Examining How Student Loan Deferment Works

By Kayla McCormack · August 19, 2023 · 13 minute read

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Examining How Student Loan Deferment Works

With mass student loan forgiveness blocked by the Supreme Court, you may be curious about what other forgiveness or deferment options are available for students with federal — or private — student loans.

Federal loans do allow you to stop or reduce your payments in some circumstances, such as financial hardship, for up to three years — which is known as deferment. Deferment on private student loans varies by lender, and not all lenders offer it.

One thing you generally don’t want to do — simply stop making payments on your student loan. Whether your loans are federal or private, this puts you at risk of default, which can have a number of negative consequences.

Read on to learn more about student loan deferment, including what it is, how it works, its pros and cons, plus some alternative ways to get student debt relief.

What Is Student Loan Deferment?

Student loan deferment allows qualified applicants to reduce or stop making payments on their loans for up to three years. If you have a subsidized federal loan, no interest accrues during the deferment period. If you have an unsubsidized federal loan, interest will accrue and will be added to the loan amount (or capitalized) at the end of the deferment period.

Deferments are available on federal loans including Direct Loans, FFEL Program loans, and Perkins Loans.

Private student loans may or may not offer deferment options to borrowers. If you have questions about your private student loan, you’ll want to check in with your lender directly.

How Does Student Loan Deferment Work?

If you have a federal student loan and are no longer in school at least half-time, you will need to apply to defer payments on your student loan. This usually involves submitting a request to your student loan servicer. You will also likely need to provide documentation to show that you meet the eligibility requirements for the deferment (more on eligibility requirements below).

If you have an unsubsidized federal student loan and are granted deferment, interest will continue to accrue during the deferral period. You will have the option to either pay the interest as it accrues or allow it to accrue and be capitalized (added to your loan principal balance) at the end of the deferment period.

Deferments are available on federal loans including Direct Loans, FFEL Program loans, and Perkins Loans.

If a private lender offers deferment, they will likely have their own forms and requirements.

Why Defer Student Loans

Applying for deferment may make sense if you are facing short-term difficulty paying your student loans, since a deferment can provide you with the opportunity you need to stay afloat financially. And, if you have a subsidized loan, deferment won’t make your loan any more expensive in the long run.

Deferring student loans also won’t directly impact your credit score.

Why Not Defer Student Loans

If you’re able to stay on top of your loan payments, then deferment likely doesn’t make sense. If you think that you may have long-term difficulty making your monthly loan payments, deferment may not be the best option either.

If you have an unsubsidized federal loan, interest will continue to accrue during deferment. At the end of the deferment period, this interest will be capitalized on the existing loan amount (or the principal loan value). Moving forward, interest will be calculated based on this new total. So essentially, you are accruing interest on top of interest, which can significantly increase the amount of interest owed over the life of the loan.

Pros and Cons of Student Loan Deferment

Student loan deferment can help borrowers who are struggling financially, but it may not be the right choice for everyone. Here are some pros and cons to consider when evaluating deferment options for federal student loans.



Borrowers are able to temporarily suspend or lower the monthly payments on their student loans. On most federal student loans, interest continues to accrue. This may significantly increase the total cost of borrowing over the life of the loan.
Borrowers may qualify for deferment for periods of up to three years. Because interest may continue to accrue during deferment, other options like income-driven repayment plans, may be more cost- effective in the long term.

Types of Student Loan Deferment

For federal student loans, there are a few different deferment options . Here are the details on some of the most common reasons borrowers apply for deferment.

In-School Deferment

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

Unemployment Deferment

Those currently receiving unemployment benefits, or who are actively seeking and unable to find full-time work, may be able to qualify for unemployment deferment. Borrowers can receive this deferment for up to three years.

Economic Hardship Deferment

This type of deferment may be an option for those borrowers who are receiving merit-tested benefits like welfare, who work full time but earn less than 150% of the poverty guidelines for your state of residence and family size, or who are serving in the Peace Corps.

