Best Private Student Loan Companies in 2019

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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 APR2.75% to 10.22%3.52% to 9.50%2.84% to 10.97%2.80% to 10.91%4.33% to 10.30%
Fixed APR4.74% to 11.35%5.45% to 9.74%4.54% to 11.98%4.72% to 12.04%4.99% to 10.72%
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.

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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.

LEARN MORE Secured

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.

LEARN MORE Secured

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.

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Louis DeNicola
Louis DeNicola |

Louis DeNicola is a writer at MagnifyMoney. You can email Louis at [email protected]

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