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Miss A Student Loan Payment? Where To Find Help And What Happens

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Mixed Race Young Female Agonizing Over Financial Calculations in Her Kitchen.

If you’ve missed a student loan payment or are struggling to make payments, you’re not alone. According to the Department of Education, millions of loans are currently delinquent, with many more being sent to collections every day.

What happens when you can’t afford to make a payment, and subsequently miss the due date? If you have federal student loans, at first, you’ll be delinquent. Nine months after you miss a student loan payment, your loans will then enter into default status.

If you have private loans, there’s no “grace period” of delinquency; your loans are immediately in default the day after your payment was due.

While this might sound like bad news, there are ways to recover from delinquency and default. We’re covering what the consequences are, and what options you have to get your loans current again.

What Does Being Delinquent Mean and What Are the Consequences?

Do you remember that promissory note you had to sign every semester when taking out student loans? That note was a binding contract in which you promised to make timely payments on your student loans (among other things). By missing a payment, you are in direct violation of that contract.

The day after your payment is due, you are considered delinquent on your student loans. During your delinquency, your student loan servicer will attempt to get in touch with you in the first 15 days following a missed student loan payment.

Your credit score can also suffer if you don’t make any payments within a certain time. For example, My Great Lakes will report a lateness to the 3 major credit bureaus (Experian, Equifax and TransUnion) once an account is 60 days past due, but Nelnet will wait 90 days. Different servicers have different guidelines for this, so it’s best to call yours directly to ask them for the specifics.

Even if you become current on your loans, the delinquency can remain on your credit report for up to 7 years.

Additionally, you might incur late fees if you don’t make an effort to pay within a set time frame. Late fees vary by lender, and the amount of time passed before getting hit with a late fee also depends on the lender.

While being delinquent isn’t great, it’s not the end of the world. Simply making a payment will bring your loan into repayment again.

But what if you can’t afford that payment?

After nine months of missed payments, your loan will go into default. Nine months is a considerable amount of time to work with your student loan servicer in an attempt to lower your payments, and that’s exactly what you should do.

Steps You Can Take To Get Out of Delinquency

If you’re delinquent on your student loans, the absolute best thing you can do is to get on the phone with your student loan servicer and explain your situation to them. You want them on your side in this process, and most are willing to help you out. Many servicers have information and options on lowering payments directly on their website.

If you can afford to make any sort of payment, do so. This will show your loan servicer that you’re concerned and making every effort to rectify your delinquent status.

The worst thing you can do in this situation is to ignore what’s going on. You have 9 months in which to make things right before going into default, and you want to do everything in your power to make sure you don’t get reach that point.

When speaking with your loan servicer, ask them to review your payment options.

Under certain circumstances, you may be eligible for deferment or forbearance. Both will excuse you from having to make any payments for a set amount of time. Interest doesn’t continue to accrue if your loans are in deferment, but it will accrue in forbearance.

Typically, forbearance is easier to qualify for than deferment, and there’s no limit to how many months you can ask to stay in forbearance. But because interest accrues, and you’re not making payments, your loan balance will grow every month you’re in forbearance.  But you won’t have any negative marks on your credit report.

If you’re not eligible for either of these options, don’t lose hope. There are several different income-based repayment options out there, including Pay as You Earn, Income-Based Repayment and Income-Contingent Repayment, and your student loan servicer will point you toward the one that makes the most sense for you.

Your number one priority when your student loans are delinquent is to get them current as soon as possible so that they don’t go into default.

What Consequences Does Defaulting On Your Student Loans Have?

If you haven’t been able to make any payments toward your student loans in 9 months, and haven’t reached out to your servicer, then you will end up defaulting on your student loans.

There are serious consequences to defaulting:

  • Some loan holders will require your entire balance to be paid in full. This includes the principal and the interest.
  • You become ineligible for deferment, forbearance, or any repayment programs.
  • You become ineligible for further federal student aid.
  • Your wages can be garnished, plus your tax return can be held to repay your loans.
  • Your credit score will be damaged.
  • You might end up responsible for more than just your loan balance if there are late fees, collection fees, or court fees involved.

These all sound a little scary, don’t they? While defaulting on federal student loans shouldn’t be taken casually, there are ways to improve your situation.

Options for Getting Your Loans Out of Default

In order to get your loans out of default status, you have to make a plan. The unfortunate part is that you have significantly less options than you would in delinquency, and the options you do have require you to be able to make payments.

MyEdDebt.com is a great resource for those looking for more information on getting their loans out of default. The site is run by the Department of Education and highlights its Rehabilitation Program as an option for getting loans out of default.

MyEdDebt

Going through a rehabilitation program is your best chance at redemption. Upon successfully completing the program, all the negative consequences of defaulting will be reversed. That even includes the damage to your credit score (the default will be erased).

Successful completion involves making 9 monthly payments out of 10 months, so it’s important that you can make the payments according to the plan you’re given. You have to make the payments monthly; lump-sum payments or extra payments will not speed up the process.

A debt collector creates your repayment plan during rehabilitation. They’re supposed to work with you to create a manageable repayment plan, though some of them have wrongfully tried to get borrowers to pay back more than they can afford.