Economic hardship deferments may be awarded for a period of up to three years.

Military Deferment

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

Cancer Treatment Deferment

Individuals who are undergoing treatment for cancer may qualify for deferment. There is also a grace period of six months following the end of treatment.

Other Types of Deferment

There are other situations and circumstances in which borrowers might be able to apply for deferment. Some of these include starting a graduate fellowship program, entering a rehabilitation program, or being a parent borrower with a Parent PLUS Loan whose child is enrolled in school at least half-time.

Consequences of Defaulting on Federal Student Loans

If you simply stop making payments as outlined in your loan’s contract, you risk defaulting on your student loan. Default timelines vary for different types of student loans.

Most federal student loans enter default when payments are roughly nine months, or 270 days, past due. Federal Perkins loans can default immediately if you don’t make any scheduled payment by its due date.

•   Immediately owing the entire balance of the loan

•   Losing eligibility for forbearance, deferment, or federal repayment plans

•   Losing eligibility for federal student aid

•   Damage to your credit score, inhibiting your ability to qualify for a car or home loan or credit cards in the future

•   Withholding of federal benefits and tax refunds

•   Garnishing of wages

•   The loan holder taking you to court

•   Inability to sell or purchase assets such as real estate

•   Withholding of your academic transcript until loans are repaid

Consequences of Defaulting on Private Student Loans

The consequences for defaulting on private student loans will vary by lender but could include repercussions similar to federal student loans, and more, including:

•   Seeking repayment from the cosigners of the loan (if there are any cosigners)

•   Calls, letters, and notifications from debt collectors

•   Additional collection charges on the balance of the loan

•   Legal action from the lender, such as suing the borrower or their cosigner

To avoid these negative consequences, one option for borrowers struggling to pay federal student loans is deferment.

Who Is Eligible for Student Loan Deferment?

To be granted a deferment on federal loans, borrowers need to meet certain criteria.

You may be eligible if you’re:

•   Enrolled at least part-time in college, graduate school, or a professional school

•   Unable to find a full-time job or are experiencing economic hardship

•   On active military duty serving in relation to war, military operation, or response to a national emergency

•   In the 13-month period following active duty

•   Enrolled in the Peace Corps

•   Taking part in a graduate fellowship program

•   Experiencing a medical hardship

•   Enrolled in an approved rehabilitation program for the disabled

Borrowers who re-enroll in college or career school part-time may find that their federal student loans automatically go into in-school deferment with a notification from their student loan provider.

Loans may also keep accruing interest during deferment — depending on what kind of federal student loans the borrower holds. Borrowers are still responsible for paying interest if they have a:

•   Direct Unsubsidized (Stafford) Loan

•   Direct PLUS Loan

If you don’t pay the interest during the deferment period, the accrued amount is added to your loan principal, which increases what you owe in the end.

Recommended: Student Loan Deferment in Grad School

What if You Have Private Student Loans?

Private lenders aren’t required to offer deferment options, but some do. For example, some might allow you to temporarily stop making payments if you:

•   Lose your job

•   Experience financial hardship

•   Go back to school

•   Have been accepted into an internship, clerkship, fellowship, or residency program

•   Face high medical expenses

Typically, even while a private student loan is in deferment, the balance will still accrue interest. This means that in the long term, the borrower will pay a larger balance overall, even after the respite of deferment.

In most cases, even with accrual of interest, deferment is preferable to defaulting. Borrowers with private loans could contact the lender to ask what options are available.

The Limits of Student Loan Deferment

Keep in mind that deferment is not a panacea. By definition, it’s temporary. Federal student loan borrowers will ultimately need to go back to making payments once they are no longer deferment-eligible. For example, a borrower’s deferral might end if they leave school, even if their ability to pay has not improved.

Federal loans can only be deferred due to unemployment or financial hardship for up to three years. With private loans, there may not be an option to defer at all, and if it is an option, the limit may be no more than a year.

