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College Students and Recent Grads

Understanding Student Loan Interest Rates

Editorial Note: The editorial content on this page is not provided or commissioned by any financial institution. Any opinions, analyses, reviews, statements or recommendations expressed in this article are those of the author’s alone, and may not have been reviewed, approved or otherwise endorsed by any of these entities prior to publication.

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Looking into student loans to pay for college or graduate school? Before you take on debt, it’s important to understand how the interest on student loans work, so you can make smart decisions before you borrow and when it comes time to repay the debt.

Understanding how student loan interest works

When you take out a student loan, the lender charges interest as a fee for borrowing the money. Interest on student loans isn’t a flat fee. Instead, interest on student loans is expressed as a percentage of the unpaid loan amount. Right now, federal direct unsubsidized loans for undergraduates carry a 5.05% annual interest rate. That means the lender charges 5.05% of the unpaid loan balance per year.

When interest on a student loan goes unpaid, the balance of the loan grows over time. For example, during college many students “defer” student loan payments. In general, during deferment, the bank continues to charge interest, so the balance grows over time. A student who borrows $5,000 at a 5.05% interest rate at the start of their freshman year of college will owe $6,119 4 1/2 years later when they start making payments. Generally, any unpaid interest is added to the principal balance once the loan enters the repayment period.

Even though interest rates on student loans are expressed as an annualized interest rate (such as 5.05% per year), interest on federal student loans is determined by a daily interest rate. A 5.05% annual interest rate translates to a 0.0138% daily interest rate.

Once you start making standard monthly payments on the loan, the balance of the loan and dollar amount of interest being charged each day drops. For example, on a 10-year repayment plan, the $5,000 loan that grew to $6,119 loan from the previous example will have a $63 monthly payment.

After making the first payment, the principal balance will fall by $39.30 — the other $25.75 goes toward paying interest. By contrast, with the last payment, $64.78 goes toward balance reduction, and just $0.27 goes towards paying interest.

Many people have heard stories of student loan borrowers who have faithfully made regular payments for decades but have barely made a dent in their balance or owe more money today than when they graduated from college. This doesn’t happen when borrowers make payments based on standard repayment plans. However, it can happen when federal loan borrowers opt for income-driven repayment plans. Under these plans, the monthly payment is based on a person’s income, not on a repayment schedule. That means that the required monthly payment could be less than the amount of interest that the lender charges on the loan. In that case, the balance of the loan grows over time, and the amount of interest charged grows, too.

Variable vs. fixed interest rates

All federal student loans disbursed since July 1, 2006, have fixed interest rates, meaning the interest rate will never change. By contrast, some private lenders offer variable-rate loans. Variable-rate loans are loans where the interest rate may change over time. In general, variable interest rates are set based on an index rate such as the LIBOR (London Interbank Offered Rates). When the LIBOR increases, the variable interest rate on a student loan increases. When it decreases, the interest rate on a student loan decreases. The interest rate on a variable-rate loan could change as often as once a month.

As the interest rate on a variable-rate loan changes, the minimum monthly payment changes, too. A higher interest rate will mean a higher monthly payment, and a lower interest rate will mean a lower monthly payment.

Some variable-rate loans will have maximum interest rates. That means, no matter how high the index rate goes, the lender will not charge more than the maximum rate.

The primary advantage of fixed-rate loans are that borrowers will know exactly how much they owe each month, which makes it easy to budget for. However, most private lenders set higher interest rates for fixed-rate student loans compared with variable-rate loans. That means that borrowers could end up paying more in interest over time.

The lower starting interest rates mean that some people may save money by opting for a variable-rate loan. But variable-rate student loans are riskier than fixed-rate loans. The changing interest rates could mean that borrowers have to make large monthly payments and pay more in interest over the life of a loan.

When should borrowers choose a fixed-rate student loan?

