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College Students and Recent Grads, Student Loan ReFi

Best Private Student Loan Companies 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.

private student loans
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Taking out private student loans can be a relatively expensive ways to borrow for school, yet many college students make the mistake of turning to private loans too quickly. From 2015 to 2016, more than half (53%) of undergraduates borrowed from private lenders before maximizing their federal loan allotment, according to the Institute for College Access and Success.

On the other hand, federal loans can only go so far, especially if you are pursuing a postgraduate degree that requires more schooling. Once you’ve tapped out your federal aid, a private student loan could help you fill the gap.

While federal loans offer a relatively uniform application process and loan terms, private lenders’ terms can vary widely. If you’re thinking about paying for school with a private student loan, it’s vital to compare lenders’ offerings to find the one that’s best for you.

How we ranked the best private student loans

There’s a lot to review when you’re shopping around with private lenders. Your annual percentage rate (APR), fees and loan repayment term could impact how much you pay in interest over the lifetime of the loan. Other features — such as a straightforward application process and the option to request that a cosigner be removed from the loan — could also affect your repayment.

We started the search for the best private student loan companies by identifying the 10 largest national private lenders. Each lender’s undergraduate student loan was graded on eight critical factors:

  • Private lenders offer loans with varying interest rates depending on the applicant’s creditworthiness — or that of the applicant’s cosigner. Lenders advertise an interest-rate range that you can use to compare one with another.
  • In this case, each lender was assigned grades based on its lowest and highest APRs compared with the average lowest and highest APRs for all 10 lenders. Each lender received four scores (as they all offer variable-rate and fixed-rate loans), and the lenders with below-average APRs received top marks.
  • Lenders could charge application, origination and prepayment fees based on your loan balance.
  • Although fees are becoming a thing of the past, one of these 10 lenders (CommonBond) still charges a federal-like origination fee when the loan is disbursed.
  • All of the top 10 lenders offer an online application, but the clarity and ease of use can vary. The lenders with intuitive processes, plus pre-qualification offers, got the best grades.
  • Many private student lenders, including all 10 of the lenders we compared, offer a 0.25% interest rate discount if you enroll in autopay. A few lenders earned extra points for also extending a 0.25% interest rate discount to borrowers with a related bank account.
  • Most of the private student loans we compared offered several repayment terms with a maximum of 15 or 20 years. Lenders that feature fewer loan-term options didn’t score as well because they offer less flexibility to borrowers.
  • Most undergraduate students qualify for private loans thanks to a creditworthy cosigner, who can also help reduce the interest rate. Some private student loan lenders let you apply to release your cosigner after you make a given number of consecutive, on-time full principal and interest payments and pass a credit check. Setting the bar for a top score of only 12 payments was the shortest option available among the lenders we compared.
  • You may be able to choose from different repayment plans, such as making interest-only payments while you’re in school or fully deferring payments until your post-school grace period ends. Lenders that offer full interest and principal deferment received top marks.
  • A few lenders earned extra credit because they offer unique perks, such as a principal rate reduction or cash back when you graduate.

After assigning each lender a grade, we ranked them and selected the top five for our “Best Private Student Loan Companies” list.

Our top picks for private student loan companies

 

Sallie Mae

CommonBond

College Ave

Citizens Bank

Wells Fargo

Ranking12345
Variable APR3.25% to 10.65%3.52% to 9.50%3.70% to 11.98%3.24% to 11.50%4.80% to 10.72%
Fixed APR4.74% to 11.35%5.45% to 9.74%4.72% to 12.94%4.72% to 12.19%5.49% to 10.93%
Rate discount0.25% for autopay0.25% for autopay0.25% for autopay0.25% for autopay, 0.25% for having a Citizens Bank account 0.25% for autopay, 0.25 to 0.50% for having a Wells Fargo banking or investment account
Origination feeNo Origination FeesYesNo Origination FeesNo Origination FeesNo Origination Fees
Repayment terms5 to 15 years5, 10 or 15 years5, 8, 10 or 15 years5, 10 or 15 years15 years
Cosigner releaseAfter 12 months of timely paymentsAfter 24 months of timely paymentsAfter half your term has elapsed and after 24 months of timely paymentsAfter 36 months of timely paymentsAfter 24 months of timely payments
PerkReceive study support, plus credit score trackingPause your repayment for up to 12 months after leaving school via economic hardship forbearanceReceive $150 bonus upon graduationReceive approval for multiple years of loans at onceN/A

Learn More Secured

on Sallie Mae Bank’s secure website

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on CommonBond’s secure website

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on College AVE’s secure website

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on Citizens Bank (RI)’s secure website

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on Wells Fargo Bank’s secure website

*Rates are current as of Jan. 24, 2019, and may include a 0.25% autopay discount.

