Top 10 Student Loan Questions to Ask

By Julia Califano · December 29, 2023 · 9 minute read

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Top 10 Student Loan Questions to Ask

Student loans give many college students the opportunity to finance their education. Being well-informed on the nuts and bolts of student loans can make it easier to fund your education, while still keeping your eye on long-term goals like starting a career and saving for the future.

10 Student Loan Questions, Answered

There are many different types of student loans, with different loan amounts, costs, benefits, and repayment terms. In short, student loans are complicated. But don’t stress. We have answers to questions on everything from the difference between federal and private student loans to interest rates to when and how you’ll need to start repaying your loans. Let’s dive in.

💡 Quick Tip: You’ll make no payments on some private student loans for six months after graduation.

1. How Do I Apply for Federal Student Loans?

To apply for federal student loans, you’ll need to fill out the Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA®). This opens the door to many forms of financial aid, including grants, work-study, and federal student loans.

After you submit the FAFSA, you’ll receive a Student Aid Report (SAR) via email or regular mail. The report includes your responses to the FAFSA questions as well as your Student Aid Index (SAI), formerly called Expected Family Contribution (EFC). Your SAI is a number that is used to determine your eligibility for federal financial aid.

Schools that receive information from your FAFSA will be able to tell you if you qualify for federal student loans. Almost every American family qualifies for federal student loans. Direct Subsidized Loans (in which the government covers your interest while you are in school and for six months after you graduate) are awarded based on financial need. Direct Unsubsidized Loans (in which you are responsible for all interest that accrues on the loan) are not need-based.

2. How Do I Fill Out a FAFSA Form?

You can fill out the FAFSA online at . While the FAFSA is known for being a confusing and complex application to complete, the form was streamlined for the 2024-2025 award year. Applicants can now skip as many as 26 questions, and some applicants may be able to complete it in as little as ten minutes.

While the FAFSA is typically available starting on October 1 for the following academic year, the new 2024-2025 FAFSA will not be available until December 31, 2023.

The first step to filling out the FAFSA is to create an FSA ID through, which serves as an electronic signature. Both you and your parents will need to create your own unique FSA ID. You’ll then want to check what information you’ll need to fill out the FAFSA and gather it before you begin.

The online FAFSA is typically processed by the Department of Education within three to five days, and then the information is sent to the list of schools you provided (keep in mind that you can list schools that you have not yet applied to.) The colleges use your FAFSA information to determine financial aid eligibility.

3. What is the Difference Between Private Student Loans and Federal Ones?

Federal student loans are funded through the government and are strictly regulated. To qualify for them, students must fill out the FAFSA. Private student loans, by contrast, are funded by banks, credit unions, and other private lenders.

Federal student loans for undergraduates don’t require a credit check and rates are set by Congress each year. Federal student loans also come with guaranteed benefits and protections, including income-driven repayment plans, deferment and forbearance options, and forgiveness programs.

Private student loans do require a credit check and rates are set by individual lenders. Generally, borrowers (or their parent cosigners) who have strong credit qualify for the lowest rates. Loan limits vary by lender, but you can often get up to the total cost of attendance, which is more than you can borrow from the federal government.

Since private student loans generally have higher interest rates than federal student loans and lack the same protections, it’s generally recommended that you tap all forms of federal aid, including federal student loans, before applying for private student loans.

Recommended: Private vs Federal Student Loans

4. How Much Does College Cost?

The average cost of tuition and fees for the 2023-2024 school year is $42,162 at private colleges, $23,630 for out-of-state students at public universities, and $10,662 for in-state residents at public schools, according to U.S. News.

The actual amount you will pay for college will depend on where you choose to go and how much financial aid, including need-based and merit-based aid, the school awards you.

If you submitted the FAFSA, each school that accepts you will also send you a financial aid award letter, also known as the student aid package or school offer. This letter will include the annual total cost of attendance and a list of financial aid options. Typically, your financial aid package will be a mix of gift aid, meaning financial aid that doesn’t have to be repaid, and federal student loans, which you have to repay with interest. The award letter is specific to that university or college, so you’ll receive a different letter from every school that accepts you as an incoming student.

5. Is College Worth the Cost? What Are the Benefits?

College represents an investment in yourself and your future, and only you can decide how much that’s worth. So, we’ll focus instead on the potential benefits of going to college. The most obvious benefit is that, if you want to pursue certain careers, you’ll likely need the appropriate college education and training.

Studies show that college graduates earn significantly more money, accumulated over a lifetime, than those who did not attend. Earning your degree of choice requires a solid plan and commitment, and these are excellent strategies and skills to develop before entering the working world. Plus, people often make lifelong friendships at college, and many universities have a strong alumni network, which can be helpful on many levels as you begin your career.