[3 Steps to Handle Being Mistreated by a Student Loan Servicer]

StudentLoanBorrowerAssistance.org has highlighted the importance of paying back only what you can reasonably afford, as a new system was put into place this past July. Under this system, the amount you must pay should coincide with what you would be paying under the Income-Based Repayment formula. For “not new borrowers” this is generally 15 percent of your discretionary income, but never more than the 10-year Standard Repayment Plan amount. For “new borrowers”, it’s 10 percent of discretionary income.

New borrowers are defined by:

“… (1) no outstanding balance on a Direct Loan or FFEL program loan as of October 1, 2007 or has no outstanding balance on a Direct Loan or FFEL program loan when you obtain a new loan on or after October 1, 2007, and (2) received a disbursement of a Direct Subsidized Loan, Direct Unsubsidized Loan, or student Direct PLUS Loan on or after October 1, 2011, or received a Direct Consolidation Loan based on an application received on or after October 1, 2011. However, you are not considered a new borrower if the Direct Consolidation Loan you receive repays loans that would make you ineligible under part (1) of this definition.”StudentLoans.gov.

[Read more about repayment plans and student loan forgiveness here.]

Once you’ve gone through the rehabilitation program, a lender must purchase your loans in order for them to enter back into standard repayment status. Likewise, only after a lender has purchased your loans will the collection agency ask the credit bureaus to clear your credit report of the default.

Just note that you may only go through the rehabilitation program once. If your loans fall back into default, then you won’t be eligible for the program.

What About Defaulting on Private Student Loans?

Private student loans are a different beast. There’s no delinquency period associated with private loans; as soon as you miss a payment, your loans have defaulted.

Unfortunately, private loans don’t offer the same protection as federal loans do. Therefore, the repayment options associated with federal loans don’t apply for private loans.

Even worse, there aren’t any rehabilitation programs to go through for private loans, unless your lender offers such a program. It’s worth it to ask!

For instance, Discover will report your loan as late to credit bureaus during its monthly account audit, so there isn’t necessarily a time frame to consider. If you missed a payment that was due on the 10th, and their audit is on the 20th, it might take some time to be reported as late. At that time, your loan is also considered to be in default. The good news is that there are no fees associated with their loans, even late fees, which is reflected on their student loans page.

Wells Fargo reports a loan as late after 30 days have passed, and their standard late fee is $28, though this largely depends on the type of loan you have.

For Citizen’s Bank, private student loans are serviced through Firstmark. Their loans are reported as late after being 30 days past due (from the last business day of the month). The loan is considered defaulted after 120 days past due, and late fees (5% of the borrowed amount) are incurred after the loan is 15 days past due.

According to Sallie Mae, depending on the type of loan you have, you’re considered to have defaulted after 6 to 9 months of no payments.

Fortunately, there are some private lenders coming around to the fact that borrowers need help. Wells Fargo is one private lender willing to lend a hand. If you’re having trouble making payments, they offer additional repayment options, and they also have a new loan modification program which can lower your payments temporarily or permanently.

Sallie Mae offers borrowers interest-only payments on certain loans, and they also offer a graduated repayment option on their Smart Option Student Loan.

Discover also offers deferment options to those serving in the military, in public service jobs, or in a residency program.All lenders encourage borrowers to call if they’re having trouble making payments under their current repayment terms. But you should work under the assumption that once you’re 30 days late it will show up on your credit report, which can stay there for seven years.

The Consumer Financial Protection Bureau has attempted to strip away some of the uncertainty and confusion surrounding student loans, but according to a recent report, the industry remains unchanged. More and more complaints are being received concerning private loans, as borrowers claim they don’t have enough information about the options they have.

The CFPB is encouraging borrowers to use a template that they have available for download to try and negotiate a repayment plan with their lenders. This should be done as soon as you miss a payment, as your private lender will sell your loan to a collection agency after enough time has passed without a payment. They will be more willing to help you than a collection agency will.

As a last resort, you may be able to get your private student loans discharged in bankruptcy. Private loans are slightly easier to get discharged than federal loans. If you’d like to read more about that process, StudentLoanBorrowerAssistance.org has a comprehensive write-up on it.

Final Recap

You want to avoid defaulting on your student loans at all costs, so if you’re delinquent on your loans, get in touch with your loan servicer to figure out the best way to bring your account current. If you’ve already defaulted, check with your loan holder to see if you can enter into a rehabilitation program. If you have private student loans, contact your lender immediately to find out if you can negotiate more manageable repayment terms. These options are available to help you, and there is no shame in taking advantage of them.

Looking to refinance your student loans and lower your monthly payment? Check out our top picks for refinancing student loans.

Advertiser Disclosure: The products that appear on this site may be from companies from which MagnifyMoney receives compensation. This compensation may impact how and where products appear on this site (including, for example, the order in which they appear). MagnifyMoney does not include all financial institutions or all products offered available in the marketplace.

Erin Millard
Erin Millard |

Erin Millard is a writer at MagnifyMoney. You can email Erin at [email protected]

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College Students and Recent Grads

Top Checking Accounts for College Grads

Editorial Note: The content of this article is based on the author’s opinions and recommendations alone. It has not been previewed, commissioned or otherwise endorsed by any of our network partners.

