Direct vs Indirect Student Loans: What’s the Difference?

By Jody McMaster · June 07, 2023 · 5 minute read

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Direct vs Indirect Student Loans: What’s the Difference?

Federal student loans could be either Direct Loans or “indirect loans” until 2010, when Congress voted to eliminate the latter. Yet many borrowers of indirect loans, also known as Federal Family Education Loans (FFELs), continue to struggle with repayment.

The big difference between the loan types — and point of contention — was the source of the funding.

Indirect vs Direct Student Loans

Indirect Student Loans

The Federal Family Education Loan Program was funded by private lenders (banks, credit unions, etc.), but guaranteed by the federal government. The program ended in 2010, and loans are now made through the Federal Direct Loan Program.

The government didn’t directly insure FFEL Program loans. Instead, it acted through a guarantor, which paid the lender if the borrower defaulted. Then, the government reimbursed the guarantor.

When it came to questions about payment, borrowers dealt with the lender, the guarantor, the servicer, or a collection agency — not the government.

Direct Student Loans

With a Direct Loan, made through the William D. Ford Federal Direct Loan Program, the funds come directly from the U.S. Department of Education, which gets the money from the U.S. Treasury. The loans are made by the Department of Education and backed by the federal government.

Direct Loans consist of Direct Subsidized and Direct Unsubsidized Loans (also called Stafford Loans), Direct PLUS Loans, and Direct Consolidation Loans.

Recommended: Types of Federal Student Loans

Before 2010, every school made its own decision about whether to participate in a direct or indirect loan program, or possibly both. But there were some differences in interest rates, fees, and repayment options.

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What Kind of Loans Do You Have?

If you’re thinking about how to best address your student loan debt, it’s important to know what kind of loan or loans you have, including whether they are Direct Loans or FFELs. You want to see who your loan servicers are, your loan amounts, your interest rates, your terms, and your monthly payments. Getting a baseline is crucial for determining next steps.

Repaying FFEL Program Loans

Even though indirect student loans ended on June 30, 2010, there are still 3.55 million borrowers who hold $94.8 billion in FFEL loans as of 2023.

Borrowers must consolidate their FFEL loans before they can apply for one of the four common income-driven repayment plans, which forgive any loan balance after 20 or 25 years of payments.

They also must consolidate loans to apply for Public Service Loan Forgiveness (PSLF), which allows some members of the military, classroom teachers, social workers, and nonprofit and government employees to have certain loan balances eliminated after 120 on-time payments.

Here’s more on repayment options, including the only income-driven repayment plan tailored to FFEL borrowers.

Income-Sensitive Repayment Plan

Only borrowers with a high debt-to-income ratio will qualify for this FFEL repayment plan. The lender determines the monthly payment based on your total gross income, not adjusted gross.

Consolidating Your Loans

Consolidating loans with a federal Direct Consolidation Loan can increase the amount of interest that is paid over the life of the loan. If you decide to lengthen your payment period (for example, from 10 to 20 or even 30 years), your monthly payment may be lower, but the total interest you’ll pay over the life of the loan will most likely be higher.

Consolidation isn’t necessarily a money-saving option over an extended time period. And the interest rate on a Direct Consolidation Loan is the weighted average of the borrower’s current federal loans, rounded up to the nearest one-eighth of a percentage point. So, the rate actually might rise slightly.

If you don’t have any indirect loans, you still can consider consolidating your Direct Student Loans. (Note that only federal student loans, not private student loans, are eligible for consolidation into a Direct Consolidation Loan.)

Refinancing Your Loans

Another option is to apply to refinance your student loans — federal, private, or both — into one new loan through a private lender.

Before deciding to refinance, it’s important to note that you lose access to federal benefits. This includes the ability to delay payments if you run into certain hardships and apply for federal loan forgiveness programs. But, if you don’t plan on using those, you could gain a chance at a lower interest rate with a refinance.

If you have a solid debt-to-income ratio after graduation and have built your credit profile since you first took out your student loans — and you don’t foresee a need for PSLF or an income-based repayment program — refinancing might help lower your payment without extending the length of your loan via a lower interest rate.

You can see exactly if and how much you could save with SoFi’s student loan refinancing calculator.

The Takeaway

More than 3.5 million borrowers are repaying FFEL Program loans as of 2023. The last of these “indirect loans” were issued in 2010, when federal Direct Loans largely took over. Whether you’re repaying an FFEL loan, Direct Loan, or private loan, it’s a good idea to learn your options and figure out which makes the most sense for your situation.

If you decide to refinance your student loans, SoFi offers an easy online application, no origination fees, and competitive fixed or variable rates.

See if you prequalify with SoFi in just a few minutes.

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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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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