7 of the best graduate student loans

If you need graduate student loans, there are multiple options to consider. (iStock)

Attending graduate school to earn an advanced degree could help increase your earning potential as you chart a career course. You may, however, need to take out graduate student loans to help cover the cost.

Federal student loans, including direct unsubsidized loans and Grad PLUS loans, can help. They feature low rates, flexible repayment options, and offer built-in protections, such as forbearance and deferment options. But federal student loans have borrowing limits that max out each year, which could make private loans necessary.

Private student loans can be a good option if you have solid credit and want to qualify for loans at a lower interest rate. Don't worry about having to navigate student loan options on your own. Credible can help compare student loan companies (and hopefully land you some of the lowest rates for what you're looking for).

7 of the best graduate student loans

If you're contemplating life as a graduate student, here are some of the best graduate student loan options from private lenders to consider.

Ascent

Ascent offers generous private loans for graduate school to eligible students. You'll need a minimum credit score of 600 to qualify and you must be a U.S. citizen or permanent resident.

Aside from creditworthiness, Ascent considers your GPA for loan qualification. If you don't have at least a 2.9 GPA, you won't be able to qualify with this lender.

Private loans from Ascent can have fixed or variable rates. Loan amounts range from $1,000 to $200,000 with 5, 10 and 15-year terms. There are no fees for Ascent private loans and repayment options include full deferral, fixed or flat repayment, interest-only repayment, academic deferment, military deferment, and forbearance.

  • Loan amounts: $1,000 to $200,000
  • Loan terms: 5, 10 or 15 years
  • Discounts: 0.25 to 2.00% automatic payment discount, 1% cash back graduation reward
  • Cosigner release: Available after 24 months

Compare loans provided by Ascent and other online lenders through Credible today.

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Citizens Bank

Citizens Bank allows you to borrow even more to pay for graduate school, with loans available to students in all 50 states. You can even get private loans if you're an international student as long as you have a cosigner who's a U.S. citizen or permanent resident.

This lender doesn't disclose the minimum credit score required to qualify for loans. You can expect a soft credit check as part of the loan application process.

Citizens Bank allows you to borrow up to $350,000, depending on the type of degree you're earning. You can choose from 5, 10 or 15-year loan terms and the only fee to be aware of is a late fee if you miss your due date. Repayment options include full deferral, full monthly payment, interest-only payments, immediate repayment, academic deferment, military deferment, forbearance, and discharge in the case of death or disability.

  • Loan amounts: $1,000 to $350,000
  • Loan terms: 5, 10 or 15 years
  • Discounts: Autopay discount, a loyalty discount
  • Cosigner release: Available after 36 months

Compare loans provided by Citizens Bank and other online lenders through Credible today.

8 OF THE BEST PRIVATE STUDENT LOANS IN 2020

College Ave

College Ave may be a good option for private student loans if you're attending a graduate school with a higher price tag. It's possible to borrow up to 100% of your school's certified cost of attendance.

You must be making satisfactory academic progress to qualify for College Ave private loans. That could be a stumbling block if you've hit a few snags during your graduate school career.

At a minimum, you can borrow $1,000 as a graduate student, though you could borrow much more, depending on your school's cost of attendance. College Ave offers 5, 8, 10, and 15-year loan terms. The standard repayment options are available, including full deferral, full monthly payment, fixed/flat repayment, interest-only payments, immediate repayment, academic deferment, forbearance, and loan discharge when eligible.

  • Loan amounts: $1,000 up to 100% of your school's certified cost of attendance
  • Loan terms: 5, 8, 10 or 15 years
  • Discounts: Autopay discount
  • Cosigner release: Available after 24 months

Compare loans provided by College Ave and other online lenders through Credible today.

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EDvestinU

EDvestinU offers generous borrowing amounts to pay for graduate school, with flexible repayment options and low-interest rates.

You'll need a minimum credit score of 750 to qualify for private loans with EDinvestinU. There are also minimum income requirements you need to meet, both of which may increase your odds of needing a cosigner.

As a graduate student, you can borrow up to $200,000, with repayment stretching 7, 10, or 15 years. Repayment options include full deferral, full monthly payment, interest-only, immediate repayment, academic deferment, and loan discharge for death or disability.