6. What Can Student Loans Be Used For?

Funds from federal and private student loans can be used for a variety of education-related expenses, including tuition, fees, textbooks, computers/software, transportation to and from school, housing (on or off campus), meal plans or groceries, and housing supplies (e.g., sheets, towels, etc.).

Basically, if the expense is essential to your educational success — meaning it supports your living arrangements, basic daily needs, or attendance at school — it’s likely a permissible use of student loan funds.

Recommended: Using Student Loans for Housing and Living Expenses

7. What is a Grace Period for Student Loans?

For most federal student loans, after you graduate, leave school, or drop below half-time enrollment, you have a six-month grace period before you must begin making payments. Grade periods for private student loans can vary by individual lender.

The student loan grace period is designed to give students a chance to find employment before their monthly loan payments kick in.

You are not required to make interest or principal payments during the grace period. However, if your loan isn’t subsidized by the government, interest will still accumulate during the grace period and be added to your balance, or capitalized, if you don’t pay it before your first loan payment is due. Making at least interest-only payments even when it’s not required can save you a significant amount of money over the life of your student loans.

8. How Do I Repay Student Loans?

Repayment on federal student loans generally begins after the six-month grace period. The standard repayment plan for federal student loans is 10 years, but borrowers are able to select one of the other repayment plans at any time without incurring any costs.

Federal student loans also offer income-driven repayment plans, which tie the borrower’s monthly payment to their income. While this may make the loan more expensive in the long-term, it can make the monthly payments more affordable. When deciding on a repayment plan, you want to consider factors like your income, estimated monthly payments on the student loan, and your overall budget. Over time, you may find it helpful to reevaluate the payment plan you’ve selected as your financial situation may change.

To determine the repayment options available with a private student loan, check directly with the individual lender.

If you have higher-interest Direct Unsubsidized Loans, graduate PLUS loans, and/or private loans, you may be able to refinance your student loans after you graduate at a lower interest rate. This could lower the total cost of your loans and make repayment easier.

9. Can I Repay Student Loans Early?

Yes, you can generally pay off student loans, including federal student loans and private student loans, early without incurring prepayment penalties. You may want to reach out to your lender first to make sure they will apply your extra payments to your principal, rather than towards your next payment.

There are many benefits to paying off your student debt early. You will save on student loan interest and get out of debt faster. However, you’ll want to make sure you have enough income to cover a higher monthly payment. Paying too much toward your student loan could cause you to fall short on essential bills like rent or a car loan. It might also delay saving for other goals.

Recommended: 6 Strategies to Pay off Student Loans Quickly

10. How Can I Apply for a Private Student Loan?

If you decide to apply for a private student loan to help pay for college, it’s a good idea to shop around and compare lenders. Your school’s financial aid office may be able to provide you with a list of lenders that they work with. However, you’re not restricted to this list.

Before you choose a lender, it’s a good idea to review factors including interest rate, loan terms, any additional fees associated with the loan, and the repayment plans available at each lender. Many lenders will allow potential borrowers to get prequalified to find out how much they may qualify to borrow and at what rates.

Another thing that may be worth considering is if the lender has any sort of programs for borrowers who run into financial difficulties down the road and may have trouble making payments on their student loans. Some lenders offer unemployment protection that allows eligible borrowers to temporarily pause payments on their student loans should they lose their job through no fault of their own.

💡 Quick Tip: Need a private student loan to cover your school bills? Because approval for a private student loan is based on creditworthiness, a cosigner may help a student get loan approval and a lower rate.

The Takeaway

Student loans can be instrumental in helping you pay for college, but it’s important to understand how they work before borrowing. Broadly, there are both federal and private student loans. Federal student loans are backed by the federal government and come with unique benefits like income-driven repayment plans and forgiveness programs.

Private student loans are offered by private lenders and generally require potential borrowers to undergo a credit check during the application process. Since private student loans tend to have higher interest rates and lack federal protections, you generally want to consider federal loans first.

If you’ve exhausted all federal student aid options, no-fee private student loans from SoFi can help you pay for school. The online application process is easy, and you can see rates and terms in just minutes. Repayment plans are flexible, so you can find an option that works for your financial plan and budget.

Cover up to 100% of school-certified costs including tuition, books, supplies, room and board, and transportation with a private student loan from SoFi.

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Please borrow responsibly. SoFi Private Student Loans are not a substitute for federal loans, grants, and work-study programs. You should exhaust all your federal student aid options before you consider any private loans, including ours. Read our FAQs. SoFi Private Student Loans are subject to program terms and restrictions, and applicants must meet SoFi’s eligibility and underwriting requirements. See for more information. To view payment examples, click here. SoFi reserves the right to modify eligibility criteria at any time. This information is subject to change.

Financial Tips & Strategies: The tips provided on this website are of a general nature and do not take into account your specific objectives, financial situation, and needs. You should always consider their appropriateness given your own circumstances.

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