#1 Sallie MaeSmart Option Student Loan

Sallie Mae offers a wide range of student loans to undergraduate, graduate and professional students, as well as their parents. That may not come as a surprise though, since Sallie Mae is one of the most widely known private student loan companies. It opened its doors in 1972 as a government-sponsored company before privatizing in 2004.

  • Why it’s our top pick:
    • The undergraduate Smart Option Student Loan has a few standout benefits, such as the option to release a cosigner after making 12 consecutive monthly payments.
    • You can also choose from three in-school repayment plans: full deferment, $25 monthly payments or interest-only payments. And if you’re having trouble making payments after graduation, you can also request to make 12 interest-only payments.
    • Borrowers also get non-loan-related perks, such as quarterly access to one of their FICO credit scores, plus four months of academic support from Chegg.
  • Room for improvement:
    • Overall, Sallie Mae serves borrowers a variety of choices and benefits. However, it doesn’t offer as many potential discounts as some of the other top lenders. Still, if you find you qualify for a lower pre-discount rate with Sallie Mae than another lender, Sallie Mae could indeed be a smart option.
  • Fine print to watch out for:
    • Sallie Mae says it offers repayment terms between 5 and 15 years, but your repayment term depends on a variety of factors, including your loan amount. Unlike with other lenders, you can’t independently choose your repayment term.

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on Sallie Mae Bank’s secure website

#2 CommonBond

Founded in 2012, the student loan refinancing and lending firm CommonBond is perhaps the most giving among competitors. For every loan it funds, it pays for the education of a child abroad. That could among a number of factors that push CommonBond over the top when you’re considering where to borrow for college.

  • Why we like it:
    • Aside from its do-good ways, CommonBond also saves money for its borrowers. It offers for the most part, the lowest rates of any lender under consideration, plus the benefits found at most online-only lenders: a straightforward loan application, flexible repayment terms and responsive customer service.
    • Although it’s not the only lender to offer you the ability to pause your payments once you leave school, it’s also worth noting that CommonBond gives its members up to 12 months of forbearance. That could come in handy if you lose your job or fall on hard times once you’re out in the real world.
  • Room for improvement:
    • CommonBond offers low rates, but it also charges a 2% origination fee. Aside from matching Sallie Mae’s 12-month path to cosigner release, eliminating the fee is CommonBond’s biggest bugaboo. If you decide the lender is right for you, ensure you calculate the added cost of this 2% fee, which is a one-time charge based on your loan amount.
  • Fine print to watch out for:
    • Unlike federal student loan options for deferment and forbearance, CommonBond (like other private lenders) isn’t mandated to grant you a pause on your repayment. You would need to prove that your circumstances are dire enough to be considered.

LEARN MORE Secured

on CommonBond’s secure website

#3 College Ave

Founded by former Sallie Mae executives, College Ave is another online-only lender looking to disrupt the student loan industry. It lends to undergraduates, graduate students and parents, plus students attending career schools.

  • Why we like it:
    • College Ave is the only lender among the 10 we surveyed that offers four repayment term options (5, 8, 10 and 15 years). Interestingly, the company says 79% of its borrowers choose plans of 10 years or less, keeping additional interest from accruing during the life of repayment.
  • Room for improvement:
    • We penalized College Ave in our rankings for its slow path to cosigner release. If you agree to borrow on a 10-year term with the lender, you won’t be eligible to apply to remove your cosigner until after the five-year mark. All the other lenders we reviewed offer release within 12 to 48 months.
  • Fine print to watch out for:
    • College Ave contends it takes just three minutes to apply for a loan, but that merely determines whether or not you (and/or your cosigner) are eligible. After prequalifying, you could proceed to the more detailed application process.