No wiggle room in budget: Fixed-rate student loans are an ideal choice if you don’t have a ton of wiggle room in your budget. You may pay a bit more — but you might not — and you don’t have to worry about your monthly payment increasing.

Long repayment periods: Fixed-rate loans also tend to make sense if your repayment plan will last several years. By contrast, variable rate loans are riskier when you face longer repayment periods. Longer repayments mean that you’ll face a higher risk that the rate will increase significantly from where you first took out the loan.

Small rate difference between fixed- and variable-rate loans: Variable-rate loans often have lower prices, but you get that lower price by taking on more risk. If the interest rate you’ll pay on a fixed-rate loan is just a tiny bit more than the interest rate on a variable-rate loan, the peace of mind is probably well worth the financial cost. Plus, if interest rates fall, you may be able to refinance to a lower, fixed rate in the future.

When should borrowers choose variable-rate student loans?

Expect rapid loan payoff: Borrowers who plan to aggressively pay back loans (and cut years off of standard repayment plans) can take advantage of lower interest rates in the early years of the loan. Even if interest rates rise over time, people who aggressively pay back loans in the early years will save enough in interest to compensate for the higher rate in the later years.

Rate difference between fixed- and variable-rate loans: Most of the time, variable-rate loans are less than 1% cheaper than fixed-rate loans. This offers some savings. But depending on your borrower qualifications (credit score, debt-to-income ratio, etc.), you may qualify for a much better variable-rate loan. If you personally qualify for a much lower rate on a variable rate loan (compared with a similar fixed-rate loan), you can expect to save a lot of cash over the life of a loan, even when student loan interest rates start to rise.

Federal student loan interest rates

Congress sets interest rates on federal student loans. Once you borrow the money, the interest rate on the loan will not change because federal student loans have fixed interest rates, but not all federal student loans have the same interest rates. For example, direct unsubsidized and subsidized loans for undergraduates carry a 4.45% interest rate for the 2017-18 school year. The same loan for graduate or professional students is 6%. PLUS loans, which are available for parents and graduate students, have a 7% interest rate. For federal student loans disbursed between July 1, 2018 and June 30, 2019, rates are as follows: 5% for undergraduate loans, 6.6% for graduate and professional unsubsidized loans and 7.6% for PLUS loans borrowed by parents or graduate and professional students.

How does interest work during deferment?

Many students defer payment on their student loans while they are studying or for select other reasons, such as unemployment or active-duty military service, if their loans offer such flexibility (some private loans and all federal loans do).

During deferment and the grace period following graduation, you will not make payments on your student loans, but interest continues to accrue on the loan. Interest that accrues during deferment is added to the balance of the loan, so your principal loan balance grows during deferment.

However, the U.S. Department of Education helps reduce the burden of interest by paying interest on subsidized loans while the borrower is enrolled in school at least halftime, during deferment and during the grace period that follows graduation. Subsidized loans include direct subsidized loans, federal Perkins loans and the subsidized portions of direct consolidation loans and FFEL consolidation loans.

It’s important to note that deferment is not the same as forbearance. Forbearance is a period of reduced or suspended payments a lender may grant to a borrower going through financial hardship. During forbearance, interest continues to accumulate and will capitalize (be added to the principal balance).

Current interest rates and fees on federal student loans

The table below shows the interest rates and fees on federal student loans for the 2018-19 school year. It’s important to note that some loans have a loan fee. These fees are a percentage of the principal balance, taken from the disbursement and paid to the bank. For example, a $5,000 loan will actually be a $4,946.70 disbursement to you (assuming the 1.066% loan fee).

Federal loan type

Borrower type

Interest rate

Loan fee

Does interest accrue during deferment?

Direct unsubsidized

Undergraduate

5.05% (for loans disbursed between July 1, 2018 and June 30, 2019)

1.066% (for loans disbursed between Oct. 1, 2017 and Sept. 30, 2018)

1.062% (for loans disbursed between Oct. 1, 2018 and Sept. 30, 2019)

Yes.