Other Options for Reducing Federal Student Loan Payments

Besides student loan deferment, you have other choices if you can’t afford the total cost of your monthly payments. Here’s a look at some alternatives to deferment.

Income-Driven Repayments

For a longer-term solution, you may want to consider signing up for an income-driven repayment plan.

If you qualify, you may be able to reduce your monthly payment based on your income. Enrolling in an income-driven repayment plan won’t have a negative impact on your credit score or history. On certain income-driven repayment plans, student loan balances can be forgiven after 20 or 25 years, depending on the payment plan that the borrower is eligible for.

With an income-driven repayment plan, your monthly payment is based on your total discretionary income. That means if you change jobs, or see a significant increase in your paycheck, you’ll be expected to pay a higher monthly bill on your student loan payment.


Student loan forbearance is another way to suspend or lower your student loan payments temporarily during times of financial stress, typically for up to 12 months. Generally, forbearance is not as desirable as deferment, since you will be responsible for accrued interest when the forbearance period is over no matter what type of federal loan you have.

When comparing deferment vs. forbearance, you’ll want to keep in mind that there are two types of forbearance for federal student loan holders: general and mandatory.

General student loan 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

•   Employment changes

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

•   Direct Loans

•   Federal Family Education Loan (FFEL) Program loans

•   Perkins Loans

Mandatory forbearance means your servicer is required to grant it under certain circumstances. Reasons for mandatory forbearance include:

•   Serving in a medical residency or dental internship

•   The total you owe each month on your student loan is 20% or more of your gross income

•   You’re working in a position for AmeriCorps

•   You’re a teacher that qualifies for teacher student loan forgiveness

•   You’re a National Guard member but don’t qualify for deferment

Similar to general forbearance, mandatory forbearance is granted for up to 12 month periods, and you can reapply after that time.

Another Option to Consider: Refinancing

Depending on your personal financial circumstances, another long-term solution could be student loan refinancing. This involves applying for a new loan with a private lender and using it to pay off your current student loans. Qualifying borrowers may be able to secure a lower interest rate or the option to lengthen their loan’s term and reduce monthly payments. Note that lengthening the repayment period may lower monthly payments but will generally result in paying more interest over the life of the loan.

Refinancing could be a good option for borrowers with strong credit and a solid income, among other factors. Unlike an income-driven repayment plan, your monthly payment wouldn’t change based on your income. If you aren’t able to qualify for student loan refinancing on your own, you may be able to apply for refinancing with a cosigner.

Either way, you’ll want to keep in mind that refinancing federal student loans with a private lender means you no longer have access to any federal borrower protections or payment plans. So, if you are taking advantage of things like income-driven payment plans or deferment, you likely don’t want to refinance. But for other borrowers, student loan refinancing might be a useful solution.

If you have more than one student loan, refinancing could also simplify your repayment process.

The Takeaway

If you take out a federal student loan and at some point need to pause or reduce your payments, you may be able to qualify for deferment, forbearance, or an income-driven repayment plan. Each option has its pros and cons.

If you’re considering a private student loan (or refinancing your federal loans), keep in mind that private loans don’t come with government-sponsored protections like forbearance and deferment don’t apply. However, private lenders may offer hardship and deferment programs of their own.

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.

Cover up to 100% of school-certified costs including tuition, books, supplies, room and board, and transportation with a private student loan from SoFi.

Deferment FAQ

How long can you defer student loans for?

Depending on the type of deferment you are enrolled in, federal loans can be deferred for up to three years. Private student loans may not offer an option to defer payments, and if they do, the limit will be set by the individual lender.

Why would you defer student loans?

Deferment can be helpful if you are facing a temporary financial hurdle, because they allow you to pause or reduce your payments for a period of time.

Are there any reasons not to defer student loans?

Most loans will continue to accrue interest during periods of deferment. When the deferment is over, this accrued interest is then capitalized on the loan. This means it’s added to the existing value of the loan. Moving forward, interest is charged based on this new total. This can significantly impact the total amount of interest that a borrower has to pay over the life of a loan.

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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