How Do Student Loans Work? Guide to Student Loans

By Maureen Shelly · July 26, 2023 · 10 minute read

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How Do Student Loans Work? Guide to Student Loans

With the cost of higher education at an all-time high, many students need financial assistance to pay for tuition, room and board, books, and more. In fact, in the U.S. alone, 43 million borrowers are carrying over $1.7 trillion in student loan debt.

Taking out student loans may be the first major financial commitment you make. And it’s a decision that has the potential to affect your financial situation for years to come. So it’s crucial to understand the terms you’re signing up for, and all the options available.

To help you get started, here’s a quick guide to student loans. We’ll break down the basics of how loans work, how to apply for both federal and private student loans, and what to expect after you graduate.

What Is a Student Loan?

Student loans let young people borrow the money they need to pay for their education. Like other types of loans, this money must be repaid in the future, with interest.

Student loans can be borrowed by the student or, in some cases, by their parents. When a student loan is borrowed by a parent to pay for their child’s education, it may be called a parent loan.

The way student loans work is similar to other loans, but the application process is different, especially when it comes to federal student loans (more on that below). Federal student loans are funded by the federal government.

With private student loans, the application process is similar to other types of loans. Potential borrowers will file an application directly with the bank of their choice.

What Can Student Loans Be Used For?

Student loans can be used to pay for a student’s qualified educational expenses. These include things like tuition, books and supplies for classes, and fees charged by the school.

They can also be used to pay for room and board, living expenses, commuting to school, and a laptop or computer used for school.

Private student loans can even be used to pay off an outstanding tuition balance. Each lender determines how far in the past a loan can be used to pay an overdue balance, but many will allow loans to cover past-due balances that are 6-12 months outstanding. Also, keep in mind that you can apply for a private student loan at any time, and paying before the bill is due is preferable so you don’t have any interruptions in enrollment or class scheduling.

Graduate students are also eligible for federal aid and are encouraged to complete a grad school FAFSA.

Recommended: What Can You Use Student Loans For?

The Two Main Student Loan Categories

Student loans fall into two main categories, federal and private. Federal loans, which are funded by the federal government, offer some advantages and protections for borrowers. These special features, which are not common with regular loans, include:

•   Lower, fixed interest rates (what you pay the lender for loaning you the money) that offer a better deal than private student loans.

•   Income-driven repayment plans, which base your monthly payment after graduation on your salary.

•   Temporary relief programs for graduates who are facing unemployment or other hardship.

Federal Student Loans

Federal student loans are provided by the government. However, your payments and loan management are usually handled through an independent company called a student loan servicer.

To see if you qualify for a federal loan and other federal student aid, you need to fill out the Free Application for Federal Student Aid, commonly referred to as FAFSA®. The application must be filled out every year you want to apply for federal student aid.

There are a few different types of federal student loans. The main federal student loans are:

•   Direct Subsidized Loans, available to eligible undergraduates with financial need. The interest that accrues while students are enrolled in school and during the grace period is covered by the U.S. Department of Education.

•   Direct Unsubsidized Loans, available to eligible undergraduates and graduate students regardless of financial need.

•   Direct PLUS Loans, available to parents of undergraduate students and to graduate or professional students for expenses not covered by financial aid.

Check out our breakdown of the different types of federal student loans for details on how these loans work and the distinctions between them.

Private Student Loans

Private student loans are issued by non-government lenders, such as banks, credit unions, or other financial service companies. A potential borrower’s eligibility and terms will depend on their credit history (their financial track record) and other factors.

Parents or even family friends can cosign with a student who may not be able to qualify for a private student loan on their own. Unlike federal loans, repayment on private student loans may start while the borrower is still enrolled in school.

Unlike their federal counterpart, private student loan lenders may not offer the same safety-net protections in cases of financial hardship or unemployment. So be sure to understand the terms before taking a private student loan. Private loans tend to be the last option for paying for college after all other methods of financial aid have been exhausted.

Recommended: Guide to Private Student Loans

Understanding How Student Loans Work

Understanding the difference between federal and private student loans is the first step in navigating how college loans work. Here is other essential information:

Student Loan Application Process

Applying for federal student loans requires students to complete the FAFSA every year they attend college. Some people assume they won’t meet the requirements for FAFSA federal aid because of their parents’ income or a low GPA, but that’s usually not the case.

Everyone who might need help paying for college should fill out the FAFSA. Aside from federal student loans, there are state and school-based scholarships, grants, and work-study programs that you may qualify for. The FAFSA form is generally available on October 1 for the following school year and can be completed online. Note that the form for the 2024-2025 academic year is delayed until December; find out more about the FAFSA delay here.

If you’re opting for private student loans, find a reputable lender and make sure your school and program are eligible for their offerings. The application process may or may not have a fee, depending on the lender.

Private lenders typically want applicants to provide basic personal and financial details, and may also consider credit history.

