With the average annual cost of college for the 2020-2021 school year $10,560 for public four-year in-state and $37,650 for private non-profit four-year schools, it’s not uncommon for students to use loans to help pay for their education.
The two major umbrellas to consider are federal student loans and private student loans. Federal student loans are those backed by the US Department of Education, while private student loans are offered through financial institutions such as banks, online lenders, and credit unions.
Knowing what types of student loans are available to you and understanding your student loan statement can help you figure out the best way to save money in the long run.
What Are The Different Types of Student Loans?
One of the first things to understand is the difference between federal and private student loans.
Federal student loans are loans offered by the government, at a fixed interest rate and with certain restrictions. Depending on borrower needs, students could qualify for either subsidized or unsubsidized federal loans (more on those, later). Federal student loans come with protections for borrowers’ loans like income-driven repayment options, deferment, forbearance, and access to the Public Service Loan Forgiveness (PSLF) program. Most federal student loans also have annual lending limits .
For some students, federal student loans aren’t enough to cover the cost of a college education. Some turn to scholarships, grants, or a part-time job to fill in the gaps. Other students rely on private student loans, offered by lenders and financial institutions, to cover the cost of college.
Applying for Federal Student Loans
The first step in the federal student loan process is to fill out the Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA®). That will involve compiling some family financial history. Even students who don’t think they’ll qualify for financial aid will likely still want to fill out a FAFSA. All federal student loans require a FAFSA first. And some schools use information from the FAFSA to determine eligibility for other types of aid like scholarships or grants.
All federal student loans require a FAFSA first.
After filling out the FAFSA, students will receive a financial aid package which includes any federal aid awarded to the student including grants, work study, and loans. Depending on financial circumstances, the loans will either be subsidized or unsubsidized.
The Different Types of Federal Student Loans
Think of federal student loans as an overarching category. There are different types of federal student loans, each of which have different eligibility requirements, borrower maximums (or not), and interest rates. Understanding all your options means you’ll be better prepared to determine the best way to finance your education.
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Direct Subsidized vs. Unsubsidized Loans
Federal Direct loans, also known as Stafford Loans, can be either subsidized or unsubsidized. With a subsidized student loan, the government will cover the accrued interest while the borrower is enrolled in school, during the grace period, and during any periods of deferment. Not having to pay interest on your loans during school can really help—especially since interest accrues and capitalizes, or gets added to the principal loan amount, and then accrues more interest. There are no subsidized federal loans for graduate students—only for undergrads.
The government does not pay the interest on unsubsidized Direct loans. That means, even while you’re in school, the loans are collecting interest. You don’t have to make payments on the loans while you’re a full-time student, but interest is still accruing. As the interest accrues, it is added to the loan’s principal.
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That’s why it’s possible to have a higher remaining loan balance than the initial loan amount after graduation. Individuals with an unsubsidized student loan do have the option to make interest-only payments on the loan during periods of deferment, including while they’re in school, but are not required to do so.
Federal loans have fixed interest rates (that are set annually), meaning they don’t change over the life of the loan. For the 2020 to 2021 school year, the interest rate for both unsubsidized and subsidized Direct loans is 2.75% for undergraduate students. For graduate students, the interest rate for the unsubsidized Direct loans is 4.30%.
Federal student loan borrowing limits vary depending on factors like your year in school and whether or not you are a dependent student. For example, first-year undergrads who are considered independent or whose parents are not able to take out parent loans have a maximum borrowing amount of $9,500 (of which only $3,500 can be subsidized) annually. The maximum for dependent students is $5,500 in their first year, with the same $3,500 cap on subsidized loans.
Direct PLUS loans can be borrowed directly by a graduate student, or Parent PLUS loans can be taken out by an undergrad’s parents. PLUS loans, in both forms, have the same benefits as other federal loans in that the interest rate is fixed and there are flexible repayment options.
Unlike other federal loans, PLUS loans require a credit check. They’re designed for graduate and professional students, who have had more time to build up a credit score. The maximum PLUS loan amount you can borrow is the full cost of tuition less any other financial assistance.
When taking out student loans for college, a lot of the options depend on your FAFSA and what’s determined to be your family’s financial need or ability to pay. If you’re a dependent student , then there will likely be some expectation of parental contribution and your parents may be offered the option of taking out Parent PLUS loans.