Direct unsubsidized

Graduate or professional students

6.60% (2018-19)

1.066% (2017-18)

1.062% (2018-19)

Yes.

Direct subsidized

Undergraduate

5.05% (2018-19)

1.066% (2017-18)

1.062% (2018-19)

No.

Direct consolidation

Past borrowers

Weighted average interest rate of all loans being consolidated, rounded up to the nearest one-eighth of one percent.

None.

Generally yes. The subsidized portions of the loan do not accrue interest during deferment.

PLUS

Parents, graduate students and professional students

7.6% (2018-19)

4.264% (2017-18)

4.248% (2018-19)

Yes.

Private student loan interest rates

Private student loans can be a double-edged sword for students and their parents. The private student loan marketplace allows a greater level of borrowing, and some people find better interest rates in the private loan marketplace. However, private student loans generally do not offer the safeguards of federal student loans.

For example, many private loans don’t offer forbearance or deferment (except in-school deferment), and they may have very high student loan interest rates. Unlike federal student loans, most private student loans don’t have income-driven repayment plans, and the interest rates on private student loans aren’t set by legislation. Instead, interest rates on private loans are determined by a variety of factors:

  • Your credit score (or the score of a cosigner)
  • Your income (or the income of a cosigner)
  • Employment status
  • The length of repayment
  • Fixed- or variable-rate terms
  • Rates charged by other lenders

Many private lenders require a cosigner (someone who promises to make payments if you can’t) if you don’t have a high enough income or credit score to qualify for the loan.

Interest rates on private student loans have a much greater variety than federal student loans. For example, some student loan refinancing companies offer interest rates as low as 2.57%. However, some lenders charge interest rates that exceed credit card interest rates.

Borrowers who are considering private student loans should research the costs and have a plan to make the required monthly payment once they graduate.

Student loan interest rate vs. APR

When it comes to student loan borrowing, borrowers should understand both the interest rate and the APR (annualized percentage rate) on a loan. The Federal Truth in Lending Act requires lenders to disclose a loan’s APR. APR measures the annualized cost of all finance charges (including interest and transaction fees) if you make all your payments on time. By contrast, the interest rate on a loan is simply the annual cost of borrowing the money, and does not include other fees.

When you pay off student loans early, you will reduce the total interest you pay on the loan. However, finance charges (such as loan fees or origination fees) are not reduced by paying off the loan early.

Lowering your student loan rates

When it comes to any type of borrowing, paying less in interest means you’ll have more money to put elsewhere. Student loan borrowers should consider methods for reducing the interest rate on their loan, and methods to pay less interest overall. These are just a few options to consider.

Lowering your student loan interest rates

Fill out FAFSA: If you’re a traditional student (generally under 24 years old with limited work/life experience), federal student loans likely offer the lowest possible interest rates on student loans. To qualify for federal aid, you and your parents must fill out the FAFSA (Free Application for Federal Student Aid). The FAFSA may also be required for merit-based aid at your university.

Get a cosigner: Borrowers in the private marketplace may find that a cosigner helps them qualify for a reduced rate. Its common for grandparents or parents to cosign private student loans, but cosigners must exercise caution. If a borrower can’t make their monthly payments, the cosigner has to step up and make the payments, otherwise both borrowers’ credit scores will suffer from the impact of missed payments.

Refinance: Following graduation, borrowers (especially those with high incomes or good credit scores) may be able to reduce their student loan interest rates by refinancing with private loans. However, borrowers must be careful when refinancing. Private lenders generally do not offer income-driven repayment plans or other safeguards that can help borrowers who experience unemployment, underemployment or low incomes. Plus, debts that are refinanced with private lenders will not qualify for federal student loan forgiveness programs.

Enroll in automatic payments: Many private lenders offer borrowers a rate discount when the borrower sets up automatic monthly payments.