As mentioned above, lenders may allow potential borrowers to apply for a private student loan with a cosigner, such as a parent. Because college students tend not to have much of a credit history yet, adding a cosigner can potentially improve an applicant’s chance of getting approved with a competitive interest rate.

Recommended: High-Income Financial Aid

Student Loan Interest Rates and Fees

Interest is a percentage of the unpaid principal loan amount that is paid to the lender in exchange for borrowing money. Federal student loans have fixed interest rates, and interest is accrued on a daily basis.

The interest rate on federal direct subsidized and unsubsidized loans for undergraduates for the 2023-2024 school year is 5.50%. Interest rates on federal student loans are set annually by Congress.

Fixed-rate student loans have an interest rate that stays the same over the life of the loan. Although the rate might start off higher than on variable-rate loans, it won’t change as general interest rates fluctuate.

The way interest on private student loans works is different. Private student loans may have either fixed or variable interest rates. Variable-rate loans, also called floating-rate loans, have an interest rate that can vary every month, quarter, or year. Rates usually start off lower than a fixed-rate loan, but can fluctuate dramatically over the life of the loan.

If you expect to pay off your student loans quickly, you may consider a variable-rate loan. But if you’re not sure how much you’ll be making after you graduate, or you don’t think you’ll be able to pay your student loans off fast, or you’re just not a risk taker, a fixed-rate loan might be a better choice.

Private student loans will have different interest rates depending on the lender and the borrower’s credit history.

When we say no fees we mean it.
No origination fees, late fees, & insufficient fund
fees when you take out a student loan with SoFi.

Repaying Your Loan

As long as you’re still in school at least part-time, students aren’t required to make payments on federal loans. The exception for federal student loans is PLUS Loans, which require borrowers to start making payments as soon as they receive the entire loan amount. By the way, if you have an unsubsidized loan, interest starts accruing while you’re enrolled in school.

Your federal loan servicer should give you a student loan repayment schedule that tells you when your first payment is due and how much you owe. There are a few different repayment plans available for federal student loans. Borrowers can change their repayment plan at any time without incurring fees.

Most federal student loans have a six-month grace period, which gives you a break after you leave school before you have to start paying your loans back. Some private lenders also offer grace periods, but it’s not a guarantee. Unless the loan is a federal unsubsidized loan, it will likely accrue interest during the grace period.

PLUS Loans work a little differently. While PLUS Loans for undergraduate studies do not have a grace period, graduate and professional students who receive PLUS Loans receive an automatic six-month deferment that is activated when the student graduates, leaves school, or their enrollment drops below half-time. Also, parent borrowers who’ve received PLUS Loans can request a six-month deferment after their child graduates, leaves school, or enrolls less than half-time.

Private lenders determine when repayment begins on a private student loan, so review your student loan agreement closely before signing.

Many lenders offer interest rate reductions if you have your student loan payments automatically deducted from your checking account.

The Takeaway

Student loans can make it possible for young people to attend college, but just like other types of loans, student-borrowers are charged interest. Federal loans have fixed interest rates and generally have a six-month grace period following a student’s departure from school. They also come with borrower protections and benefits like income-driven repayment plans. Private student loans can be helpful if a student did not receive enough federal aid in the form of federal student loans, scholarships, grants, and work-study, to pay for college. Lenders determine the interest rate and terms partly based on the borrower’s credit history. Interest rates may be either fixed or variable. Private student loans do not carry the same federal borrower benefits.

Students interested in borrowing private student loans should shop around to find the best interest rate and terms they qualify for. SoFi’s private student loans have absolutely no fees, and the application process is entirely online.

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


How are student loans paid out?

According to the Federal Student Aid website (, your school will give out your loan and grant money in at least two payments, called disbursements. Usually, you’ll receive a payment once per term (semester, quarter, etc.). If you accept a work-study job, you’ll be paid at least once a month.

How much money do student loans give you?

Undergraduates may receive between $5,500 and $12,500 per academic year in direct subsidized and unsubsidized student loans. The amount is determined by your year in school and your dependency status. Your total financial aid is calculated as the difference between the cost of attendance for your school and your family’s expected contribution.

How much is a student loan monthly?

The average monthly student loan payment is $461. Your monthly payment will depend on how much you borrow, your interest rate, and the length of your repayment term.

Can you use a student loan to pay a tuition bill that is past due?

Yes, you can use a private student loan to pay off an outstanding tuition balance. Each lender determines how far in the past a loan can be used to pay an overdue balance, but many will allow loans to cover past-due balances that are 6-12 months outstanding.

Can a SoFi Private Student Loan be used for past-due balances? How long?

Yes. As long as the student is enrolled the next semester or has recently graduated, the student may apply a SoFi Private Student Loan to a past-due balance up to 12 months after term. The school must certify the loan and the dates the funds cover.

SoFi Private Student Loans
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.

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