximum Max. Loan Amount
Not disclosed Min. Credit Score

U-fi

3.84% to 12.42% Fixed APR
$125,000 Max. Loan Amount
680 Min. Credit Score

Laurel Road

3.05% to 6.25% Fixed APR
No maximum Max. Loan Amount
650 Min. Credit Score

LendKey

4.24% to 7.98% Fixed APR
$120,000 Max. Loan Amount
Not disclosed Min. Credit Score

PNC

4.99% to 10.14% Fixed APR
$50,000 yearly Max. Loan Amount
Not disclosed Min. Credit Score

RISLA

As low as 4.24% Fixed APR
$45,000 yearly Max. Loan Amount
Not disclosed Min. Credit Score

SoFi

4.48% to 11.51% Fixed APR
No maximum Max. Loan Amount
Not disclosed Min. Credit Score

EDvestinU

4.59% to 9.11% Fixed APR
$200,000 Max. Loan Amount
Not disclosed Min. Credit Score

CommonBond

3.99% to 10.99% Fixed APR
$500,000 Max. Loan Amount
680 Min. Credit Score

Ascent

3.38% to 14.50% Fixed APR
$200,000 Max. Loan Amount
Not disclosed Min. Credit Score

Best for fair credit

Earnest is an online lender offering private student loans to current college and graduate students and student loan refinancing to graduates. The company was founded in 2013. Borrowers can choose their loan terms to fund up to the full cost of their education.

Before You Apply

  • Loan types: undergraduate, graduate, co-signer, refinancing, Parent PLUS refinancing, MBA, law, medical
  • Minimum FICO credit score: 650
  • Co-signer accepted: yes
  • Better Business Bureau rating: A+

Best Features

  • Earnest doesn’t charge origination, application or late fees.

  • You can choose your monthly payment and loan term length.

  • You can use a co-signer on undergraduate or graduate student loans, and student loan refinancing is available.

See full profile

Best for customer service

Education Loan Finance, also known as ELFI, is a student loan refinancing program offered by SouthEast Bank. Options are available in all 50 states and Puerto Rico to refinance private and federal student loans, including undergraduate, graduate, parent and MBA loans, as well as loans for law, dental and medical school. ELFI also offers private loans for students at eligible institutions.

Before You Apply

  • Loan types: undergraduate, graduate, parent loans, refinancing, parent refinancing, MBA, law, health care
  • Minimum FICO credit score: 680
  • Co-signer accepted: yes
  • Better Business Bureau rating: A+

Best Features

  • There are no application, origination or prepayment fees.

  • All types of student loans are eligible for refinancing.

See full profile

Best for instant approval

College Ave Student Loans offers student loans to borrowers in all 50 states. Undergraduate, graduate and parent loans are available. The lender specializes in simple applications with an instant decision.

Before You Apply

  • Loan types: undergraduate, graduate, parent loans, refinancing, MBA, law, dental, medical, career, international
  • Minimum FICO credit score: undisclosed
  • Co-signer accepted: yes
  • Better Business Bureau rating: A+

Best Features

  • Loans are available from $1,000 up to 100% of the student’s school-certified cost of attendance.

  • Borrowers can make full payments while in school, or choose to pay interest only, pay a flat fee, or defer payments.

  • College Ave Student Loans have no origination or prepayment fees.

See full profile

Best for product availability

Sallie Mae is a publicly traded consumer bank that offers private student loans to pay for undergraduate, graduate and specialty degrees. The company started in 1972 as a government entity that serviced federal student loans. It went private in 2004 and has served nearly half a million students and families with its range of student loan products. Beyond student loans, Sallie Mae Bank offers savings products to help families plan and pay for college, and credit cards with incentives for using cash back rewards to pay back student loans.

Before You Apply

  • Loan types: undergraduate, career training, parent, K-12, graduate, MBA, medical, medical residency, dental, dental residency, health professions, law school, bar study
  • Minimum FICO credit score: undisclosed
  • Co-signer accepted: yes
  • Better Business Bureau rating: A+

Best Features

  • Student loans completely cover school-certified expenses such as tuition, fees, books, housing, meals, travel or a laptop.

  • Customer service is 100% U.S.-based.

  • Borrowers don’t have to pay a loan origination fee.

