The vast majority of students do not have easy access to the funding for Masters degrees, so it is important to explore all options even before applying to a particular university. The terminology involved with education funding can be confusing. Do you want a scholarship or bursary? How is an assistantship different from a fellowship? This guide will help erase some of the perplexity surrounding the process.


A scholarship is a “catch-all” term that can have many different meanings depending on a situation, but it almost never requires payback in money or service. Although amounts, conditions, and expectations vary greatly, the most basic definition of a scholarship is a monetary reward a student can receive – from a university, company, foundation, civic organisation or even an individual – that is given for use in furthering educational goals, but which may or may not have legal restrictions on how the money is spent.

To receive a scholarship, you most likely will have to go through a competitive application process in which you reveal either past accomplishments, details of your current situation, or your future goals. Then an individual or committee will evaluate your circumstances compared with other applicants to determine if you receive a scholarship or how much it will be.

Two of the most common types are merit scholarships and need-based scholarships. For a merit scholarship, an institution will look at your academic record and award a monetary gift based on a high grade point average (GPA), admission test scores (GRE, GMAT) or a potential to excel in a certain area of study. A need-based scholarship evaluates your current financial situation, determines that your need for assistance is greater than another’s, and issues a monetary award to you in order to allow you to pursue your studies.


A stipend is a monetary payment made to you in exchange for your service. It is possible to find universities that offer a stipend in addition to tuition breaks or waivers with an agreement that you will provide a set number of hours each week as a research or teaching assistant, for example. Typically less than competitive wages for the same service, it is generally considered a supplemental form of income for a student, to assist with living and other expenses not directly associated with a university’s tuition rate.

Check out: Budget Management as a Masters Student


A bursary is just like a scholarship in that it is a monetary payment to a student for the general purpose of paying for educational expenses. The terms may be used interchangeably at some universities, or they may have different implications. For example, a company or donor providing funds for the bursary might expect some sort of work commitment or for you to pursue a particular field of study.

Tuition waiver

Universities can have a tuition waiver programme wherein they allow a waiver of all or part of your tuition if you meet certain established criteria. For example, you might get your tuition waived if one of your parents is a faculty member or administrator at the university you plan to attend. Active members of military or other public service programmes (or their spouses or dependants) may be granted tuition waiver at a certain school.

It is important to remember that a tuition waiver typically covers strictly the cost of the courses and nothing more. University fees of all sorts, books, and living expenses are generally excluded from the waiver, although a student is free to apply for scholarships to offset those expenses.


To help pay for your Masters degree, many universities offer assistantships within certain programmes. These assignments typically require your service as a research assistant or professor’s aide during a term or semester in which you are currently studying. This arrangement is different from a fellowship, for which a student receives money for tuition, books or living expenses and is not required to perform any service to the university.

Work Study

In the U.S., the Federal Work Study (FWS) programme is very similar to an assistantship in that a student agrees to work for the university, but it is different in that the type of assignment can vary widely. You may be asked to work in the student library, in programme administration, or even as a tutor. In some cases, service at a community non-profit organisation can count toward required FWS hours.

The FWS arrangement is need-based, in that you must complete paperwork demonstrating that your total income falls below a certain threshold before you are eligible. It is a very common programme in U.S. universities since the federal government pays the award.


Similar to the word scholarship, a grant is also a “catch-all” term to denote money received for the purpose of your Masters degree that is not required to be paid back. The funding source might be government, corporate, non-profit or individual, and the grant recipient might be determined on the basis of need or some other qualification. Since the definition and application may differ greatly per university or region, you will need to ask about the context of the grant programme for which you are considering applying.

A grant can be federally or privately funded. It might be based on income, or you could receive it simply as a member of a certain gender or ethnicity. You might receive a grant as a member of a military programme, or as a result of your work or study in a particular field. There are myriad sources, amounts, and requirements for a grant award.

Check out: How to Finance Your Masters with a Study Grant

Federal student aid for funding for Masters

Part of the U.S. Department of Education, the Federal Student Aid programme provides over $150 billion to U.S. students in the form of grants, loans, and work study funds. The loans must be paid back, but the grants (to individuals) and work study funds (to universities to assist their students) do not.

Student/Education Loan

Loans for Masters degrees are fairly easily accessible to students from varied financial circumstances in many different countries. What varies widely around the world are the government stipulations regarding caps on interest rates and duration terms for these loans.

Some are privately backed, or insured, and some are backed by the government, which allows private companies to make loans with much looser application criteria. For example, a student with literally no income can acquire a loan or series of loans with only a stipulation that he or she will begin paying the loan back either a certain number of months or years following the departure from a university or, as in the case of the U.K, after his or her income level reaches a certain threshold.

Virtually the only thing in common with all of these options – from scholarships to loans – is that they require research and diligence. As a Masters student, you are investing a considerable sum into your degree, and the more options you have for financing it, the better off you will be in the long run.