Top Checking Accounts for College Grads
iStock

For many college students, their default banking option while in school is a student checking account, which is typically free. Unfortunately, when you graduate you lose those benefits. Many student checking accounts will begin to charge you monthly maintenance fees unless you meet certain requirements.

So, where do you go from there?

Few young adults would turn to their parents for fashion or dating advice and, yet, one of the most common ways we’ve found young people choose their bank account is by going with whichever bank their parents already use. This could be a bigger faux pas than stealing your dad’s old pair of parachute pants.

The bank your parents use may carry fees or have requirements that don’t meet your lifestyle or budget, and make accounts expensive to use.

But where do you even begin to choose the right checking account?

When you’re nearing graduation, start planning your bank transition.

Many banks send a letter in the mail a few months prior to your expected graduation date informing you that your student checking account is going transition to a non-student account. If you’re not careful and you disregard the letter, you may be transitioned into an account that charges a fee if you don’t meet certain requirements.

You can always call the bank and ask to switch to a different account or you can choose a new account that offers more benefits, like interest and ATM fee refunds.

Account Name

Monthly Fee

Minimum Monthly Balance

Amount to Open

ATM Fee Refunds

APY

Aspiration Spend and Save Account$0$0$10Unlimited2.00% APY on the balance of the save portion in your account.
Empower Checking Account$0$0$0One out-of-network ATM withdrawal per month1.90%
nbkc bank Personal Account$0$0$5$51.01% APY on all balances
Atlantic Stewardship Bank Cash Back Checking$0$0$1UnlimitedDoes not earn interest. But it does offer 0.50% cash back if you meet requirements
Radius Bank Radius Hybrid Checking$0$0$100Unlimited1.00% on balances from $2,500 to $99,000
One American Bank Kasasa Cash Account$0$0$0None, member of MoneyPass network3.50% APY if requirements are met

0.01% APY if requirements are not met
Orion Federal Credit Union Premium Checking$0, provided you meet qualifications. Otherwise $5$0$0$10 per month4.00% on balances up to $30,000, 0.05% on portion of balances greater than $30,000
TAB Bank Kasasa Cash Rewards Checking$0$0$0Up to $15 in ATM fees reimbursed if minimum account requirements are met4.00% APY on balances up to $50,000
La Capitol Federal Credit Union Choice Plus Checking$2, waived if you enroll in eStatements$0$50Up to $25 per month4.25% APY on balances up to $3,000

2.00% APY on balances $3,000-$10,000

0.10% APY on balances over $10,000 (or on all balances if you don’t make 15 or more posted non-ATM debit card transactions per month)

The 5 key things you should look for in a checking account

When you’re shopping around for a new checking account, there are several things you should look for to ensure you’re getting the most value from your account:

  1. A $0 monthly fee: Sometimes banks may say they don’t charge a monthly fee but read the fine print — they may require a minimum monthly balance in order to avoid it. There are plenty of free checking accounts available for you to open, so there’s no reason to stay stuck with an account that charges a monthly fee. Take note, as some accounts may require you to meet certain criteria to maintain a free account like using a debit card, enrolling in eStatements or maintaining a minimum daily balance.
  2. No minimum daily balance: Accounts without minimum daily balances mean you can have a $0 balance at any given time. This may allow you to have a free account without meeting balance requirements — although other terms may apply to maintain a free account.
  3. APY: Annual Percentage Yield is the total amount of interest you will earn on balances in your account. Opening an account that earns you interest on your balance is an easy way to be rewarded for money that would typically sit without earning anything. You should definitely aim to earn a decent APY on your savings account.
  4. ATM fee refunds: You may not be able to access an in-network ATM at all times, so accounts providing ATM fee refunds can reimburse you for ATM fees you may incur while using out-of-network ATMs. Those $3 or $5 charges add up!
  5. No or low overdraft fees: Most banks charge you an overdraft fee of around $35 if you spend more money than you have available in your account. Therefore, it’s a good idea to choose an account that has no or low overdraft fees.

Top overall checking accounts for college grads

The best checking accounts will have a number of features that are both simple and low cost. For the top overall checking accounts, we chose accounts that have no monthly service fees, no ATM fees, refunds for ATM fees from other banks, interest earned on your deposited balances and with strong mobile banking apps. While there is no all-inclusive account that contains every benefit, the accounts below are sure to provide value whether you want a high interest rate, unlimited ATM fee refunds or 24/7 live customer support.

1. Aspiration Spend and Save Account

The Aspiration Spend and Save Account offers a wide range of benefits for account holders and has few fees. The $10 amount to open is fairly low, and once you open your account there is no minimum monthly balance to maintain — though the more money you keep in your account, the more interest you’ll earn. Keep in mind that you earn the 2.00% APY on the funds you move to savings side of your account.

Another helpful feature is unlimited ATM fee refunds. That means you can either use in-network ATMs (filter by checking “SUM”) and avoid fees, or use any other ATM and be reimbursed for any fees incurred at the end of the month. If you’re looking for an interest checking account with no ATM fees, the Aspiration Spend and Save Account is a solid choice.