  • Loan amounts: $1,000 to $200,000
  • Loan terms: 7, 10 or 15 years
  • Discounts: Autopay discount
  • Cosigner release: Available after 24 months

Compare loans provided by EDvestinU and other online lenders through Credible today.

WHAT IS THE 2+2 PROGRAM TO REDUCE STUDENT LOAN DEBT?

INvested

INvested combines low rates with high borrowing amounts for eligible lenders. It's possible to borrow up to 100% of your school's cost of attendance.

But there's a catch. You must be an Indiana resident or a U.S. citizen attending an eligible Indiana college or university to qualify for graduate school loans with INvested.

The minimum loan amount is $1,001 and you can take 5, 10, or 15 years to repay. The only fee to be aware of is the late fee. You can choose from full deferral, full monthly payment, interest-only payments, immediate repayment, academic deferment, or forbearance for repayment options.

  • Loan amounts: $1,001 up to 100% of your school's certified cost of attendance
  • Loan terms: 5, 10 or 15 years
  • Discounts: Autopay, a reward for on-time graduation
  • Cosigner release: Available after 48 months

Compare loans provided by INvested and other online lenders through Credible today.

COLLEGE DEGREES WITH THE WORST ROI

MEFA

MEFA makes low fixed-rate loans available to qualifying graduate students. You must be a permanent resident or U.S. citizen and make satisfactory academic progress to qualify.

One drawback of MEFA loans is that there's no variable rate option. And there are no discounts available to help you save on interest.

Loan amounts range from $1,500 or $2,000, up to your certified cost of attendance. There are no fees and you can choose from a 10 or 15-year loan term. Repayment options include full deferral, interest-only payments or immediate repayment.

  • Loan amounts: $1,500 or $2,000 up to 100% of your school's certified cost of attendance (depending on school type and minus other financial aid received)
  • Loan terms: 10 or 15 years
  • Discounts: None
  • Cosigner release: Available after 48 months

Compare loans provided by MEFA and other online lenders through Credible today.

HOW STUDENT LOANS CAN AFFECT YOUR CREDIT SCORE

Sallie Mae

Sallie Mae provides graduate school loans to U.S. citizens and permanent residents as well as non-U.S. citizens attending a U.S. school who have a qualifying cosigner.

Sallie Mae doesn't disclose its minimum credit score requirements so you'll have to apply to find out what kind of rates you qualify for. It's possible that you may need a cosigner if you don't have a lengthy credit history.

You can borrow up to 100% of your school's certified cost of attendance with Sallie Mae and payback private loans over 5 or 15 years. Sallie Mae does charge a fee for late payments, however. Your repayment options are similar to other private loan servicers and include full deferral, fixed/flat repayment, interest-only payments, academic deferment, forbearance, and loan discharge for death or disability.

  • Loan amounts: Up to 100% of your school's certified cost of attendance
  • Loan terms: 5 or 15 years
  • Discounts: Autopay discount
  • Cosigner release: Available after 12 months

Compare loans provided by Sallie Mae and other online lenders through Credible today.

APPLYING FOR A STUDENT LOAN? 3 THINGS TO KNOW BEFORE BORROWING

Other private student loan lenders to consider

The private loan lenders listed here are some of the best when you need financial aid for graduate school. But here are a few other private student loan options you may want to check out:

  • Commonbond
  • Earnest
  • iHELP
  • MPOWER Financing
  • PNC Bank
  • SoFi
  • Wells Fargo

Take time to compare graduate school loan options

Before taking out federal student loans or private student loans to pay for a graduate degree, there are a few things to consider. For example, federal direct unsubsidized loans and grad PLUS loans can carry higher interest rates than private student loans. If you have a strong credit score, you could qualify for a lower interest rate with private loans. But there's a trade-off since private student loans lack the protections offered by federal student loans.

Doing your homework is an essential part of the puzzle when weighing financial aid options as a graduate student. For instance, it's helpful to compare fixed and variable rates for different private loan options from multiple lenders. Using an online student loan calculator can help you estimate your repayment costs for graduate school loans.

If you're considering private student loans to pay for graduate school, getting a free rate quote can help you narrow down which lenders and loan servicers may be the best fit. You can check and compare rates for private loans without affecting your credit score at Credible.com.

