How Student Loans Work: The ABCs Of Student Loan Options & Terms

October 04, 2018 · 5 minute read

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How Student Loans Work: The ABCs Of Student Loan Options & Terms

There are so many upsides to investing in your education—the personal enrichment and possibility of a bright and fruitful future being the most obvious. But, there are also some potential downsides that are hard to ignore, one of the main ones—if you’re like so many others—being the debt you may accrue.

Before you start losing sleep over your looming financial obligations, read on to gain a better understanding of how student loans work, starting with “the language of loans.”

Getting a grasp on certain student loan terms and concepts can benefit you in a few ways. For one thing, you’ll be able to better understand your student loan options, which means you can more easily compare features and fine print. That allows you to make confident decisions about your loans and, perhaps most importantly, save some money along the way.

So, what are the student loan terms every borrower should know? Here are a few of the big ones:

The Basics of Student Loans

Borrowing a loan can have long-term financial consequences so it’s important to fully understand the fees and interest rates that will affect the amount of money you owe. Here are a few of the most important terms to understand before you take out a student loan:


This is the original amount of money borrowed, plus any capitalized interest and fees. Capitalized interest is accrued interest that is added to the principal balance.


The loan term is the amount of time the student loan will be in repayment. Loan terms vary by lender, and if you have a federal loan, you are usually able to select your repayment plan.

Annual Percentage Rate

Commonly referred to as APR—this is the cost of borrowing, expressed as an annual percentage. APR includes any fees associated with the loan, providing a more comprehensive view of what you are being charged. Depending on the fees associated with your loan, the APR could be a bit higher than the interest rate.

Accrued Interest

The amount of interest that has accumulated on a loan since your last payment.

The Potential Student Loan Pitfalls

Once you understand loan basics and have secured your student loans, there are a few more terms to know. Making sure you understand your repayment terms and options like deferment or forbearance will allow you to find the best strategy to pay off your student loans quickly.


The temporary postponement of student loan repayment during which time interest typically continues to accrue. If your student loan is in forbearance you can either pay off the interest as it accrues, or you can allow the interest to accrue and it will be capitalized at the end of your forbearance.

You will usually have to apply for forbearance with your loan holder and will sometimes be required to provide documentation proving you meet the criteria for forbearance. For a loan to be eligible for forbearance, there must be some unexpected temporary financial difficulty.


Similar to forbearance, deferment is the temporary postponement of student loan repayment. During deferment, interest may or may not continue to accrue, depending on the type of student loan you have. In
the case of federal loans , the government may pay the interest on your Perkins, Direct Subsidized and/or Subsidized Stafford loans.

Capitalized Interest

This is when accrued interest is added to your loan’s principal balance. Most student loans begin accruing interest as soon as you borrow them. While you are often not responsible for repaying your student loans while you are in school or during a grace period or forbearance, interest will still accrue during these periods. At the end of said period, the interest is then capitalized, or added to the principal of the loan.

If you make your payments on time each month, you’ll keep accrued interest in check. However, after a period of missed or reduced payments (such as forbearance), accrued interest may be capitalized, which can cost you more money in the long run.

When interest is capitalized, it increases your loan’s principal. Since interest is charged as a percent of principal, the more often interest is capitalized, the more total interest you’ll pay. This is a good reason to use forbearance only in emergency situations, and end the forbearance period as quickly as possible.


The act of combining two or more loans into one single loan with a single interest rate and term. The resulting interest rate is a weighted average of the original loan rates.

Consolidating can make your life simpler with one monthly bill and payment, but it’s important to understand that it doesn’t actually save you any money. In fact, if you opt for lower payments when consolidating, this is typically accomplished by lengthening your loan term, which means you’ll pay more interest over the life of the loan.

The Potential Money-Savers

Building a repayment plan and sticking to it is one of the best ways to repay your student loans quickly, while spending the least amount of money on interest. Now that you understand what could cause your interest to skyrocket, here are a few terms that could help you reduce the money you spend over the life of your loans.

Automated Clearing House (ACH)

This is an automatic loan payment that transfers directly out of your bank account to your lender or loan servicer each month. The benefits of ACH are two-fold—not only can automatic payments keep you from forgetting to pay your bill, but many lenders also offer interest rate discounts for enrolling in an ACH program.

Refinancing Your Student Loans

Refinancing is the act of taking out a new loan at a lower interest rate and using it to pay off your original loan(s). Often times, refinancing your student loans allows you to lower your interest rate on your loans.

This is one of the fastest ways to slash your student loan burden. Not only does refinancing reduce the total amount of interest you’ll spend over time, but it can also decrease your monthly payments or allow you to pay off your loan sooner.

To see how refinancing your student loans could help alleviate some financial burden, take a look at SoFi’s student loan calculator. When you refinance with SoFi, there are no origination fees, application fees or prepayment penalties.

With good earning potential and credit history, you could qualify for a lower interest rate than the one you currently have. Refinancing your loans could help you manage your student loan payments.


Paying off a loan early or making more than the minimum payment. Both federal and private loans allow for penalty-free prepayment, which means you can pay more than the monthly minimum or make extra payments without incurring a fee.

The more you do it, the sooner you’re done with your loans—and the less interest you’ll spend over the life of your loan.

Whether you need help paying for school or help paying off the loans you already have, SoFi offers competitive interest rates and great member benefits as well.

See what you’re pre-qualified for in just a few minutes.

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The information and analysis provided through hyperlinks to third party websites, while believed to be accurate, cannot be guaranteed by SoFi. Links are provided for informational purposes and should not be viewed as an endorsement.
Notice: SoFi refinance loans are private loans and do not have the same repayment options that the federal loan program offers such as Income Based Repayment or Income Contingent Repayment or PAYE. SoFi always recommends that you consult a qualified financial advisor to discuss what is best for your unique situation.


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