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Best for no fees

Discover Bank has been operating for more than 100 years, and since 2010, it has offered private student loans to students attending more than 2,400 colleges and universities. Loans of up to 100% of education costs with fixed or variable rates are available.

Before You Apply

  • Loan types: undergraduate, graduate, parent, refinancing, MBA, law, international, consolidation, health professions, residency, bar exam. International loans require a co-signer who is a U.S. citizen or permanent resident.
  • Minimum FICO credit score: undisclosed
  • Co-signer accepted: yes
  • Better Business Bureau rating: A+

Best Features

  • Loans as small as $1,000 are available.

  • Discover has no origination, application or late fees.

See full profile

Best for flexible loan terms

U-fi from Nelnet offers private student loans and refinancing loans to borrowers in all U.S. states except Vermont. Undergraduate, graduate and refinancing loans are available. The lender specializes in offering flexible repayment options.

Before You Apply

  • Loan types: undergraduate, graduate, MBA, law, health professions, refinance
  • Minimum FICO credit score: 680
  • Co-signer accepted: yes
  • Better Business Bureau rating: A+

Best Features

  • Borrowers can get up to 15 years to pay off the loan.

  • The lender offers an interest rate discount for automatic payments.

  • Borrowers can make full payments or pay interest only while in school, or defer payments.

See full profile

Best for good credit

Laurel Road, which became part of KeyBank in 2019, offers graduate student loans and refinancing on a variety of student loans.

Before You Apply

  • Loan types: student loan refinancing, health care graduate, Parent PLUS refinancing
  • Minimum FICO credit score: 650
  • Co-signer accepted: yes
  • Better Business Bureau rating: A

Best Features

  • Loans are available from $5,000 up to 100% of the student’s school-certified cost of attendance.

  • Borrowers can make full payments while in school, or choose to pay interest only, a flat fee or defer payments.

  • Laurel Road student loans have no application, origination or prepayment fees.

See full profile

Best for minimal fees

LendKey is a student loan lending platform that connects credit unions and community banks with online borrowers. Founded in 2009, LendKey has served more than 99,000 borrowers with more than $3.1 billion in loans from partner lenders. Undergraduate and graduate student loans are available, as well as student loan refinancing.

Before You Apply

  • Loan types: undergraduate, graduate, refinance
  • Minimum FICO credit score: undisclosed
  • Co-signer accepted: yes
  • Better Business Bureau rating: A

Best Features

  • Students can consider multiple lenders with a single application.

  • LendKey has no origination or application fees.

See full profile

Best for ACH discount

PNC Bank was established in 1845 and operates in all 50 states. The bank is engaged in a number of community efforts, including its Grow Up Great program in conjunction with Sesame Workshop and various financial literacy efforts. For students, PNC offers opportunities to win $2,000 scholarships toward education expenses. PNC provides a range of loans for students at all stages of postsecondary education, including professional training loans and refinancing.

Before You Apply

  • Loan types: undergraduate, graduate, refinancing, MBA, law, dental, medical, bar and residency
  • Minimum FICO credit score: undisclosed
  • Co-signer accepted: yes
  • Better Business Bureau rating: A+

Best Features

  • PNC offers a range of loans for undergraduate, graduate and professional education.

  • Loans are available in all 50 states.

  • Borrowers can receive an interest rate discount for automatic payment from a checking or savings account.

See full profile

Best for fixed APR

The Rhode Island Student Loan Authority is a nonprofit quasi-state authority that provides college financing to students and parents. The lender specializes in providing loans to Rhode Island residents and students, though not all loans have residency requirements.

Before You Apply

  • Loan types: undergraduate, graduate, refinance, parent
  • Minimum FICO credit score: undisclosed
  • Co-signer accepted: yes
  • Better Business Bureau rating: unrated

Best Features

  • Students may be enrolled at least half-time and still qualify.

  • There is no prepayment fee, so borrowers may pay off their loans early.

  • Rewards are available for interns and nurses.

See full profile

How Do Graduate Student Loans Work?

Graduate student loans work similarly to undergraduate student loans, with only a few key differences. For starters, graduate federal loans typically have higher limits, making it easier for students to get the financing they need to make up for fewer other financial aid options.