LEARN MORE Secured

on Aspiration’s secure website

2. Empower Checking Account

Empower is the mobile banking division of Evolve Bank & Trust. The Empower Checking Account currently offers a very attractive 1.90% APY on your full checking account balance, with neither a minimum deposit to open nor any need to maintain a minimum balance. Empower gives you access to over 25,000 fee-free ATMs nationwide, however you’ll only get one out-of-network ATM fee reimbursed per month. One other drawback: There are no check-writing capabilities with this account.

LEARN MORE Secured

on Empower’s secure website

Member FDIC

3. nbkc bank Personal Account

nbkc has several locations in the Kansas City region. Anyone can sign up for an account, however. This just means if you don’t reside nearby, you’ll have to rely on their online banking system.

The nbkc Personal Account earns interest on your balances and has no hidden fees. Typical checking accounts charge overdraft fees and stop payment fees, among others, but nbkc doesn’t.

The two fees that may apply are for less common transactions — $5 to send domestic wires and $45 to send or receive international wires.

You can use 32,000+ MoneyPass® ATMs in the U.S. for free, and if you use out-of-network ATMs you’ll be reimbursed up to $12 a month. This account is a good choice if you want a checking account that has minimal fees and earns interest.

LEARN MORE Secured

on nbkc bank’s secure website

Member FDIC

Top free checking accounts for college grads

Free checking accounts are a great way to save on the monthly service fees many banks charge if you don’t meet deposit or balance requirements. The checking accounts listed below are all free, and if there are requirements, they’re minor like enrolling in eStatements or using a debit card. These accounts can be a good choice if you often have a fluctuating or low account balance and don’t want to worry about maintaining the requirements big banks impose to keep their accounts free.

1. Atlantic Stewardship Bank Cash Back Checking

Atlantic Stewardship Bank is headquartered in New Jersey and donates 10% of its profits annually to Christian and nonprofit organizations. Its Cash Back Checking account has a minor opening deposit and basic requirements for you to meet to get the added perks.

*When you make 12 debit card transactions each cycle and enroll in online banking and eStatements, you can receive unlimited ATM fee refunds and the chance to earn rewards at 0.50% cash back on debit card purchases.

LEARN MORE Secured

on Atlantic Stewardship Bank’s secure website

Member FDIC

2. Radius Bank Radius Hybrid Checking

Radius Bank is a community bank headquartered in Boston. The Radius Hybrid Checking account is free as long as you open the account with the required deposit and meet three simple requirements: Enroll in online banking, receive eStatements and choose to receive a debit card. Unlike other checking accounts that require you to make a certain number of debit card transactions a month, Radius Bank does not. In addition to simple requirements, there are unlimited ATM fee refunds at the end of each statement cycle.

LEARN MORE Secured

on Radius Bank’s secure website

Member FDIC

3. One American Bank Kasasa Cash Account

One American Bank may be a tiny community bank based in Sioux Falls, SD, but its Kasasa Cash Account packs a big punch. Available nationwide, this checking account earns an impressive 3.50% APY on balances up to $10,000. Best of all, the account is totally free, and as a member of the MoneyPass ATM network, One American Bank gives you fee-free access to thousands of ATMs nationwide. Kasasa accounts are a special class of bank product that help smaller banks compete against larger rivals by providing high-yielding rates and other features desired by consumers.

To earn your Kasasa reward APY, for each monthly qualification cycle simply do the following: Make at least 12 debit card purchase transactions of at least $5.00 each that post and settle to your account; receive electronic bank statements, account notices and disclosures; and log in to online banking at least one time.

LEARN MORE Secured

on One American Bank’s secure website

Member FDIC

 

Check out our full list of the best free checking accounts.

Top high-yield checking accounts for college grads

Since most checking accounts offer little to no interest, high-yield checking accounts are a great way for you to maximize the money that typically would just sit in your account without earning interest. These accounts often offer interest rates that fluctuate depending on how much money you have in the account. However, in order to earn interest, there are some requirements that you may have to meet such as making a certain number of debit card transactions and enrolling in eStatements.

1. Orion Federal Credit Union Premium Checking

An excellent choice for recent graduates looking for a high-yield checking account is Orion Federal Credit Union’s Premium Checking account, which promises customers 4.00% APY on balances up to $30,000.

You also need to keep in mind that because Orion FCU is a credit union, you have to jump through some additional hoops to access the high APY:

  • Pay $10 to one of five organizations approved by Orion to become eligible for membership in the credit union
  • Deposit $25 in a special savings account with Orion to officially become a member
  • Make an electronic deposit of at least $500 every month into your Premium Checking account
  • Make at least 8 signature based debit card transactions — not PIN-code based debit transactions — each month.

LEARN MORE Secured

on Orion Federal Credit Union’s secure website

NCUA Insured

2. TAB Bank Kasasa Cash Rewards Checking Account

Based in Ogden, UT, TAB Bank’s Kasasa Cash Checking account is a great choice for recent graduates. You can earn a very competitive 4.00% APY by meeting a few simple requirements: Have at least one direct deposit, ACH payment, or bill pay transaction posted to the account during each billing cycle; and make at least 15 debit card purchases. Even better, the bank will reimburse up to $15 in ATM fees per month from making withdrawals outside their ATM network.

LEARN MORE Secured

on TAB Bank’s secure website

Member FDIC

3. La Capitol Federal Credit Union Choice Plus Checking

This checking account has a $2 monthly service fee, which can easily be waived if you enroll in eStatements.

