Not too long ago I was quoted in a US News article on financial aid for graduate students. What I basically tried to explain to their education reporter, Farren Powell, is that the lion's share of the "free money" out there supporting graduate students actually comes from their graduate schools.

Oh, and from the employers of graduate students, too.

Here are some numbers from an recently released survey of 24,000 graduate students to back that up.

The first table shows the percentage of enrolled graduate students, by degree type, who are receiving either institutional grants, assistantships or employer aid. The good news? You'll note that significant percentages of even master's degree students receive substantial aid!

Institutional grants are things like tuition waivers and graduate fellowships, and include institutional military and veteran benefits.  These generally offset tuition costs and some fees.

Assistantships are teaching and research assistantships. Those generally are jobs that come with a stipend...the academic paycheck.

Employer aid includes tuition waivers for school employees along with tuition and fees paid by employers and/or reimbursed to the student.

I want to emphasize these various lines are "free money". They represent direct aid, not loans. These are funds paid to students, or they are waived costs to the student.


Here are the percent of graduate students receiving aid, by degree level and type of aid.

Degree Institutional aid Assistantships Employer aid
Master's degree 22% 7% 15%
Post-bac or certificate 12% 1% 17%
Research Doctorate 45% 28% 10%
Professional Doctorate 42% 2% 4%
Other Doctorate 23% 5% 10%
Non-degree program 9% na 19%

The data are from the NCES National Postsecondary Aid Study: 2016 Graduate Students

It's common practice, though not universal, for research doctorate students to receive both institutional aid and an assistantship.


For those graduate students who are receiving any of these aid lines, here are the average amounts:

Degree Institutional aid Assistantships Employer aid
Master's $7904 $10545 $6204
Post-bac or certificate $7726 na $3883
Research Doctorate $16502 $18542 $6649
Professional Doctorate $13472 na $7299
Other Doctorate $7586 $13991 $5774
Non-degree program na na $2629


At any given time a few million people are enrolled in graduate school.  Thus, the percentages above indicate that substantial numbers of graduate students--hundreds of thousands--are supported by their schools and/or by their employers.

I'll need to run some numbers more carefully, but on the back of the envelope it appears the total amount that schools spend on direct aid to their graduate students is probably on the scale of a few billion dollars.

Which is a lot.

So if you're working, speak with your employer about how they can help you. For some employers, helping their employees with a graduate education is just smart business.

For example, not long ago I spoke with a young engineer at Boeing. As soon as he started working for the company they had him enroll in an online aerospace engineering master's program...which they, of course, paid for in full. They're a better company because one of their engineers is smarter.

If you're looking for graduate programs and you won't have any employer help, be mindful that the control over who receives these institutional funds is largely in the hands of the graduate program. More specifically, the program admissions committee.

While researching your options be sure to reach out and speak with someone in the program about what their financial aid packages look like. It helps you to show them a good, complete Gradschoolmatch profile of yourself when you start those conversations.

I was speaking with another person not too long ago who had told me he had applied to five master's programs in urban design. Why did he choose the one he chose? "Well, they offered me money and the other's didn't." For that aid, he serves as an academic advisor for undergraduates in his college.

Oh, and it's not really "free money". There is no such critter. Money like this comes with strings attached. Assistantships are jobs that require hard work. Tuition waivers are coupled to rules about academic performance and progress.

None of that is "free" in any real sense of the word, but it can dramatically lower your cost of attending graduate school.

Which is nice.


Signup today!