However, these loans also charge higher interest rates than undergraduate loans. Federal loans for undergraduates charge 2.75%, while loans for grad students start at 4.3%.

“Typically a graduate student will make more money and therefore can pay back at a higher interest rate,” says Joshua Cohen, an attorney who specializes in student loan law.

Finally, while the federal government subsidizes interest on some of its undergraduate loans for students who exhibit financial need, all graduate loans are unsubsidized.

Graduate student loans from private lenders may also have higher interest rates than undergraduate loans from the same lenders.

However, lenders typically offer a range of rates based on your creditworthiness. So if you’ve managed to build a credit history by the time you’re a graduate student, you may qualify for a lower rate than what you could’ve gotten on your own as an undergrad.

Despite some of the disadvantages, graduate students borrow far more than undergraduates to get through their programs. According to 2017-18 data analyzed by the Center for American Progress, about 15% of all students in higher education were in graduate programs, yet they accounted for 40% of all federal student loans issued.

How Do You Apply for a Graduate Student Loan?

The application process for graduate loans depends on whether you’re applying for federal or private student loans.

“(Graduate students) can generally avoid having to go through the verification process that some undergraduates must complete because they are receiving only non-need-based loans,” says James Anderson, director of financial aid at Montclair State University.

Direct PLUS loans are federal loans reserved for graduate students and parents of undergraduates. If you want to apply for a Direct PLUS Loan, which offers higher limits than the standard graduate loan option, you’ll fill out a separate application after you submit the FAFSA on the Federal Student Aid website.

With private loans, you’ll submit an application directly with the lender of your choice. Before you do this, it’s a good idea to get prequalified with multiple lenders, so you can compare offers and choose the best fit for you. Prequalification typically uses just a soft credit check, which doesn’t impact your credit score.

Regardless of where you apply, you’ll typically need to provide some personal information, income and employment information, your school name and other relevant details.

How Much Can You Get From a Graduate School Loan?

Graduate student loan limits can vary by lender and the type of student loan. With Direct Unsubsidized Loans, for instance, you can borrow up to $20,500 per year and $73,000 in total. On the other hand, federal Direct PLUS Loans amounts are limited only to the cost of attendance for your school minus other financial assistance you receive.

If you’re thinking of getting private student loans, you’ll want to check with each lender to find out how much you can borrow. Note that private lenders may also have annual and lifetime limits.

For example, you may be able to borrow up to the total cost of attendance for your school every year. Maximums can vary, and you’ll want to contact lenders directly to find out.

Is Getting a Grad School Loan Worth It?

There are both benefits and drawbacks to using graduate student loans to help fund your education. As with any financial decision, it’s important to consider the pros and the cons before you pull the trigger:

Pros

  • Loans can make it possible to afford a graduate or professional degree.

  • You don’t need to start making payments until after you leave school.

  • Loans can be used to cover both educational and living expenses.

Cons

  • Graduate loans charge higher interest rates than undergraduate loans.

  • There’s no guarantee you’ll get a job after grad school to pay back your debt.

  • Student loan payments can get in the way of other important financial goals.

The most important thing to consider may be whether you’ll be able to pay back the debt. “No single school ever gives 100% job placement,” says Cohen. “If they do, I’d be really concerned by that. It helps to be careful about what the real job prospects are.”

It’s also important to remember that it’s not entirely necessary to borrow money for graduate school, and even if you need to rely on student loans, you may be able to take steps to limit how much you need to borrow.

That may include applying for scholarships and grants, working part or full time, obtaining a fellowship or assistantship, or even saving up in advance.

What Credit Score Do You Need to Get a Student Loan for Graduate School?

If you’re applying for federal graduate student loans, there is no minimum credit score requirement. In fact, if you apply for Direct Unsubsidized Loans, there’s no credit check involved in the application process.

Direct PLUS Loans do require a credit check, but the Department of Education uses your credit history only to determine if you have significant negative items on your credit report, such as a bankruptcy, foreclosure, wage garnishment or other things that suggest an adverse credit history.

With private student loans, credit score requirements can vary by lender. In general, though, most lenders require a score in the high 600s to qualify. If your credit score isn’t where it needs to be, or you do qualify, but the terms aren’t favorable, applying with a creditworthy co-signer can boost your odds of getting a loan with affordable terms.