Parent PLUS loans are similar to Direct PLUS loans, except parents are expected to begin repaying the loan while the student is still in school—though they can request a deferment until graduation.
Current interest rates for PLUS loans (both for grad students and for parents) for the 2020 to 2021 school year are set at 5.30%.
Direct Consolidation Loans
After graduation, students might have a number of different federal student loans. That can obviously be confusing. If you want to consolidate all federal loans into one place, then you may be able to pool them into a Direct Consolidation Loan. This allows you to only make one monthly payment towards all your federal student loans.
A Direct Consolidation loan will not lower your overall interest rate.
A Direct Consolidation loan will not lower your overall interest rate. The interest rate on your new Direct Consolidation Loan is simply a weighted average of the interest rates, rounded up to the nearest eighth of a percent, of your existing federal loans. Consolidation could also wipe out any history of payments you were making toward PSLF. Only federal loans can be consolidated with a Direct Consolidation Loan.
Private Student Loans
Students who don’t receive enough funding from the federal government, may look to private student loans as an option to finance their education. Private loans are offered by lenders such as banks, online lenders, and credit unions.
Applying for Private Student Loans
Private lenders do not use the FAFSA to determine a potential borrower’s creditworthiness. Instead, students interested in borrowing private loans will fill out a loan application directly with a lender. Before applying, lenders will generally allow people to get a quote to see if they pre-qualify and at what rates. This can be helpful when evaluating different lenders.
The terms, interest rates, and borrowing limits on private loans may vary by lender. Lenders will use factors like the borrower’s credit score to determine the interest rate they qualify for. When borrowing a private student loan you’ll generally have the option to choose between a fixed or variable interest rate.
Student loan repayment options will be determined by your lender. Some offer deferment plans while the borrower is enrolled in school and others require payments to start as soon as the loan is disbursed.
Another private student loan option is to consolidate or refinance your existing student loans after graduation. This might be beneficial if it lowers your interest rate and saves you money over the life of your loan. Federal student loans offer unique borrower benefits and protections like income-driven repayment plans. Refinancing federal loans eliminates them from these benefits.
Understanding The Student Loan Statement
When you take out a loan, you sign a promissory note, which outlines the interest rate, loan amount, and repayment terms. If you hold federal student loans, when you graduate you select a repayment plan. If you don’t do anything, you’ll automatically be put on the Standard Repayment plan.
For most federal loans, the Standard Repayment plan is a set monthly payment for up to 10 years. There are a few other repayment plans to choose from, including four income-driven repayment plans. The different plans allow you to pay back your loan over different time periods. The longer the repayment term, the more you’ll pay in interest over the life of the loan.
When you look at your student loan statement, you’ll see each loan listed as the total loan amount, how much principal remains, how much interest has accrued since your last payment, your current interest rate, and how much your current monthly payment is—in addition to any fees, such as late fees, you might owe.
The Benefits of Refinancing Student Loans
It’s possible to consolidate both federal and private student loans into one new loan when you refinance your student loans with a private lender. If an applicant qualifies for a lower interest rate and a shorter term, it could reduce the amount of money paid in interest over the life of the loan.
Make sure to weigh the benefits that come with your federal loans against the value of refinancing. When you refinance federal loans they will no longer be eligible for federal borrower protections.
Some private lenders offer similar borrower protections. For example, borrowers who refinance with SoFi may qualify for Unemployment Protection. This can help eligible borrowers pause their loan payments if they unexpectedly lose their job through no fault of their own. To see what refinancing could mean for you, take a look at SoFi’s student loan refinancing calculator.
The two main categories of student loans are private and federal. Federal loans are awarded to students based on information they provide in their FAFSA annually. Federal loans have a fixed interest rate and are eligible for a variety of repayment plans, as determined by the US Department of Education.
Undergrads may qualify for unsubsidized or subsidized federal loans, depending on their financial need. Graduate students may qualify for unsubsidized loans or PLUS loans. Parents of undergraduates may also borrow Parent PLUS loans.
Private student loans are offered by private financial institutions. In order to borrow a private student loan, individuals will generally need to file an application with a lender. The lender will review factors like the applicant’s credit history, among others, in order to determine the terms they qualify for.