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Your Guide to Understanding Every Type of Student Loan Available Today

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With so many types of student loans for college, how do you pick the right one?

Even when narrowing your focus to federal student loan options, there are five different options with varying eligibility requirements, interest rates and maximum borrowing amounts.

To help you find your best option, here’s our overview of the eight types of student loans available, both federal and private.

Types of federal student loans

Filling out the FAFSA, applying for grants and scholarships and lining up work-study or part-time job opportunities are all important precursors to taking out a student loan. Unlike those steps, taking out a loan will require repaying what you borrow, plus interest.

Understand what makes federal student loans unique to private options.

  • Interest rates are generally lower and always fixed.
  • Credit checks and cosigners are mostly unnecessary.
  • Flexible payment plans and loan forgiveness programs may be available.
  • Consolidating multiple federal loans can lower a monthly payment if the repayment plan is extended.

Three more significant considerations about these government-funded loans:

  • Maximum borrowing amounts depend on grade level and dependency status, plus the cost of attendance.
  • Loan servicers are chosen by the federal government or school, which serves as the lender.
  • Paid interest might be more easily tax-deductible (though private loan interest can also be eligible).

The federal loan program is robust and offers many different types of student loans. Though specific eligibility requirements vary, you could qualify for one or more of the following types of federal student loans for college or graduate school.

1. Direct subsidized federal loan

Known historically as Stafford loans, direct subsidized and unsubsidized loans have one significant difference. With subsidized debt, the Department of Education will cover the interest that accrues on your loans while you’re enrolled at least half-time in school.

For example, one year of interest on a $5,500 loan would be $277 for a class of 2019 college freshman. If you qualify for a subsidized loan, the government will foot that bill for you.

Eligible undergraduate students must demonstrate a financial need to benefit from this. The schools to which you’ve been accepted will then detail the amount you can borrow in your college award letter.

Interest rate: 5.05% for undergraduates (for loans disbursed July 1, 2018, to July 1, 2019)
Aggregate loan limit: $23,000 for undergraduates
Loan fee: 1.062% (for loans disbursed Oct. 1, 2018, and Oct. 1, 2019)
Terms: 10 to 25 years

2. Direct unsubsidized federal loan

Unlike subsidized federal loans, the unsubsidized version is also accessible to graduate and professional students, and awarding of the loan is not based on financial need or merit. In other words, almost everyone is eligible for this loan, as long as they’re enrolled at least half-time in school.

With unsubsidized loans, you’re on the hook for accruing interest while you’re enrolled, as well as during a grace period or while in deferment or forbearance. What’s more, the interest capitalizes when it goes unpaid, meaning that it will be added to the principal of the original loan amount.

Interest rate: 5.05% for undergraduates, 6.60% for postgraduates (for loans disbursed July 1, 2018, to July 1, 2019)
Aggregate loan limit: $31,000 to $57,500 (depending on your dependency status) for undergraduates, $138,500 for graduates*
Loan fee: 1.062% (for loans disbursed Oct. 1, 2018, and Oct. 1, 2019)
Terms: 10 to 25 years

*Professional students in healthcare programs may borrow beyond this limit.

3. Direct Grad PLUS loan

PLUS loans, whether they’re for graduate students or parents (see No. 5, below) are unique in that they require the applicant to undergo a credit check. The Direct Grad PLUS loan, specifically, was built for graduate and professional students who have had more time to improve their credit score (unlike undergraduates entering college, who might have never held a credit card).

If you’re trying to qualify for PLUS loans but have an adverse credit history, enlisting a creditworthy endorser can help your case.

Grad PLUS loans also give their borrowers until six months after they finish or leave school to begin making payments.

Interest rate: 7.08% (for loans disbursed July 1, 2019, to July 1, 2020)
Aggregate loan limit: The cost of attendance minus any other financial aid
Loan fee: 4.236% (for loans disbursed Oct. 1, 2019, and Oct. 1, 2020)
Terms: 10 to 25 years

4. Direct Parent PLUS loan

This loan type is for biological, adoptive and stepparents to support their dependent undergraduates.

A key difference between Parent PLUS loans and other types of loans is that parents are expected to make payments while their children are in school, though they may request deferment during the loan application process.

The government does not offer a way for parents to transfer a PLUS loan to their children, but some private lenders do allow you to refinance a Parent PLUS Loan in a child’s name.