Reducing total interest paid

Reducing interest rates aren’t the only way to free up cash. Borrowers may also use other methods to reduce the total amount of interest they put toward loans.

Borrow as little as possible: The less you borrow during school, the less interest that will accrue on the loans. Students may be able to minimize borrowing during school by working, applying for scholarships and grants, and using savings. This may sound obvious, but it’s important to point out, because the amount you’re approved to borrow may exceed what you need, resulting in unnecessary debt and, as a result, unnecessary interest payments. Budget carefully and borrow only what you need.

Pay more than the minimum: The more money you put toward your loans each month, the faster you’ll pay them off. Extra principal payments are especially helpful in the early life of the loan when a large portion of the standard payment goes to interest. When you put extra money toward your loan, be sure that the additional payment goes toward repaying the principal. The Consumer Financial Protection Bureau offers guidance on how borrowers can make sure their lender processes their payments correctly.

Combine income-driven repayment with student loan forgiveness: A lot of times, income driven repayment plans reduce monthly payments only to have the loan balance grow over time. However, if you qualify for a student loan forgiveness program, the lower payment is a huge advantage. Not only will you reduce your cash outflow during the repayment phase, once you complete the requirements for loan forgiveness, you may qualify for forgiveness without any incurring tax penalties. (However, some loan forgiveness requires you to pay income taxes on the forgiven amount.) Different loan forgiveness programs have different requirements, so be sure you qualify before planning to use this strategy.

Pay interest during school: Many students are cash-strapped during their studies, but putting money toward interest may go a long way toward keeping loans at a manageable level. Making interest-only payments during college allows students to keep loans at a set level instead of allowing the lender charge interest on interest once the loan enters repayment and unpaid interest is capitalized (added to the principal loan balance).

Refinance to a shorter term: Borrowers who have sufficient cash flow can reduce their total interest payment by refinancing their student loans to a shorter term. Sometimes a shorter term means a better interest rate. But, even without a lower rate, a faster repayment means that less money goes to interest overall. For example, a borrower with a $10,000 loan at 3.5% will pay $1,866.21 in interest over the life of a 10-year loan. If that borrower refinances to a five-year loan (also at 3.5%) the total interest is cut in half to just $915.03.

This page was updated July 17, 2018 to reflect changes to federal student loan rates and fees.

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.

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College Students and Recent Grads, Pay Down My Debt

How To Know If Your Student Loans Are Private or Federal

Editorial Note: The editorial content on this page is not provided or commissioned by any financial institution. Any opinions, analyses, reviews, statements or recommendations expressed in this article are those of the author’s alone, and may not have been reviewed, approved or otherwise endorsed by any of these entities prior to publication.

How To Tell If Your Student Loans Are Private or Federal

When you borrowed money to pay for college, you may not have paid much attention to the difference between federal and private student loans. You might not know who your student loan servicer is, or if you do, you may wonder for example whether that loan listed under Nelnet is federal or private.

In fact, it’s completely reasonable to ask why the difference between private and federal student loans matters in the first place.

There are a few ways to see if your student loans are private or federal — here’s how, along with what makes each different, and why knowing which type of loan you have is important.

What makes federal and private student loans different?

Federal student loans are offered through the Department of Education. Typically, these loans are easy to qualify for. For many federal student loans, your credit isn’t even checked.

There are four different federal student loan programs currently available:

  • Direct subsidized loans: These loans are awarded based on your financial need. When you apply for federal financial aid, your eligibility for subsidized loans is also considered. “Subsidized” here means that interest isn’t charged until after you graduate or drop below half time.
  • Directed unsubsidized loans: Anyone can receive an unsubsidized loan — they aren’t based on need. However, unsubsidized loans will put you on the hook for interest charges that accrue while you’re in school.
  • Direct PLUS loans: These loans are specifically for graduate students or for parents of undergraduate students taking out loans on behalf of their child. These loans aren’t based on financial need, and a credit check is required.
  • Direct consolidation loans: This type of loan allows you to combine all your federal student loans into one, giving you one manageable payment each month rather than many. Your new interest rate is the weighted average of all your loans, rounded up to the nearest one-eighth of a percent.