Frequently asked questions about student loan debt

What’s the difference between federal and private student loans?

Both federal student loans and private student loans charge interest, although there are some important differences.

All federal student loans, or loans made by the Department of Education, have common traits when it comes to interest. They all have fixed rates, which means the rate doesn't change during the entire repayment period. And interest isn't determined by any individual borrower's credit profile; it's set on loan type and when the loan was issued.

Private loans work differently. Interest rates are always set based on each borrower's unique credit history and will be lower for borrowers with good credit. Rates could be fixed or variable, with variable rate loans linked to financial indexes and changing over time. Different lenders set their own rates, which can differ substantially from one lender to the next.

How do I choose the best private student loan?

Because you have so many options for federal student loan repayment, it can be overwhelming to determine the right one. But there are a few key factors to consider:

  • Whether you qualify for Public Service Loan Forgiveness
  • The amount you can afford to pay each month
  • The total costs of borrowing
  • The level of risk you're willing to accept

With so many repayment options, every borrower should research carefully to avoid falling victim to student loan repayment scam calls or bad advice. Remember, there are always trade-offs and a loan with lower monthly payments will almost always mean higher total costs over time.

How do I apply for a private student loan? 

Here’s what the general process looks like for private student loans:

  • Find a bank or financial institution that offers student loans. Many banks, credit unions, and even online lenders offer them. Check your personal bank first.
  • Gather up your financial details. This includes household income, recent tax returns, bank statements, and info about your assets.
  • Fill out the lender’s online application. Fill out the application (if one is available) or get in touch with a loan officer to get started. You will also need to fill out a Private Education Loan Application Self-Certification form and submit it to your lender.
  • Agree to a credit check. If your parents or someone else is co-signing your loan, they will need to submit to a credit check as well.
  • Wait for your results. Once the lender evaluates your credit and application, they’ll determine how much you’re eligible to borrow and at what terms. You can then accept or deny the offer. If you accept, the loan proceeds will go to your school, which will put them towards your account.

How do I find a co-signer for a private student loan?

The majority of borrowers who use a cosigner choose someone close to them — a spouse, parent, grandparent, sibling, or someone similar.

Unfortunately, not everyone has these options or, in some cases, the family members might not have great credit (a must if they’re going to apply for a loan with you).

If you find yourself in this scenario, try reaching out to:

  • Friends. Do you have a friend who’s financially responsible and on solid ground income-wise? Ask if they’d do you a favor by cosigning your loan.
  • Extended family. Aunts, uncles, cousins — they’re all valid cosigners. Just make sure they have good credit and a strong financial profile (i.e., manageable debts and steady income).
  • Mentors. Personal or professional mentors may also be an option. Keep in mind they’ll need to know you well enough to trust your financial habits.
  • Your parents’ friends. There are probably a few friends of your parents you’ve known all your life. Would any of them be willing to go out on a limb for you?

Though there are also services you can use to find a cosigner (CosignerFinder, HireACosigner, etc.), be cautious about going outside your personal circles.

Frequently asked questions about graduate loans

If using student loans to pay for graduate school is something you're considering, here's more on what you can expect as a borrower.

What loans do graduate students get?

There are two options when taking out student loans for grad school: federal student loans and private student loans.

The federal loan umbrella includes both Direct Unsubsidized Loans and Direct PLUS Loans. You can borrow up to $20,500 in Direct Unsubsidized Loans for grad school, with Direct PLUS Loans covering the remainder of college costs. Note that parent-student loans are designed to pay for undergraduate expenses.

Between the two, federal loans can offer fixed interest rates that may be lower than private student loans. Federal loan options can also offer certain benefits, such as in-school deferments, a grace period after graduation, and flexible repayment options. But similar to private student loans, credit checks are required to qualify for a Direct PLUS loan.

How do I get loans for graduate school?

If you're interested in using federal student loans for grad school, you'll need to complete the Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA). This form is used to determine eligibility for graduate school loans, just as it is for undergraduate higher education loans.

