Student Loan Deferment vs Forbearance: What's The Difference?

By Sarah Brooks · June 07, 2023 · 7 minute read

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Student Loan Deferment vs Forbearance: What's The Difference?

Editor's Note: For the latest developments regarding federal student loan debt repayment, check out our student debt guide.

If you’re struggling to keep up with student loan payments, rest assured you are not alone.

There are many reasons why you may be having difficulty with your loans. Some students may struggle to find a job after graduation or some may not earn as much as they anticipated right out of the gate. For those with federal student loans, forbearance and deferment options exist for these very reasons.

When Student Loan Payments Become Too Much

When monthly student loan payments become insurmountable, the worst thing to do is nothing at all. When a borrower stops paying their student loans, they may go into default. This has the potential to devastate an individual’s credit score.

In default, borrowers could also face relentless collection agencies or could even have their wages garnished. Plus, in most cases, student loans can’t be discharged even if the borrower files for bankruptcy.

But take heart: Those borrowers with federal student loans may have options for pausing or temporarily reducing their monthly payments if they’ve found themselves in a tough financial spot. Namely, borrowers can apply for either student loan deferment or forbearance from the federal government in order to avoid default.

It can be tough to figure out the difference between these two programs and which is best for your situation. Here’s a breakdown of the differences between student loan deferment and forbearance.

What Is The Difference Between Deferment and Forbearance?

Let’s start with the similarities: Both deferment and forbearance allow a borrower to temporarily lower or stop making payments on their federal student loans for a defined period of time, if they qualify.

In both cases, the borrower needs to contact their loan servicer, submit a request, and provide the documentation requested by the loan servicer.

The main difference between the two is that, while in deferment, borrowers are not required to pay the interest that accrues if they have a qualifying loan.

Specifically, interest is not owed on Direct Subsidized Loans, Subsidized Federal Stafford Loans, Federal Perkins Loans, and subsidized portions of Direct Consolidation Loans or Federal Family Education Loan Program (FFEL) Consolidation Loans.

Interest payments are still required on Direct Unsubsidized Loans, Unsubsidized Federal Stafford Loans, Direct PLUS Loans, FFEL Plus Loans, and unsubsidized portions of Direct Consolidation Loans and FFEL Consolidation Loans.

With federal student loan forbearance, borrowers are always responsible for paying the interest that accrues, regardless of what kinds of federal loans you have.

You can either pay the interest as it adds up during the forbearance period or you can have it capitalized (added to the principal) at the end, which would increase the total amount you repay.

Who Is Eligible for Deferment?

Overall, deferment is tailored to people who are having economic difficulties because, for example, they’re in school at least half-time, in the military, in another eligible post-graduate role, or can’t find a full-time job. You may also qualify for a deferment if you’re seeking cancer treatments, are enrolled in an approved rehabilitation program, or are serving in the Peace Corps.

Here are more details: Federal student loan borrowers may qualify for deferment if they are enrolled at least half-time at an eligible college or vocational school or if they’re in an approved graduate program, for an additional six months after enrollment ends.

Recommended: Examining How Student Loan Deferment Works

Finally, unemployed individuals are also able to apply for deferment. In the case of unemployment and the Peace Corps, you may be granted deferment for a maximum of three years.

Who Is Eligible for Forbearance?

The two types of forbearance are mandatory and general. Mandatory forbearance must be granted if you qualify; whereas general forbearance is up to your loan servicer to approve you or not.

Mandatory Forbearance

Loan servicers are required to grant mandatory forbearance to qualifying borrowers. Depending on the type of federal student loan, borrowers may be eligible if they are in a medical or dental internship or residency, serving in AmeriCorps or the National Guard, or working as a teacher and performing a teaching service that qualifies for teacher loan forgiveness.

Borrowers may also qualify if their monthly student loan payment is at least 20% of their gross monthly income, for up to three years, again depending on the type of loan they have. Note: Mandatory forbearance is granted for up to a year at a time. After that, borrowers can request it again.

