What Happens to Student Loans When You Drop Out?

By Maureen Shelly · October 05, 2023 · 9 minute read

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What Happens to Student Loans When You Drop Out?

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

Sometimes, life throws you a curveball. If you’re in college when that happens, you might find yourself dropping out of school. In some situations, you may have no other choice. At other times, you can weigh the pros and cons while deciding how to proceed.

What happens to student loans if you withdraw isn’t widely discussed. We’ll walk you through the consequences of dropping out when you’ve already incurred debt, and show you ways to pay off outstanding student loans.

Do I Have To Pay Back My Student Loans If I Drop Out of School?

Regulations dictate that if you leave college or drop below half-time enrollment, you have to start paying back your federal student loans. You may have a grace period (generally, six months) before your first payment is due. Even if payments aren’t due yet, interest may still accrue during the grace period, depending on the type of loans you have.

If you have private student loans, check with your lender to determine when you need to start paying back your loans.

If you’re currently still in school or left very recently before earning a degree, you may be able to request student loan exit counseling from your school, a service normally provided only to graduates. This can help you understand your options, including potential tuition reimbursement. Each school has a different refund policy.

What Happens If I Don’t Pay My Student Loans?

The consequences of late or “delinquent” payments vary by lender, but you can generally expect to be charged late fees each time you miss the due date. If a payment is late by 30 days or more, that information can be reported to the three credit bureaus—Experian, Equifax and TransUnion—which will negatively affect your credit score.

And if you stop paying your student loans for 270 days (about 9 months), your federal loans go from being delinquent to in default. When that happens, the balance is due in full, including accrued interest, collection agency fees, and any other fines, fees, and penalties. Student loans generally cannot be discharged during bankruptcy.

The government can go to great lengths to get their money back, including:

•   Garnishing your paycheck, up to 15% of wages after deductions

•   Withholding your tax refund

•   Going after co-signers for the amount due

•   Suing you in court for the outstanding amount, plus court fees and other expenses

Note on temporary exception: Following the reinstatement of student loan payments after a pause lasting more than three years, the Biden administration instituted a 12-month “on-ramp” period to ease the transition. From Oct. 1, 2023 to Sept. 30, 2024, the most financially vulnerable federal student loan borrowers are protected against the consequences of missing payments. During this period, missed payments will not lead to loans being considered delinquent or in default, will not be reported to the credit bureaus, and will not be referred to collections agencies.

However, once the on-ramp period is over, any missed payments will be due, and the normal rules surrounding student loan delinquency and default will be reinstated.

Private student loans generally go into default after 90 days (and don’t qualify for the on-ramp protections). Private lenders may also take you to a court or use collection agencies to recoup student loan debt. Defaulting can wreck your credit, making it challenging for you to obtain a mortgage loan, car loan, credit card, homeowners insurance, or new utilities.

💡 Quick Tip: Get flexible terms and competitive rates when you refinance your student loan with SoFi.

Way To Pay Off Student Loans If You Didn’t Finish School

Once you leave school, it’s a good idea to begin paying off your loans as quickly as you can, paying more than the minimum payment whenever possible. Before paying ahead, though, check to see if any of your student loans have a prepayment penalty. If so, paying early can cost you money.

Should you refinance your student loans? What about income-driven repayment programs? Below are the best options to help ease financial hardship and avoid default.

Income-Driven Repayment Plans

Income-driven repayment (IDR) plans reduce your monthly federal student loan payments based on your discretionary income and family size. They also extend the length of the repayment period up to 25 years. After that, any remaining loan balance is forgiven, though the canceled amount may be subject to income taxes.

The government offers four income-driven repayment plans:

•   Saving on a Valuable Education (SAVE): This plan replaces another IDR plan known as REPAYE. It cuts payments to just 5% to 10% of discretionary income, and forgives remaining debt as soon as 10 years into the plan, depending on your loan balance.

•   Pay As You Earn (PAYE): This plan caps payments at 10% of discretionary income, but never pay more than you would on the Standard Repayment Plan. Forgiveness is awarded after 20 years of payments under this plan.

•   Income-Based Repayment (IBR): For borrowers who took out their loans on or after July 1, 2014, monthly payments are capped at 10% of discretionary income and any remaining debt is forgiven after 20 years. Borrowers who took out their loans before this date have payments capped at 15% of income, and remaining debt is forgiven after 25 years. Again, payments are never more than they would be under the Standard Repayment Plan.

•   Income-Contingent Repayment (ICR): Under this plan, payments are capped at the lesser of 20% of your discretionary income, or what you’d pay under a 12-year repayment plan. Remaining debt is forgiven after 25 years. This is the only IDR plan that Parent PLUS loans qualify for, though they must first be consolidated into a Direct loan.

Enrolling in an income-driven repayment plan won’t have a negative impact on your credit score or history. However, income-driven plans aren’t always the lowest monthly payment option. And even when monthly payments are lower, you will pay more interest over time (longer loan terms mean more interest payments).