*While the terms state a minimum balance requirement of $1,000 and a low balance fee of $8, the fee can be waived if you make 15 or more posted non-ATM debit card transactions per month.

To earn the top interest rate on your checking balance, you just need to make at least 15 or more posted non-ATM debit card transactions per month. There are numerous surcharge-free La Capitol ATMs for you to use, and after signing up for eStatements you can receive up to $25 per month in ATM fee refunds when you use out-of-network ATMs.

LEARN MORE Secured

on La Capitol Federal Credit Union’s secure website

NCUA Insured

Check out our full list of the best high-yield checking accounts.

Advertiser Disclosure: The products that appear on this site may be from companies from which MagnifyMoney receives compensation. This compensation may impact how and where products appear on this site (including, for example, the order in which they appear). MagnifyMoney does not include all financial institutions or all products offered available in the marketplace.

James Ellis
James Ellis |

James Ellis is a writer at MagnifyMoney. You can email James here

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College Students and Recent Grads

Guide to Paying for College in 2019

Editorial Note: The content of this article is based on the author’s opinions and recommendations alone. It has not been previewed, commissioned or otherwise endorsed by any of our network partners.

Tuition rates have been steadily rising over the years, and the cost of college has never been so high. According to College Board, the cost of tuition and fees at public four-year colleges is more than three times what it was 30 years ago. At private four-year colleges, the cost has more than doubled since 1988.

But even though higher education is expensive, a college degree remains valuable. In fact, those who hold a bachelor’s degree make an average of $1 million more over the course of their lives than those who don’t, according to the Department of Education. So a degree can still worth investing in — but first you need to know how to pay for it.

To that end, we’ll explore the costs of college and how you can piece together scholarships, grants, savings and student loans to fund your education.

Part I: How Much Does College Cost?

When you first look at the cost of tuition and fees, room and board and meal plans, most colleges appear oppressively expensive. But appearances can be deceiving. The first number you see is the “sticker price,” and it’s usually much more than you end up shelling out for your education.

The number you actually pay — the net price — is lower for most students. Net price is how much the school charges minus the amount of financial aid you’re awarded.

Net price vs. sticker price

If you already know how much financial aid you’ll be receiving, you can subtract that number from your school’s nominal cost of attendance. The difference will be your net price.

Colleges are required to have a net price calculator on their websites to help you estimate costs. Before using one of these calculators, however, keep these points in mind:

  • The numbers they produce will be estimates only and aren’t guaranteed.
  • Some calculators base their calculations on in-state tuition. If you’re an out-of-state student, your costs could be higher.
  • Some calculators also factor in financial aid opportunities available to first-year students. There’s usually more funding for freshmen, so you can expect your subsequent three years to be more expensive than your first one.

Nonprofit vs. for-profit schools

For-profit schools tend to cost a good deal more than non-profit schools, even private non-profit schools. This is partly because for-profit schools offer less institutional aid (financial aid given through the college itself). Instead, they rely heavily on federal financial aid for the funding of their students’ education.

As a result, students who attend for-profit schools generally wind up with more student loan debt after graduation. At for-profit schools, 88% of graduates had loans, and the average debt burden was $39,950. At private nonprofit schools, those numbers were lower, with 75% of graduates having loans, and at an average total debt of $32,300.

Before going into debt for a for-profit school, be careful to weigh net prices at nonprofit institutions. Remember, the sticker price won’t necessarily be what you end up paying. Also note that nonprofit institutions will usually offer more scholarships and grants, reducing the number of loans — and therefore debt — you have to take on.

Public vs. private school tuition

Undoubtedly, the sticker prices for public colleges tend to be lower than that of private institutions. However, some private schools also have large endowments providing substantial student aid at the institutional level.

For example, Cornell University offers significant grants to students from low-income families. In an example generated by the university, a traditional student from a household with under $40,000 in annual income could receive a Cornell grant of $41,911.

In this example, the student’s net price is only $2,700 for one year at this Ivy League university.

Also note that private college institutional aid can also be extended to students from middle-income families as well, even if they don’t qualify for a large amount of aid through federal programs.

Part II: How to Pay for College

There are several different ways to find money for college expenses. If you stay on top of financial aid application deadlines and have a high GPA and strong test scores, you may be able to shave many thousands of dollars off your cost of attendance.

In this section, we’ll cover the most common sources of college funding.

Understanding the FAFSA: The key to financial aid

Paying for College
Source: iStock

The Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA) is likely the single most important document you’ll fill out as a college student.

Why? Because you need to submit the FAFSA to access the majority of financial aid options we’re going to cover in this guide. These include:

  • Grants
  • Work-study opportunities
  • Federal student loans
  • Direct PLUS Loans for parents

Not only will the FAFSA tell you how much aid you’re eligible for through the federal government, but it’s also usually a required step to getting institutional financial aid from your college or university.

How to fill out the FAFSA

It’s important to remember that you don’t have to pay to file the FAFSA — it’s entirely free. Go to https://fafsa.gov/ to create a Federal Student Aid account and start your application.

Important: You must fill out a FAFSA every year you attend college in order to receive aid.