General Forbearance

With general forbearance, it’s up to the loan servicer to decide whether to grant it and only certain federal student loans are eligible (Direct Loans, FFEL, and Perkins Loans). Like mandatory forbearance, general forbearance can only be granted for 12 months at a time. There is a three-year cumulative limit on general forbearances.

Borrowers can apply for a general forbearance if they’re unable to make loan payments because of financial hardship, medical bills, or changes in their job (such as reduced pay or unemployment). If there are other reasons they’re unable to pay, it’s also possible to make that case to the loan servicer, but the decision will be theirs to make.

Forbearance vs Deferment for Student Loans: Which Option to Choose?

If your federal student loan type and circumstances allow you to, it’s best to apply for deferment since it allows you to get a break on interest during the deferment period. However, if you’ve already exhausted the maximum time for a deferment or your situation doesn’t fit the narrow eligibility criteria, then it could make sense to apply for a forbearance.

If your ability to afford your loan payments is unlikely to change anytime soon, or if you have private loans and/or federal loans that don’t qualify for a deferment or forbearance program, you may want to consider other solutions, such as an income-driven repayment plan or student loan refinancing.

How Does an Income-Driven Repayment Plan Work?

Another way to potentially reduce your federal student loan payment is to apply for an income-driven repayment plan. The government offers four different income-driven plans that tie the borrower’s monthly payment to their discretionary income, while considering other factors such as family size.

The plan a borrower qualifies for depends on the type of loan they have and when it was borrowed. Depending on the plan, your monthly payment will generally be reduced to 10-20% of your discretionary income. If you make the required qualifying payments every month, your balance can be forgiven in 20 or 25 years.

How Can Student Loan Refinancing Help?

For some borrowers, refinancing student loans can be an option that helps them reduce their monthly payment or lower their interest rate. Refinancing involves taking out a new loan from a private lender and using it to pay off existing federal or private loans, effectively combining multiple loans into one.

The new loan will have a new term and interest rate, which has the potential to help borrowers save on interest or the amount they pay over the life of the loan. Borrowers with a solid credit score and employment history (among other positive financial indicators) are especially likely to be able to qualify for favorable terms.

Keep in mind that if you refinance federal loans, you will no longer qualify for the federal benefits we discussed in this post, including deferment, forbearance, or income-driven repayment programs. Make sure to weigh the pros and cons of refinancing carefully before moving forward.

However, some private lenders do offer temporary relief if you experience financial hardship. Rather than stopgaps that can require you to reapply year after year, refinancing can help you gain a long-term plan for getting your payments under control.

With SoFi, it’s possible to refinance loans without paying any hidden fees or penalties at either a fixed or variable interest rate.

The Takeaway

Deferment and forbearance are both options that allow borrowers to temporarily pause payments on their federal student loans.

Deferment differs from forbearance in that some borrowers may not be required to pay interest that accrues during deferment, depending on the type of loan they have. With forbearance, borrowers are generally required to cover interest that accrues while the loan is in forbearance.

Borrowers who anticipate having trouble making monthly federal student loan payments in the long-term might consider applying for income-driven repayment plans, which ties monthly payments to the borrower’s income level.

Other individuals may consider refinancing their student loans to secure a more competitive interest rate or a lower monthly payment. Note that a lower monthly payment generally extends the repayment terms and is more expensive in the long run.

Refinancing federal student loans eliminates them from borrower protections, including deferment, forbearance, and income-driven repayment plans, so it won’t make sense for borrowers with federal loans who are taking advantage of those programs.

However, if you decide a refinance is best, consider SoFi. SoFi offers an easy online application, competitive rates, and no origination fees. It takes just two minutes to see if you prequalify.

See if you prequalify for a student loan refinance with SoFi.

Student Loan Refinancing
If you are a federal student loan borrower you should take time now to prepare for your payments to restart, including the opportunity to refinance your student loan debt at a lower APR or to extend your term to achieve a lower monthly payment. (You may pay more interest over the life of the loan if you refinance with an extended term.) Please note that once you refinance federal student loans, you will no longer be eligible for current or future flexible payment options available to federal loan borrowers, including but not limited to income-based repayment plans, such as the SAVE Plan, or extended repayment plans.

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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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