If you’re trying to decide between federal and private loans, it’s important to look at more than just the interest rates.

“Repayment options, such as with the income-driven repayment, and opportunities for cancellation, such as the Public Service Loan Forgiveness Program, are only available with federal loans,” says Anderson. “Opportunities for discharge, as in the case of the death or disability of the borrower, are also more readily available with federal loans.”

View More Best Student Loans for Graduate School

Best for online service

SoFi is an online lender offering student loan refinancing, undergraduate, graduate and parent loans in all 50 states. The lender has served more than 375,000 borrowers with $30 billion in refinanced student loans. Although SoFi focused on refinancing in its early years, the company has expanded to also offer its own undergraduate, graduate and parent loans.

Before You Apply

  • Loan types: undergraduate, graduate, parent loans, refinancing, parent refinancing, MBA, law, dental, medical
  • Minimum FICO credit score: undisclosed
  • Co-signer accepted: yes
  • Better Business Bureau rating: A

Best Features

  • All types of student loans are eligible for refinancing.

  • SoFi’s lending process is completely online.

  • Loan terms are available from five to 20 years.

See full profile

Best for streamlined approval process

Citizens Bank was founded in the late 1800s in Rhode Island. Today, it’s one of the largest commercial banks in the U.S. with a presence in 11 states. Branches are concentrated in the New England, Mid-Atlantic and Midwest regions.

Before You Apply

  • Loan types: undergraduate, graduate, parent loans, refinancing, parent refinancing
  • Minimum FICO credit score: 670
  • Co-signer accepted: yes
  • Better Business Bureau rating: A+

Best Features

  • Citizens Bank offers multiyear approval loans, meaning that once you get started, you will continue to secure funding for subsequent years in school without needing to go through a credit check every year.

  • Borrowers who are Citizens Bank customers who sign up for auto payments can reduce their interest rates by 0.5%.

  • International students can apply if they have a co-signer who is a U.S. citizen or permanent resident with good credit.

See full profile

Best for small loan amounts

EDvestinU is a nonprofit student loan lending and refinancing organization. It offers student loans to borrowers in all 50 states. Undergraduate and graduate loans and student loan consolidation are available.

Before You Apply

  • Loan types: undergraduate, graduate, refinancing
  • Minimum FICO credit score: undisclosed
  • Co-signer accepted: yes
  • Better Business Bureau rating: B

Best Features

  • Loans are available from $1,000.

  • Borrowers can make full payments while in school, pay the interest only or defer payments.

  • EDvestinU student loans have no application, origination or prepayment fees.

See full profile

Best for online preapprovals

Founded in 2012, CommonBond has funded more than $3 billion in student loans. The lender offers undergraduate, graduate, MBA and student loan refinance loans.

Before You Apply

  • Loan types: undergraduate, graduate, refinancing, parent refinancing, MBA, dental, medical, law
  • Minimum FICO credit score: 680
  • Co-signer accepted: A co-signer is required for the undergraduate and graduate products. No co-signer is required for MBA, dental or medical loans. The lender offers a co-signer release after 24 on-time, consecutive payments. Parent PLUS loans can be refinanced to the child’s name, if they are eligible borrowers.
  • Better Business Bureau rating: B-

Best Features

  • Co-signers are accepted for all loans.

  • Borrowers can make up to full monthly payments while in school or choose to pay interest only, a flat fee or defer payments.

  • Online preapproval is available.

See full profile

Best for bad credit

Ascent offers student loans to borrowers in all 50 states. Undergraduate and graduate loans are available. The lender specializes in providing opportunities for students to borrow loans in their own names.

Before You Apply

  • Loan types: undergraduate, graduate, MBA, law, dental, medical, international, health professionals, graduate Ph.D./general, DACA students with an eligible co-signer
  • Minimum FICO credit score: undisclosed
  • Co-signer accepted: yes
  • Better Business Bureau rating: A

Best Features

  • Ascent offers a 1% cash back graduation reward with the satisfaction of certain terms and conditions.

  • Co-signed loans offer the ability to make full payments while in school and during a nine-month grace period following graduation, or choose to pay interest only, a flat fee or defer payments.

  • Ascent student loans have no origination, prepayment or application fees.

See full profile

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