Learn more with our in-depth FAFSA Guide >

Expected Family Contribution

The Expected Family Contribution (EFC) is how much the federal government determines you or your parents should be able to contribute to your education costs. This number is then used to figure out how much aid the government is willing to extend to you.

For example, to qualify for a full Pell Grant in the 2019-20 school year, your family’s Expected Family Contribution can’t be higher than $5,576.

FAFSA deadlines

Filing for aid for the 2019-2020 school year began in Oct. 1, 2018 but remains open until June 30, 2020. For the 2020-2021 year, you can file anytime after Oct. 1, 2019.

Ideally, you should apply as soon as possible, as the aid is doled out on a first-come, first-served basis, and some awards can in fact run out of funds.

You should also note that some states have stricter deadlines than the federal government; be sure to check your state’s deadline to be sure you get your application in on time.

Student Loans: Explained

Paying for College
Source: iStock

Another form of aid distributed by the federal government is student loans. You will know which federal student loans you qualify for after you fill out your FAFSA.

Because student loans have to be repaid with interest, they should only be pursued after you’ve exhausted all grant, scholarship and work-study options.

Types of federal student loans

As an undergraduate student, there are a variety of federal student loans you may be offered.

Direct Loans, both subsidized and unsubsidized, come with the advantage of income-driven repayment options, as well as deferment, forgiveness and cancellation programs.

Try to max out your federal student loan eligibility before turning to private loans. Federal student debt typically has better rates than private loans, as well as those flexible repayment options.

Private student loans

If federal student loans aren’t enough, you can turn to private student loans for college financing. These loans from banks, credit unions and online marketplace lenders might not have the same generous repayment programs, though some do have deferment options in certain situations, such as unemployment.

Private loans come with variable or fixed interest rates. If you take out a variable interest rate loan, the rate could go up over the course of your loan. Fixed interest rates, meanwhile, remain stable throughout the course of repayment.

Should I get a cosigner?

If you haven’t established credit yet, you’ll likely need a cosigner to qualify for private student loans. If you’re a non-traditional student and have a less-than-stellar credit history, you’ll also probably benefit from having a cosigner.

Borrowers with very good credit scores can skip the cosigner, but if you do decide you need some help, look for loan options with a cosigner release. This lets the cosigner off the hook after a certain period of time — generally once your payment history has allowed you to establish a better credit history yourself.

How much should I borrow?

You don’t want to borrow more than you can reasonably afford to pay back. Certain professions that require extensive education, like law and medicine, will have considerably more student loan debt than other professions. But while these kinds of professions are likely to garner higher incomes, there is no guarantee — recent reports show stagnation in doctors’ salaries and a difficulty in finding employment amongst lawyers.

Others, such as teaching, might require a master’s degree but won’t necessarily lead to an entry-level salary that makes up for all your educational expenses.

Before taking on a lot of debt, talk to professionals in your target field to get a sense of the entry-level pay and rate of salary growth over the course of a career. While using online sources to find this information is great, it’s not going to replace the knowledge of a professional working in the field.

You can then plug that number into CollegeBoard’s Student Loan Calculator, along with how much money you intend to borrow. It will analyze the figures and tell you if your monthly payments will exceed 10% to 15% of your income — which is generally considered to be the maximum you should allot to student loan payments.

If you take out federal student loans, you may be able to borrow more, as most loan options allow you to pay based on your income level. Just be careful not to bury yourself in debt — you don’t want to be paying student loans into your 70s.

Scholarships

Scholarships are among the most valuable forms of financial aid, since they give you free money for school that you never have to pay back. They’re a little different from grants (see below) and come in various forms. Here are features to look for:

Merit-based vs. need-based scholarships

While the majority of grants are need-based, most scholarships are merit-based. There may be maximum income levels or priority given to those in dire financial straits, but for most scholarships, you’ll be judged based on your achievements.

Many of these awards require you to maintain a certain GPA, and almost all will involve some type of essay, portfolio or video submission.

If your family’s income doesn’t help you establish a strong financial need, don’t lose hope. There are plenty of scholarships out there that have no financial requirements and are completely based on your essay — on rare occasion, they won’t even ask about grades.

Recurring vs. one-time scholarships

Most scholarships only last one semester or one school year. However, there are some you can apply for that will cover your entire tenure as an undergrad. Keep in mind, though, that these options are likely to require you to maintain a certain GPA throughout your studies.

How do I find scholarships?

The first place you can look is your financial aid office. Many schools have endowments, not just for grants, but for scholarships as well.

After you’ve exhausted scholarship options at your school, look in other places, such as:

  • Professional organizations in the field you want to enter
  • Professional organizations or unions your parents may belong to
  • National student organizations related to your major
  • Potential future employers — especially if they’re a larger company
  • Groups within the community you grew up in
  • Organizations based on your ethnicity or heritage
  • Religious organizations
  • Organizations related to any extracurricular activities or hobbies

You can look for scholarships on specialty search engines, like Fastweb, CollegeBoard and Scholarships.com, but you’ll find a ton of competition. On the other hand, if you search for scholarships focused on what makes you unique, you might find a dramatically smaller applicant pool, boosting your chances of winning an award.

How soon should I start applying?