Getting private student loans as a graduate student begins with comparing options from different private lenders. Specifically, you'd want to consider:

  • Minimum and maximum grad school loan limits
  • Loan rates 
  • Fixed APR vs. variable interest rate options
  • Repayment terms and estimated monthly loan payment
  • Minimum credit score and credit history requirements
  • Options for applying with a cosigner
  • Loan fees, if any

This step can take time but it's worth it if you want to find the best low-interest student loans. Visit Credible to learn more about private student loans and get personalized rates from multiple loan lenders without affecting your credit score. And consider using an online student loan payment calculator to estimate your monthly loan costs.

WHAT CREDIT SCORE DO YOU NEED TO GET A STUDENT LOAN?

How to find the best (and lowest) student loan rates

Getting the lowest rates on grad school loans can save you money over time. Keep these tips in mind as you compare rates:

  • Remember that APR and interest rate are different
  • Consider any loan fees, such as prepayment penalties, that may affect your APR
  • Compare repayment term options and use a savings calculator to estimate how much you'll pay based on your loan term
  • Weigh the pros and cons of using a cosigner to potentially snag a lower interest rate

The higher your credit score, the more likely you are to qualify for a low student loan interest rate. If you haven't checked your credit lately, you may want to do so before you start the grad school loan application process to get an idea of what rates you may be approved for.

Again, remember that it's important to shop around. Visit Credible to review fixed interest rate and variable interest rate private student loan options without affecting your credit score.

How much can graduate students borrow in student loans?

When considering loans as a master's student or to pay for any graduate program, it's important to understand how much you can borrow. Again, with federal loans, you can borrow up to $20,500 each year with unsubsidized loans. The maximum amount for PLUS loans is your cost of attendance, minus any financial aid received.

Loan amounts for private student loans can vary by lender and they can also be determined by which type of graduate program you're enrolled in. For example, some private loan lenders allow you to borrow up to $350,000 to pay for medical school. In other cases, loan amounts may be capped at up to 100% of your cost of attendance, minus any financial aid received.

Between federal and private loans, private student loans tend to be more generous if you need money paying for college. But also consider that a larger loan means more you have to pay back later.

WHAT'S THE AVERAGE DEBT OF A GRADUATE STUDENT IN THE US?

Are grad school loans worth it?

Getting loans to enhance your professional development could be worth it if it translates to a higher salary once you begin your career. More education could translate to more income, depending on your field of study and where you eventually end up working.

Again, you have to balance that against what you might have to repay once you graduate. Taking out $100,000 in graduate school loans may not seem that overwhelming if you're confident that you'll be earning a six-figure income immediately after graduation.

On the other hand, incurring that kind of debt may not make sense if you're planning a career in public service, unless you can qualify for some type of loan forgiveness. Talking it over with a financial advisor could help you decide whether grad school loans are a good investment.

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Which graduate student loan option is best?

Deciding on a grad school student loan ultimately depends on how much you need to borrow, what type of interest rates you're interested in, and your financial situation. With that in mind, here's a quick recap of the types of graduate school loans that are available:

  • Federal Direct Unsubsidized Loans: Borrow up to $20,500 per year to pay for graduate school; you're responsible for paying interest on these loans during the grace period, deferment periods, or forbearance periods.
  • Federal Graduate PLUS Loans: Borrow up to 100% of the cost of attendance, minus any financial aid received; credit checks are required and borrowers with adverse credit history may qualify if additional conditions are met.
  • Private graduate student loans: Offered by private loan lenders, rather than the federal government; borrow up to 100% of your cost of attendance, depending on the lender with the best loan rates reserved for the most creditworthy borrowers. 

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How to compare graduate school loan options

Before taking out federal student loans or private student loans to pay for a graduate degree, there are a few things to consider. For example, federal direct unsubsidized loans and grad PLUS loans can carry higher interest rates than private student loans. If you have a strong credit score, you could qualify for a lower interest rate with private loans. But there's a trade-off since private student loans lack the protections offered by federal student loans.

Doing your homework is an essential part of the puzzle when weighing financial aid options as a graduate student. For instance, it's helpful to compare fixed and variable rates for different private loan options from multiple lenders. Using an online student loan calculator can help you estimate your repayment costs for graduate school loans.

If you're considering private student loans to pay for graduate school, getting a free rate quote can help you narrow down which lenders and loan servicers may be the best fit. You can check and compare rates for private loans without affecting your credit score at Credible.com.

Christy Bieber and Aly Yale contributed to this report.