Borrowers must recertify their income each year. If they fail to do so, they’ll be returned to the standard 10-year amortizing plan.

Going Half-Time

Students who are enrolled at least half-time in an eligible college or career program may qualify for an in-school deferment. This type of deferment is generally automatic. If you find the automatic in-school deferment doesn’t kick in, you can file an in-school deferment request form.

Recommended: Refinancing Student Loans with Bad Credit

Refinancing Student Loans

While you’re still able to make your student loan payments and your credit is still good, consider refinancing. You can combine multiple loans into one payment and choose the payback timeline that will give you the lowest monthly payment possible. You can check the interest rate and terms you qualify for by using SoFi’s student loan refinance calculator.

As your financial situation improves, you can make additional payments (as long as you refinance with a company that doesn’t charge a prepayment penalty) or refinance again with a new term that will accelerate payoff and allow you to pay less interest over the lifetime of the loan. You can learn all the ins and outs of that path with this handy student loan refinancing guide.

It’s important to note that by refinancing your federal student loans, you will not be able to access federal programs like income-driven repayment plans, Public Service Loan Forgiveness (PSLF), and government deferment or forbearance. If you don’t need any of those benefits, a lower student loan interest rate gained by refinancing could be worthwhile.

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What To Do If You Can’t Afford Any Student Loan Payments

In many cases, the SAVE program is your best bet for reducing student loan payments, since it lowers payments to the smallest portion of income out of all the IDR plans.

However if you’re leaving school because of a temporary financial hardship—for example, you are undergoing cancer treatment or lost your job—you can also request a deferment or forbearance on your federal student loans to give yourself time to address the situation.

Although deferment or forbearance can give you short-term financial relief, these plans will increase the amount of interest you’ll pay on the loans overall, and can extend the length of the loans.

Student Loan Deferment

Student loan deferment allows eligible borrowers to temporarily reduce loan payments or pause them for up to three years, depending on the type of loan. In most cases, borrowers seeking a deferment will need to provide their loan servicer with documentation that supports their eligibility.

Deferments are typically broken down into qualifying categories:

•   Unemployment. Borrowers receiving unemployment benefits or who are actively seeking and unable to find full-time work may qualify. This deferment is good for up to three years.

•   Economic Hardship. Individuals receiving merit-tested benefits like welfare, who work full-time but earn less than 150% of the poverty guidelines for their state of residence and family size, or who are serving in the Peace Corps may qualify. This deferment may be awarded for up to three years.

•   Military Service. Members of the U.S. military who are serving active duty may qualify. After a period of active duty service, there is a grace period of 13 months, during which borrowers may also qualify for federal student loan deferment.

•   Cancer Treatment. Borrowers who are undergoing treatment for cancer may qualify. There is a grace period of six months following the end of treatment.

Student Loan Forbearance

There are two types of federal student loan forbearance: general and mandatory. Private lenders sometimes offer relief when you’re dealing with financial hardship, but they aren’t required to, so check your loan terms.

General forbearance is sometimes called discretionary forbearance. That means the servicer decides whether or not to grant your request. People can apply for general forbearance if they’re experiencing financial problems, medical expenses, or employment changes.

General forbearance is only available for certain student loan programs, and is granted for up to 12 months at a time. After the 12 months are up, you are able to reapply if you’re still experiencing difficulty.

Mandatory forbearance means your servicer is required to grant it under certain circumstances. The Federal Student Aid website has a full list of criteria for mandatory forbearance. Reasons include:

•   Medical residency or dental internship

•   Participating in AmeriCorps

•   Teachers who qualify for teacher student loan forgiveness

•   National Guard duty

•   Monthly student loan payments that are 20% or more of your gross income

Similar to general forbearance, mandatory forbearance is granted for up to 12 months at a time, and you can reapply after each 12-month period. You still have to pay interest on all types of federal loans while they’re in forbearance.

If you’re pursuing federal student loan forgiveness, any period of forbearance probably will not count toward your forgiveness requirements.

The Takeaway

Should you unexpectedly need to drop out of school, you’ll still be responsible for paying back your student loans. If you’re able to work, you may want to enroll in an income-driven repayment plan — though keep in mind that these programs don’t always offer the lowest monthly payment possible.

If you are unable to work, see if you’re eligible for student loan deferment or forbearance. Finally, if you have a strong credit history, refinancing your student loans may save you money on interest while lowering your monthly payment. Just be aware that refinancing federal loans means losing access to federal protections and PSLF loan forgiveness.

Looking to lower your monthly student loan payment? Refinancing may be one way to do it — by extending your loan term, getting a lower interest rate than what you currently have, or both. (Please note that refinancing federal loans makes them ineligible for federal forgiveness and protections. Also, lengthening your loan term may mean paying more in interest over the life of the loan.) SoFi student loan refinancing offers flexible terms that fit your budget.

With SoFi, refinancing is fast, easy, and all online. We offer competitive fixed and variable rates.

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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