Start applying for scholarships as soon as possible. It is even possible to fund your entire education this way, though you would have to fill out a lot of applications and write a lot of essays. The sooner you get started, the better.

Each scholarship has a window, which is typically opened annually or once a semester, during which you can file an application. While high school sophomores will be able to apply for some scholarships, opportunities really start opening up in your junior year.

Beware of scholarship displacement

Although scholarships can be a great tool for paying for college, you also need to be careful about scholarship displacement. Some colleges will take away some need-based aid if you have a lot of outside scholarship help. Before applying far and wide to scholarships, it could be worth checking with your financial aid office to see if it engages in this practice.

Grants

A grant, like a scholarship, is money you never have to pay back, unless you drop out of school or violate the terms of the agreement some other way. For undergraduates, grants are typically need-based.

In order to qualify for federal grant programs, you must fill out the FAFSA and meet eligibility requirements. Here are some types of federal grants, along with other opportunities from your state or school:

Pell Grants

Federal Pell Grants are distributed based on income-eligibility only. They can be awarded regardless of whether you’re in school full-time, half-time or less than half-time.

For the 2019-20 school year, the maximum Pell Grant award is $6,195 for full-time students. Pell Grant awards are distributed in two parts over two semesters.

Students taking summer courses might also receive a summer Pell Grant, which is an additional 50% of your full award to spend on summer studies. This extra grant money can be particularly helpful for community college students whose course of study typically runs through the summer.

Federal Supplemental Educational Opportunity Grants

Federal Supplemental Educational Opportunity Grants (FSEOGs) are available to students with financial needs in excess of what the Pell Grant can address. These funds are distributed to schools upfront and then awarded on a first-come, first-served basis. Notably, not all schools participate, so you would need to consult your school’s financial aid office.

The maximum award is between $100 and $4,000, depending on your personal financial situation.

Iraq and Afghanistan Service Grants

If you lost a parent or guardian while they were serving in the military in Iraq or Afghanistan after 9/11, you may qualify for the Iraq and Afghanistan Service Grant — which offers funds almost equal to that of a full Pell Grant — regardless of your family income.

To qualify, you must:

  • Meet all Pell Grant requirements, except for the EFC requirements.
  • Have been 24 years old or younger and enrolled in college at least part-time at the time of your parent or guardian’s death.

TEACH Grants

If you’re planning on becoming a teacher, you may be interested in a Teacher Education Assistance for College and Higher Education (TEACH) Grant.

In order to qualify, you must be enrolled in a TEACH-eligible program. Not all schools participate, and the ones that do determine which of their programs qualify for TEACH Grants, so be sure to sit down with your financial aid counselor to determine your eligibility.

When you accept a TEACH Grant, you’re agreeing to serve four out of your first eight years in the workforce in a high-need specialization in a low-income area. You can also meet this obligation by teaching at a Bureau of Indian Education school.

High-need specializations include:

If you do not keep your promise to serve in this capacity, your grant will turn into a Direct Unsubsidized Loan, which will have to be repaid.

The maximum grant amount is $3,752 if disbursed after Oct. 1, 2018 and before Oct. 1, 2019. For grants paid out after Oct. 1, 2019 and before Oct. 1, 2020, the maximum award is $3,764.

State grants

Your state government may also issue need-based grants. Generally, you will be redirected to your state’s application page at the end of your FAFSA application, but if you want to check out your options beforehand, you can find information from your state’s department of higher education here.

Institutional grants

Your college or university may also issue need-based grants. While your EFC is not likely to be measured in the same way, a FAFSA application is still required.

Some colleges, though typically not Ivy League schools, will also offer merit-based grants. Your grades will likely be a factor here.

Work-Study Programs

Work-study programs are another form of aid that will not be accessible unless you complete your FAFSA.

Many schools participate in federally backed work-study programs for students with financial need. With work-study, you’re assigned a set amount of hours working for the school, in a community service role, or in a field relevant to your course of study.

You should get a paycheck at least once per month, and you can often choose whether to receive the funds directly or to have it applied against any money you owe the school.

529 college savings plans

529 accounts are tax-advantaged accounts to help you save for future college expenses. Contributions go in after you’ve paid taxes on your income. That money is invested and grows tax-free — as long as you spend the money on qualified educational expenses.

Types of 529 accounts

Not all 529 accounts are created equal. They are issued under state law, and each state has its own specific rules on how 529 accounts can be used. However, some states will let you purchase their 529 accounts even if you aren’t a state resident.

There are two basic kinds of 529 accounts:

College Savings Plans

The College Savings Plan structure allows your money to grow in traditional investments, as made available by your state. You can use this money to pay for school at almost any U.S. institution — and even at some schools abroad.

With a College Savings Plan, whatever you have saved can be applied toward any allowable educational expenses, though you’ll have to cover the remaining costs after exhausting the money from your 529.

A good example of a College Savings Plan is Utah’s 529 plan, which even offers a few investment options insured by the Federal Deposit Insurance Corporation.

Prepaid Tuition Plans

Prepaid Tuition Plans allow you to save for tomorrow’s college at today’s rates. There may be different tiers of saving for different types of schools.

For example, Pennsylvania’s Guaranteed Savings Plan 529 option currently allows you to buy credits at today’s rates. These credits will be valid when your child goes to school in the future — even if tuition rates have skyrocketed.

