It’s not uncommon for students to use loans to help pay for their education. The average annual cost of tuition and fees at four-year institutions reached $10,940 for public in-state schools, $28,240 for out-of-state public schools, and $39,400 for private schools in 2022–23, College Board data shows.
The average undergraduate or graduate student typically needs education loans to help pay for the cost of college. The two major umbrellas to consider are federal student loans and private student loans. Federal student loans are backed by the U.S. Department of Education, while private student loans are offered through financial institutions, including banks, online lenders, and credit unions.
Knowing what types of student loans are available to you and understanding your student loan statement can help you figure out the best way to save money in the long run.
What Are The Different Types of Student Loans?
One of the first things to understand is the difference between federal and private student loans.
The U.S. Department of Education offers federal student loans at a fixed interest rate and with certain restrictions. Depending on borrower needs, students can qualify for either subsidized or unsubsidized federal loans (more on those, later). Federal student loans come with protections like income-driven repayment (IDR) options, deferment, forbearance, and access to the Public Service Loan Forgiveness (PSLF) program.
The Saving on a Valuable Education (SAVE) Plan is one of the IDR options available to most federal student loan borrowers. The SAVE Plan can give you a $0 monthly payment if your income is within 225% of the federal poverty guideline (or less than $32,805 for a single borrower and $67,500 for a family of four in 2023).
For some students, federal student loans aren’t enough to cover the cost of a college education. Some turn to scholarships, grants, or a part-time job to fill in the gaps. Other students rely on private student loans, offered by lenders and financial institutions, to cover the cost of college. Private student loans are not eligible for IDR plans or PSLF.
💡 Quick Tip: When shopping for a private student loan lender, look for benefits that help lower your monthly payment.
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Applying for Federal Student Loans
The first step in the federal student loan process is to fill out the Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA®). That may involve compiling your family financial history. Even students who don’t think they’ll qualify for financial aid should still fill out the FAFSA.
All federal student loans require the FAFSA first. And some schools use information from the FAFSA to determine eligibility for other types of aid like scholarships or grants.
After filling out the FAFSA, students may receive a financial aid package of grants, work study, and loans. Depending on your financial circumstances, the loans will either be subsidized or unsubsidized.
The Different Types of Federal Student Loans
Think of federal student loans as an overarching category. There are different types of federal student loans, each of which have different eligibility requirements, borrower maximums (or not), and interest rates. Understanding all of your options means you’ll be better prepared to determine the best way to finance your education.
The interest rates on newly issued federal student loans are fixed and set annually by a formula specified in the Higher Education Act of 1965.
For the 2023–24 school year, the interest rate on Direct Subsidized or Unsubsidized loans for undergraduates is 5.50%. The rate on Direct Unsubsidized loans for graduate and professional students is 7.05%, while the rate on Direct PLUS loans for graduate students, professional students, and parents is 8.05%.
Federal student loan borrowers are typically expected to make loan payments when due. The 2023 debt ceiling bill officially ended the three-year Covid-19 forbearance, requiring federal student loan interest accrual to resume on Sept. 1 and payments to resume in October 2023.
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Direct Subsidized vs Unsubsidized Loans
Federal Direct loans, also known as Stafford Loans, can be either subsidized or unsubsidized. With a subsidized student loan, the government will cover the accrued interest while the borrower is enrolled in school, during the grace period, and during any periods of deferment. Not having to pay interest on your loans during school can really help—especially since interest accrues and capitalizes, or gets added to the principal loan amount, and then accrues more interest. There are no subsidized federal loans for graduate students—only for undergrads.
The government does not pay the interest on unsubsidized Direct loans. That means, even while you’re in school, the loans are accruing interest. You don’t have to make payments on the loans while you’re a full-time student, but interest is building up. As the interest accrues, it is added to the loan’s principal.
That’s why it’s possible to have a higher remaining loan balance than the initial loan amount after graduation. Individuals with an unsubsidized student loan do have the option to make interest-only payments on the loan during periods of deferment, including while they’re in school, but are not required to do so.
Federal loans have fixed interest rates (that are set annually), meaning they don’t change over the life of the loan.
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Interest Capitalization and Federal Borrowing Limits
Individuals with an unsubsidized student loan do have the option to make interest-only payments on the loan during periods of deferment, including while they’re in school, but are not required to do so. A federal student loan borrower who exits a period of deferment on an unsubsidized loan may face capitalized interest.
Interest capitalization is when unpaid interest accrues over time and gets added to your principal loan balance. The U.S. Department of Education eliminated most instances of federal student loan interest capitalization effective July 2023.
Federal student loan borrowing limits vary depending on factors like your year in school and whether or not you are a dependent student. For example, first-year undergrads who are considered independent or whose parents are not able to take out parent loans have a maximum borrowing amount of $9,500 (of which only $3,500 can be subsidized) annually. The maximum for dependent students is $5,500 in their first year, with the same $3,500 cap on subsidized loans.
