8 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.

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Federal student loans, including direct unsubsidized loans and Grad PLUS loans, can help. They can 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).

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

1. 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. Loans can also be charged due to death or disability.

  • Loan amounts: $1,000 to $200,000
  • Loan terms: 5, 10 or 15 years
  • Discounts: 0.25 to 2.00 percent automatic payment discount, 1 percent 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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2. 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.

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3. 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 percent 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 percent 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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4. Discover

Discover gives you more time to pay off private student loans compared to other private lenders or loan servicers. And there are multiple ways to save on student loan costs with discounts.

One potential downside is that Discover doesn't offer cosigner release. If you borrow with a cosigner, the only way to remove them from your loans is refinancing in your name only.

It's possible to borrow up to 100 percent of your certified cost of attendance, with repayment stretching up to 20 years based on your degree. There are no fees and repayment options span full deferral, full monthly payment, fixed/flat repayment, interest-only payments, immediate repayment, academic deferment, military deferment, forbearance, and loan discharge.

  • Loan amounts: Up to 100 percent of your school's certified cost of attendance
  • Loan terms: 15 or 20 years, depending on your degree
  • Discounts: Autopay, good grade discount, cash reward for on-time graduation
  • Cosigner release: Not available

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

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5. 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.

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6. INvested

INvested combines low rates with high borrowing amounts for eligible lenders. It's possible to borrow up to 100 percent 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 loans. 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 percent 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.

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7. 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 percent 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.

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8. 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 percent of your school's certified cost of attendance with Sallie Mae and pay back 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 percent 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.

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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 between how it's treated by each of these two loan types.

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.

Christy Bieber and Aly Yale contributed to this report.