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on College AVE’s secure website

#4 Citizens Bank

Citizens Bank is a large traditional bank with over 1,100 branches across 11 states. It offers student loans to undergraduates, graduate students and parents, as well as student loan refinancing.

  • Why we like it:
    • You might need to apply for a student loan at the start of each term. With Citizen Bank’s multi-year approval, however, you could choose to borrow additional money for another term without having to fill out a new application.
    • Also, if you or your cosigner have a qualifying bank account or loan from Citizens Bank, you could be eligible for a permanent 0.25% interest rate reduction on your student loan.
  • Room for improvement:
    • The primary drawback is the 36-payment requirement to apply to release a cosigner. Aside from that, Citizens Bank offers competitive rates, a variety of loan terms and interest-rate discounts that are in line or possibly better than many of the other private student loan companies.
  • Fine print to watch out for:
    • To qualify for cosigner release, you must also submit income statements to prove you can handle repayment on your own.

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on Citizens Bank (RI)’s secure website

#5 Wells Fargo

You’ll likely recognize Wells Fargo, as it’s one of the largest banks in the U.S., but you may not have realized that it offers student loans. It has several different programs, with offerings for community college students, undergraduates, graduates and professional school students.

  • Why we like it:
    • Like many other lenders, Wells Fargo offers a 0.25% interest rate discount if you enroll in autopay. Also, you can get a permanent 0.25% to 0.50% interest rate reduction if you or your cosigner have an eligible Wells Fargo student loan, consumer checking account or Portfolio by Wells Fargo relationship.
  • Room for improvement:
    • Put simply: You’re put in a box. You have to choose a 15-year term for your student loan. If you stick to making your required payment amount, you could wind up paying more in interest than if you took out a shorter loan elsewhere.
  • Fine print to watch out for:
    • Be sure that you make your first full payment on time. If it’s late, you’ll need to make 48 consecutive full payments (rather than 24) before you can apply to release a cosigner.

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on Wells Fargo Bank’s secure website

Determine if a private student loan is right for you

Using our rankings, you might be able to identify the private lender that offers you the best overall loan. However, it’s worth taking a step back to consider all your options before committing.

To do this objectively, come up with the list of criteria that matter most to you. They could vary from the eight criteria that we employed above — your list might emphasize a lender’s customer service, for instance.

When you’re comparing lenders with your criteria in mind, be prepared to weigh them as you see fit. You might not have a cosigner and therefore don’t care if a lender offers a fast path to cosigner release. In that case, you might look past top-ranked Sallie Mae — and its industry-best 12-month policy — to prioritize a lender that offers the lowest rates to independent borrowers.

Finally, confirm that you’re eligible to borrow from most private student loans banks, credit unions and online companies. You might find yourself disqualified, for example, if you’re an international student without a U.S. permanent resident cosigner. Lenders also generally require undergraduates to be 18, to attend school at least half-time and to have solid to strong credit — or to apply a cosigner who does.

Alternatives to private student loans

Almost always, federal student loans should be a borrower’s first choice if he or she has to borrow money. In part, this is because federal loans give you access to forgiveness programs, special repayment plans and guaranteed options to defer payments or put your loans in forbearance.

Also, if you haven’t built credit of your own and don’t have a creditworthy cosigner, federal student loans could be your only option. Most don’t have a credit requirement, and the federal loans for graduate or professional students and parents that do have a credit check don’t vary their interest rate based on your credit.

By contrast, even with a creditworthy cosigner, you may wind up with a higher interest rate if you take out a private student loan. Advertised interest rates can climb into the double digits, while 2018-2019 undergrads could access federal direct subsidized and unsubsidized student loans at 5.05%.

However, there may be times when a private student loan makes sense or could be a necessity. For example, undergraduate federal student loans have annual ($5,500 to $12,500) and aggregate (up to $57,500) borrowing limits that may not be enough to cover all your educational expenses.

Even if your unsure about whether you’re going to take out federal or private loans, complete the Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA) annually. In addition to being a requirement for federal loans and work-study aid, you may need to submit the FAFSA to qualify for some grants and scholarships.

Secure as much gift aid as you can before resorting to loans of any kind. After all, grants and scholarships don’t need to be repaid.

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.

Louis DeNicola
Louis DeNicola |

Louis DeNicola is a writer at MagnifyMoney. You can email Louis 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
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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
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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
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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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