One thing to be careful of with Prepaid Tuition Plans is that if you save at the state school level, and your child ends up not wanting to attend a state school when they graduate from high school, you could run into some funding problems. Pennsylvania allows you to change your investment tier at any time, but this is a potential point of friction you should consider if you decide to go with this type of 529.

You’ll also notice that price per credit is quite high at Ivy League schools. As discussed earlier with the example of Cornell, Ivy League schools tend to have extensive grants. If you’re making a median income, saving in this manner may reduce your child’s future institutional aid, costing you more money than you would have had to pay without the dramatic savings.

What can I use my 529 account for?

You can only use the money in your 529 account for qualified educational expenses. If you use the money for anything else, you will have to pay taxes on the withdrawal.

Qualified educational expenses include:

  • Tuition and fees*
  • Room and board — though you must be enrolled at least half-time to claim this expense
  • Books
  • Technology required for school — including internet access
  • Other required equipment and materials, as assigned by your instructor

*Some Prepaid Tuition Plans cover tuition and fees only.

How to make a 529 withdrawal

Most programs allow you to make a withdrawal online or via postal mail. Your 529 account issuer will not keep records of how that money was spent. Producing documentation to show that the money was spent on educational expenses falls squarely on your shoulders.

Pros of 529 accounts:

  • Studies show that regardless of how much you save, the fact that you are saving for college makes your child more likely to attend college.
  • If you have a high enough income level, your child might not qualify for need-based financial aid. Saving in a 529 plan is a generous investment in their future, given that they won’t have as many funding opportunities available to them.
  • Because you are investing, your money is likely to grow — and it will grow federally tax-free. This means you won’t have to save as much in a College Savings Plan in order to meet your goals.

Cons of 529 accounts:

  • The amount you have saved could reduce institutional aid — especially if you open the account in your child’s name. Open the account in your name and list your child as a beneficiary instead.
  • When saving in a Prepaid Tuition Plan, do your best to ensure you’re saving at a level your child will actually be able to use. If they don’t end up going to school in state, you could hit a bump in the road if you’ve been saving at state school tuition levels.
  • Because you are investing, there’s no guarantee of growth. You could conceivably lose money in a 529 account.

FAQ

To see if your college degree is worth the cost, you need to figure out the net price of your education and your expected salary. A good tool to crunch these numbers is the College Scorecard, provided by the Department of Education, which shows data on net cost of attendance, alumni salaries and debt upon graduation.

Be wary of relying too heavily on the data here, though. Your future salary, for instance, likely depends more on your major and profession than on the undergraduate institution you attended. Often, an even better way to figure out potential future earnings is by talking with someone who is already working in your field.

Technically, you’re only allowed to spend federal student loans on educational expenses. These can include:

  • Tuition and fees
  • Room and board
  • Books, supplies and equipment
  • Transportation while at school
  • Dependent child care expenses

Unlike with 529 funds, no one will be monitoring how you spend your federal loan money. However, if you end up having the money to go on shopping sprees after you’ve paid for all of the above expenses, you’re probably borrowing too much. Consider returning the money rather than paying interest on it after you graduate.

If you’re borrowing from a private lender, check your loan agreement for any restrictions on how you can spend your private student loans.

Most of the time, you don’t have to live in on-campus housing. Some colleges and universities require their traditional freshmen to live on campus, but even these stipulations can sometimes be worked around if you’re commuting from your parents’ home.

If at all possible, yes, try to make student loan payments while you’re still in school. Make an effort to pay the interest at least, so it won’t accrue while you’re in school (or during your grace period or deferment) and cost you more money in the long run.

The only time when in-school payments don’t matter is when you have Direct Subsidized Loans — those loans won’t accrue interest while you’re in school. Even then, making principal payments early isn’t a bad thing if you can swing it.

If you take out a Direct Loan, you’ll be assigned one of nine loan servicers and will make payments through that assigned servicer.

Those who have taken out Perkins Loans may repay them directly through their school or via a loan servicer designated by their school.

Likewise, you can repay private loans directly to your lender or assigned servicer.

If you miss one payment on your federal student loans, you will have to make it up within 90 days — otherwise you’ll get reported to the credit bureaus.

If you miss several payments on your Direct Loans and don’t make payments for 270 days, you will be in default, which puts you at risk of not only being reported to the credit bureaus, but also losing all benefits of federal student loans, such as income-driven repayment options. You could also end up in court.

The consequences for missing payments on Perkins Loans and private student loans depend on the agreement you signed prior to disbursement. Private lenders can report you to the credit bureaus as soon as you’re 30 days late with a payment.

If you can’t afford your Direct Loans, apply for an income-driven repayment plan. These plans cap your maximum payment at a percentage of your disposable income to ensure that they are affordable.

If you have a private loan, you may want to look into refinancing for lower monthly payments.
And if you have a Perkins Loan, set up an appointment with your financial aid office or loan servicer to discuss your options.

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Brynne Conroy
Brynne Conroy |

Brynne Conroy is a writer at MagnifyMoney. You can email Brynne here

Rebecca Safier
Rebecca Safier |

Rebecca Safier is a writer at MagnifyMoney. You can email Rebecca here

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