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

July 13, 2021 · 6 minute read

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

If you’re struggling to keep up with student loan payments, rest assured you are not alone. In fact, 17% of those with education-related debt were behind on payments in 2019, according to the Federal Reserve .

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.

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 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 service.

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 could 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.

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, and if they’re in an approved graduate program, for six months after enrollment ends.

Individuals may also be eligible if they are in an approved graduate fellowship, in an approved rehabilitation training program for disabled people, on active duty with the military (and for 13 months afterward), or are serving in the Peace Corps.

Related: 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. Review all the possible eligibility scenarios at the Department of Education’s webpage about deferment .

Who Is Eligible for Forbearance?

There are two kinds of forbearance : mandatory and general.

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 you 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, only certain federal student loans are eligible (Direct Loans, FFEL, and Perkins Loans), and 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. Check out all the possible eligibility scenarios at the Department of Education’s webpage about forbearance .

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

If your federal student loan type and circumstances allow you to, getting a deferment can be a no-brainer since it’ll allow you to get a break on interest during the deferment period. 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 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 including 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 between 10% and 20% of your discretionary income. If you make the required qualifying payments every month, your balance can be forgiven in 20 or 25 years.

There are lots of specific qualifying factors and important details to consider for this repayment option. For more information, The Department of Education offers resources for borrowers to review.

How Can Student Loan Refinancing Help?

For some borrowers, refinancing student loans can be an option that helps them reduce their monthly payment or 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.

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

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.

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

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 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.

Learn more about refinancing with SoFi. Potential borrowers can prequalify in a few minutes.


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