If you are thinking about a grad school loan, it's time for a little brush-up work on how Stafford loans work.

For many incoming graduate students, the financial aid picture is confusing, if not a little fuzzy, around the edges. Perhaps you've been in the workplace for years and are returning to graduate school. Maybe your parents took care of the whole financial thing when you were in college and now you're climbing a steep learning curve. What's worse, you're going to be spending a lot of your own money. Unfortunately, grad students often miss some of the deals that are available to them.

Unless you are wealthy or a Ph.D. student in a well-funded field—with plenty of scholarships and grants for graduate school students—you no doubt will find that you're going to have to borrow. (To find out if you're in such a field with plenty of scholarships, be sure to look at our scholarship search.) The first reaction of some grad students is to reach for their credit cards. The Stafford Loan, which they might vaguely remember from college days, somehow slips by them. Stafford loans were one of the best loan deals available to them as undergraduates—and today they work great as graduate school loans too. If you are thinking about a grad school loan, it's time for a little brush-up work on how Stafford loans work.

Federal Stafford Loans

To refresh your memory, the Stafford Loan Program is a direct loan program from the federal government. It is a key component of the U.S. government financial aid system.

  • The Unsubsidized Stafford Loan means you pay the interest on the loan while still enrolled.

Stafford graduate loans offer some real advantages

There are certain benefits and advantages to taking out a Stafford loan:

  • There's no credit check to determine if you qualify. If you are a U.S. citizen, enrolled half-time, and keep your grades up to satisfactory standards, you've got the loan.
  • Compared to other loan programs, it's low cost.
  • The loan funds come directly to you and can be used to pay for tuition, fees, and room and board.
  • You're getting the best terms available.
  • Normal payback of Stafford Loans is ten years, but you can extend it to 30 years through consolidation.
  • You can defer a loan a year at a time up to a total of three years.
  • If your income is low when you first get out of graduate school, you can pay a percentage of what your income is until you're on your feet, depending on your circumstances.
  • The interest is tax deductible, depending on your income.
  • Half-time students can still borrow the full amount given approval by the graduate program.

Grad school loan interest facts and figures

You may be shocked at how much graduate school costs, but you'll be pleased to know that you can borrow up to $20,500 each academic year. At the end of your graduate studies, the total amount you can accrue is $138,500. This includes any Stafford Loans you took out for college. Historically, the interest rate changed each year due to variable interest rates, but for new loans after July 1, 2006, the interest rate is fixed at 6.8 percent (which is higher than what we've seen in recent years, but is still a good deal as far as borrowing money goes!).

With unsubsidized loans, interest starts building the first day the loan is disbursed until you've paid the loan in full, even during grace and deferment periods.

You will also receive a grace period for your unsubsidized loan. Interest will be charged during grace periods, but you don't have to pay on the principal. Six months after you graduate, leave school, or are attending less than half-time, the repayment clock starts ticking. Unless you're on active duty in the military, you must begin paying off the loan at that time.

The Stafford graduate school loan can help in unforeseen circumstances

As everyone knows, things can happen unexpectedly. At some future point you might need to postpone repayment of the loan. Stafford loans cut you some slack under certain circumstances by giving you a deferment or forbearance on your loan. This lets you temporarily stop payments. Again, unsubsidized Stafford loans charge you interest during a deferment. Forbearance on your loan gives you a limited and specified period of time to recover if you are in poor health, have personal problems, or are a medical and dental student in an internship or residency program. In forbearance, you are charged interest for both types of Stafford loans.