Direct PLUS loans can be borrowed directly by a graduate student, or Parent PLUS loans can be taken out by an undergrad’s parents. PLUS loans, in both forms, have the same benefits as other federal loans in that the interest rate is fixed and there are flexible repayment options.
Unlike other federal loans, PLUS loans require a credit check. They’re designed for graduate and professional students, who have had more time to build up a credit score. The maximum PLUS loan amount you can borrow is the full cost of tuition less any other financial assistance.
When taking out student loans for college, a lot of the options depend on your FAFSA and your family’s financial need or ability to pay. If you’re a dependent student, then there will likely be some expectation of parental contribution, and your parents may be offered the option of taking out Parent PLUS loans.
Parent PLUS loans are similar to Direct PLUS loans, except parents are expected to begin repaying the loan while the student is still in school—though they can request a deferment until graduation.
Direct Consolidation Loans
After graduation, students might have a number of different federal student loans. That can obviously be confusing. If you want to consolidate all federal loans into one place, then you may be able to pool them into a Direct Consolidation Loan. This allows you to only make one monthly payment toward all your federal student loans.
A Direct Consolidation Loan will not lower your overall interest rate. The interest rate on your new Direct Consolidation Loan is simply a weighted average of the interest rates, rounded up to the nearest eighth of a percent, of your existing federal loans. Consolidation could wipe out any history of payments you were making toward PSLF. Only federal loans can be consolidated with a Direct Consolidation Loan.
Private Student Loans
Students who don’t receive enough funding from the federal government may look to private student loans as an option to finance their education. Private loans are offered by banks, online lenders, and credit unions.
💡 Quick Tip: Federal student loans carry an origination or processing fee (1.057% for Direct Subsidized and Unsubsidized loans first disbursed from Oct. 1, 2020, through Oct. 1, 2024). The fee is subtracted from your loan amount, which is why the amount disbursed is less than the amount you borrowed. That said, some private student loan lenders don’t charge an origination fee.
Applying for Private Student Loans
Private lenders do not use the FAFSA to determine a potential borrower’s creditworthiness. Instead, students interested in borrowing private loans will fill out a loan application directly with a lender. Before applying, lenders will generally allow people to get a quote to see if they prequalify and at what rates. This can be helpful when evaluating different lenders.
The terms, interest rates, and borrowing limits on private loans may vary by lender. Lenders typically use factors like the borrower’s credit score to determine the interest rate they qualify for. When borrowing a private student loan you’ll generally have the option to choose between a fixed or variable interest rate.
Private lenders offer different student loan repayment options. Some offer deferment plans while the borrower is enrolled in school, and others require payments to start as soon as the loan is disbursed.
Another private student loan option is to consolidate or refinance your existing student loans after graduation. This might be beneficial if it lowers your interest rate and saves you money over the life of your loan. You may pay more interest over the life of the loan if you refinance with an extended term. Refinancing federal student loans with a private lender forfeits your access to PSLF, Teacher Loan Forgiveness, and federal IDR plans.
Understanding the Student Loan Statement
When you take out a loan, you sign a promissory note, which outlines the interest rate, loan amount, and repayment terms. If you hold federal student loans, when you graduate you select a repayment plan. If you don’t do anything, you’ll automatically be put on the Standard Repayment Plan.
For most federal loans, the Standard Repayment plan is a set monthly payment for up to 10 years. There are a few other repayment plans to choose from, including four income-driven repayment plans. The different plans allow you to pay back your loan over different time periods. The longer the repayment term, the more you’ll pay in interest over the life of the loan.
When you look at your student loan statement, you may see each loan listed as the total loan amount, how much principal remains, how much interest has accrued since your last payment, your current interest rate, and how much your current monthly payment is—in addition to any fees, such as late fees, you might owe.
The Benefits of Refinancing Student Loans
It’s possible to consolidate both federal and private student loans into one new loan when you refinance your student loanswith a private lender. If an applicant qualifies for a lower interest rate and a shorter term, it could reduce the amount of money paid in interest over the life of the loan. As mentioned earlier, you may pay more interest over the life of the loan if you refinance with an extended term.
Make sure to weigh the benefits that come with your federal loans against the value of refinancing. When you refinance federal loans they will no longer be eligible for federal borrower protections.
The two main categories of student loans are private and federal. Federal loans are awarded to students based on information they provide in their FAFSA annually. Federal loans issued since July 2006 have a fixed interest rate and are eligible for a variety of federal repayment plans.
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.
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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 SoFi.com/eligibility-criteria 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.
SoFi Student Loan Refinance
If you are a federal student loan borrower, you should consider all of your repayment opportunities including the opportunity to refinance your student loan debt at a lower APR or to extend your term to achieve a lower monthly payment. 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 or extended repayment plans.
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