Private student loans, on the other hand, are offered by private lenders and have different repayment requirements compared with federal student loans. For example, private student loans can offer fixed or variable interest rates, while federal student loans only offer fixed rates.

Because the features of private loans vary from lender to lender, eligibility will depend on the bank, credit union or online financial institution that you borrow from.

Most borrowers usually favor federal student loans, given the flexible repayment options and debt-forgiveness programs they come with. But since federal loans also have borrowing limits, students may need to turn to private loans to help fund any remaining costs, and in a few cases, a private loan might have a better interest rate than their federal equivalent.

How to determine if your loans are federal

The first thing you should do to see if you have federal loans is log on to the National Student Loan Data System. The only loans listed here are federal.

If you’ve never used the NSLDS before, you’ll want to click the “Financial Aid Review” button on the homepage, hit “Accept,” and then enter your credentials.

If you have a Federal Student Aid (FSA) ID, you can enter it here. If not, there’s an option to create one. In May 2015, the government redesigned its student loan system, and you can now use your FSA ID to log on to multiple government sites. But if you haven’t visited in a while, you might need to create one.

In the event you forgot your credentials, you can click the “Forgot my username/password” button and have the information emailed to you or answer a challenge question. You’ll just be required to enter your Social Security number, last name and date of birth.

Once you log on, you’ll see a list of all the student loans that were disbursed to you. This page will also show you what your original loan amount was, and how much you currently owe.

Click on the numbered box to the left of your loan to determine your loan servicer. This will display all the information about that particular loan. Your loan servicer will be listed under the “Servicer/Lender/Guaranty Agency/ED Servicer Information” section. The name, address, phone number and website should all be displayed.

Additionally, this page will also inform you of your loan terms. Along with your original loan balance and current outstanding balance, it will tell you what the interest rate is and the current status of the loan.

How to determine if your student loan is private

As discussed, private student loans are loans not made by the government — banking institutions, such as Sallie Mae, Wells Fargo, Citizens Bank and others offer them. As a result, there are more lenders to look out for when it comes to private loans.

Unfortunately, there’s no central reporting system for private loans like there is for federal loans, which makes them slightly more tricky to track down.

Your first stop should still be the NSLDS to at least see if you have any federal loans. In 2015, just 5% of undergraduate borrowers had private student loans, so your student loans are more likely to be federal than private.

But in order to make sure you have no outstanding private student debt, you’ll want to take a look at your credit report. You can view your reports from the three main credit bureaus for free by visiting AnnualCreditReport.com.

Some lenders may not look familiar to you. Searching the lender’s name online may help you find out who the parent company is. Don’t hesitate to call the numbers available on your credit report if you’re still unsure.

If you graduated a while ago, some older loans may look unfamiliar. You might see “federal direct loan,” “federal Perkins,” or “Stafford” on your report — these are federal loans, so ensure they match up with what’s in your NSLDS file.

You might also be able to call your school’s financial aid office to see if they have records of your loans.

What should you do once you find out?

Knowing whether your student loans are private or federal can be important as you repay you college debt.

For example, knowing the difference is crucial if you ever decide to refinance or consolidate your student loans. You can only combine your debt under a direct consolidation loan if you have federal loans. Likewise, refinancing through a private lender will cause you to lose access to federal repayment and forgiveness programs, while private loans would be unaffected.

So, by knowing which type of student loans you have, you’ll get a better idea of what options you have to knock them off.

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Dori Zinn contributed to this report.

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.

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5 Reasons You Might Be Denied for a Private Student Loan

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When you’re applying for money to pay for college, experts agree that federal loans are usually the best way to go. They’re less expensive (especially for undergraduates) and more flexible than private student loans.