Interest rate: 7.08% (for loans disbursed July 1, 2019, to July 1, 2020)
Aggregate loan limit: The cost of attendance minus any other financial aid
Loan fee: 4.236% (for loans disbursed Oct. 1, 2019, and Oct. 1, 2020)
Terms: 10 to 25 years

5. Direct Consolidation Loan

Consolidating any of the federal loan types above allows graduates (or dropouts) to pool multiple loans into a single loan with a single loan servicer. This means you can make a single monthly payment, too.

That payment would also likely be lower than your past loans, as the repayment period can be extended up to 30 years.

Although consolidation is convenient, it’s not right for everyone. It might give one borrower access to income-driven repayment options, but it might erase another’s progress toward Public Service Loan Forgiveness.

Before deciding to consolidate, it’s critical to consider your own situation.

Interest rate: The weighted average of the interest rates on your existing loans
Loan fee: n/a
Terms: Up to 30 years

Types of private student loans

Even some private lenders will tell you to consider taking out federal loans before weighing their own products. This is because of the protections mentioned above that the government affords its borrowers.

Those same private lenders, however, will present their student loan options as customizable to your financial situation, while positioning the federal government’s as one-size-fits-all.

The private loan details that can be personalized:

  • Variable interest rates are offered, in addition to fixed rates.
  • While cosigners are almost always required, a strong credit history can lower your interest rate.
  • Repayment options, from deferment programs to in-school payments, can make your monthly bill more manageable.

When comparing private lenders to federal loan options, ensure that the little details that matter to you aren’t lost. For one borrower, this might be asking about prepayment penalties; for another, repayment protections like forbearance might be crucial.

With that in mind, here are three types of private student loans for college and beyond.

6. In-school loans for students and parents

The beauty of in-school student loans in the private marketplace is that there are many to choose from. Whether you’re a college freshman, a scholar seeking a doctoral degree or are the parent of one — there’s something for everyone. Sallie Mae, for example, offers 13 different education loans, from paying for the private kindergarten of your toddler to financing your study for the bar exam.

But with varying loan types come more choices. Take repayment as one example: College Ave, one of Sallie Mae’s competitors, offers undergraduates four options while they’re in school:

  • Defer payments entirely
  • $25 monthly payments
  • Interest-only payments
  • Full principal-and-interest payments

With this greater degree of decision-making, put private lenders to the test as you’re shopping around. Don’t rely on them to provide every bit of information you need to make a good choice.

7. Income-share agreements

Unlike private student loans, privately-funded income-share agreements (ISAs) are relatively new to the financial aid scene. They also represent a foreign concept to many students, mostly because there are only some schools that offer ISAs.

ISAs have also drawn criticism from government leaders for their lack of regulation. Repayment terms of ISAs vary from those of student loans, yet they can be misunderstood and, like loans, lead to default.

Still, an ISA could be a helpful supplement to, if not supplant, student loans. A handful of companies have sprung up with direct-to-student lending while more schools, and even the Department of Education, consider adding an ISA to the financial aid menu.

8. Refinanced loans for graduates

Whereas the federal government’s Direct Consolidation Loan (see no. 5, above) allows borrowers to combine multiple federal loans into one, private lenders offer the option of refinancing federal and private loans into one new loan.

The key difference here is that consolidating federal loans doesn’t directly save you money; it might actually cost you more, as the repayment term could lengthen.

Refinancing, however, could award you a lower interest rate and could help you save on the total cost of your debt. A solid credit score and steady income may help you qualify for the lowest interest rates.

Private lenders aren’t shy about promoting their average customer’s savings by refinancing. Although that number is important, consider whether you’re the type of borrower who is likely to match that success. It’s especially crucial to proceed with caution if you’re refinancing federal loans and would lose their associated protections and forgiveness programs.

Read up on what to consider before you refinance any of your student loans.

Consider all the different types of student loans

Part of why private loan companies have enjoyed success in lending to students, graduates and parents alike is that they’re able to offer customized loans to creditworthy borrowers. Federal loans, on the other hand, were established to help cash-poor or credit-risky borrowers afford the rising costs of college.

Review all of these student loan types before deciding what’s best for you — and only you.

Want more help comparing your options? Check out some more key differences between federal and private student loans.


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