Any prospective graduate students need to know how their marital status will affect both how much financial aid they receive as well as how they’re allowed to spend education savings.
Graduate students qualify for some teaching assistantships most undergraduate students wouldn’t, as well as qualifying for different types of student loans. But for married graduate students, the graduate school financial picture may be more complicated.
Married students need to answer the following questions before enrolling in graduate school.
[Learn how students can allocate college savings for grad school.]
1. How will being married affect financial aid? The Free Application for Federal Student Aid, commonly known as the FAFSA, asks for both spouses' incomes. The income reported on the form is used by schools to determine financial need for scholarships, grants and student loans, says Jim Brooks, director of the office of student financial aid and scholarships at the University of Oregon.
The numbers reported also include other assets used to calculate the student’s Expected Family Contribution, known as the EFC. The EFC is subtracted from the total cost of attendance to determine financial need.
What having both incomes used to determine financial aid means will vary depending on whether both spouses are going to grad school or just one. For instance, a student with an expected contribution of $10,000 could see need-based grants or scholarships reduced by that amount. If both spouses are attending grad school, then need-based aid could be reduced by $5,000 each.
Unsubsidized aid, such unsubsidized federal student loans and graduate PLUS loans, are unaffected, Brooks says.
All students who are married are considered independent of their parents regardless of age. Thus, a couples' income and the assets of a spouse will affect a student's financial aid. However, income and assets from the couple's parents won't. This rule applies whether or not both members of the couple are students.
[Learn how graduate students can negotiate more financial aid.]
2. What if one spouse loses their job or quits to return to school? The impact of a change of income affects both spouses’ financial aid eligibility, Brooks says.
The good news is that a reduction in the income of either spouse could help with financial aid awards. Students should fill out a special circumstances form to explain the situation and submit the form to their school financial aid office if their financial aid situation changes, experts say.
3. Can you pay for housing for both spouses? How students may use student loans, scholarships or college savings for joint expenses may vary. The maximum a student can use student loans for is included in the cost of attendance calculations for housing provided by the school per student, Brooks says.
“The spouse’s expenses are not factored into the cost of attendance calculation,” Kay Lewis, director of student financial aid at the University of Washington, wrote in an email.
Those rules apply no matter where the student lives, but are based on campus housing prices, says Dale Ellis, project coordinator of the Arkansas College Savings Plans. For instance, if a dorm or campus-owned house costs $2,500 per semester and the couple rents an apartment off campus for $3,000, only $2,500 is qualified to be withdrawn from one of the tax-advantaged college investment accounts known as a 529 plan.
The amount allowed for housing may vary a bit if the campus offers married student housing, Ellis says.
Scholarship programs will have their own rules about the use of the funds, Lewis says. Students should check with the scholarship provider or their school financial aid office for scholarship details.
4. How many hours should a grad student work? For any student there’s a delicate balance between working enough hours to pay for expenses and not hurting academic performance. Generally, working 10-19 hours per week won’t affect a student's school work, Lewis says.
However, students should contact their academic department about how many hours they can work. “Of course, students may need to work more or less depending on their individual needs,” she says.
On-campus employment may be more flexible with which hours and the total number of hours a student can work. "Many graduate students might also be employed by their campus for a teaching assistant or research assistant position and they work with their department to determine the hours they should work," she says.
Trying to fund your education? Get tips and more in the U.S. News Paying for Graduate School center.