But if you need more money than you’re being offered in federal aid, a private student loan from a bank or other lender may be your best option to fill the gap. In the most recent numbers on private student loan borrowers, 43% turned to private lenders because they could not borrow any more in federal Stafford loans, according to the Institute for College Access & Success (TICAS).

But if you’re thinking of applying for a private loan, you should know that getting approved isn’t a slam-dunk.

“Lenders are focusing their money on the borrower who is least likely to default and most likely to be profitable,” said Mark Kantrowitz, financial aid expert and publisher of Savingforcollege.com. As a result, applicants who seem even a little risky might find themselves rejected for a private student loan.

Here are five reasons you might be denied for a private student loan:

1. Your credit isn’t good enough

Many undergraduate students — and some graduate students — don’t have a robust enough credit history to qualify for a private student loan. Or, if they do, their score might be too low.

Can you get a private student loan with bad credit? Possibly, but you might need a cosigner on a private loan application to get it approved. “About 90% of our private education loans are co-signed,” said Rick Castellano, a spokesperson for Sallie Mae.

Note, however, that using a cosigner can also cause problems of its own.

2. You’ve borrowed a lot recently

The Department of Education, guaranty agencies and other federal student lenders report your loans to the credit bureaus, as do most private lenders. As a result, future lenders are able to easily see how much money you’re borrowing and what your total debt load looks like.

Your debt-to-income ratio ideally needs to be 40% or less, though standards range from lender to lender. If you have a lot of debt and not much income, you’re a riskier bet, leading private lenders to reject your loan request.

3. You’re going into the ‘wrong’ field

“If you’re applying for private aid for a degree in a field that pays well, like a medical degree or in the sciences, and you’ve got a reasonably good credit background, you’re getting approved,” Kantrowitz said. On the other hand, if you’re pursuing a degree in a field that traditionally pays poorly — thus making it harder for you to repay a loan later — it’s a tougher call.

Keep in mind that your future earnings will also play into your likelihood of getting approved for student loan refinancing after you graduate. We definitely aren’t telling you to avoid pursuing your dreams, just to be careful about your debt burden if you’re entering a historically low-paying field.

4. You’re asking for too much

It could be that the private lender thinks your loan request is too high. “To ensure applicants borrow only what they need to cover their school’s cost of attendance, we actively engage with schools and require school certification before we disburse a private education loan,” Castellano said.

In this case, you might not get rejected, but the school might certify a lesser amount.

Also be aware that you can sometimes get approved for more than you actually need. If that’s the case, you probably shouldn’t use those extra student loan funds to cover the cost of decorating your dorm, grabbing coffee after class or bar hopping. The cost of using student loans to cover living expenses can take a heavy toll down the road.

5. You’re a freshman

If you’re only a year or two away from graduating, you’re more likely to get approved than if you still have four years of undergraduate schooling ahead of you. This is because, as Kantrowitz explained, “there’s less risk of you dropping out.”

Graduate students may also have an easier time getting a private student loan because they’re more of a known quantity — they even started to pay down debt and established themselves as less of a risk.

Why you might be denied for a private student loan (and what to do instead)

In all circumstances, experts feel you should weigh the costs and benefits of private loans carefully — and whether you need them at all. For one thing, 45% of private loan borrowers borrowed less than they could have in federal loans, according to TICAS. So make sure you’ve exhausted your federal loan opportunities before heading this way.

Private student loans can be harder to get than federal ones because they’re credit-dependent. Everything from existing debt and credit scores to how far you are into your education will play a role in whether or not your application is accepted.

But getting denied for a private student loan doesn’t mean that you’re out of luck when it comes to funding college. There are many other options, from racking up scholarships to finding a tuition-free school. You could even start with a low-cost or no-cost community college and then try to build your credit to qualify for a private student loan later on when you transfer to a four-year university.

Devon Delfino contributed to this report.

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.

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Kate Ashford is a writer at MagnifyMoney. You can email Kate at [email protected]

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