Examining How Student Loan Deferment Works

By Kayla McCormack · January 18, 2022 · 12 minute read

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Examining How Student Loan Deferment Works

If you’re struggling under a mountain of student debt, you’re not alone. After all, the average debt load for a recent undergrad is around $30,000.

The worst thing to do when experiencing difficulty repaying student loans is to just stop making payments. If more than 270 days pass on a federal student loan payment, or three months pass on a private student loan payment, they could become one of the millions of student loans in default.

Student loan deferment allows eligible borrowers to temporarily reduce loan payments or pause them. It’s a popular choice: As of the fourth quarter of 2021, 3.1 million borrowers owing a combined $112.9 billion had their loans in deferment.

Borrowers who are struggling to afford their monthly student loan payments, may consider looking into student loan deferment. But while it could be a good option for temporary relief, other solutions for reducing payments in the long term may be required.

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

What Is Student Loan Deferment?

Student loan deferment lets borrowers temporarily pause, or reduce, their monthly student loan payments. For federal student loans, deferment may last for up to three years, depending on the type of loan. Depending on the type of loan a borrower has, interest may continue to accrue while the loan is in deferment.

As mentioned, private lenders may or may not offer deferment options for borrowers.

How Does Student Loan Deferment Work?

Typically, borrowers will need to apply to defer payments on their student loans. To defer payments on a student loan, borrowers will generally need to file some sort of form or paperwork with their loan servicer.

In most cases, borrowers seeking a deferment will need to provide their loan servicer with some form of documentation that indicates they meet the eligibility requirements to receive a deferment.

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

Borrowers who are facing financial difficulty may find that deferring their student loans offers them the opportunity needed to stay afloat financially. Deferment makes sense if the borrower is facing short-term difficulty paying their student loans.

Deferring student loans also won’t directly impact a borrower’s credit score.

Why Not Defer Student Loans

If you’re able to stay on top of your loan payments, then deferment 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.

As mentioned, interest may continue to accrue during deferment, depending on the type of loan you have. In the case that interest continues to accrue, 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 dramatically 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

And unlike other debt, student loan balances are generally not eligible to be discharged in bankruptcy. Defaulting on your federal student loans can lead to:

•   Immediately owing the entire balance of the loan

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

•   Losing eligibility for federal student aid

•   Damaging the borrower’s credit score, inhibiting the ability to qualify to purchase a car or a house or qualify for credit cards in the future

•   Withholding of federal benefits and tax refunds

•   Garnishing of wages

•   The loan holder taking the borrower to court

•   Inability to sell or purchase assets such as real estate

•   Withholding of the borrower’s academic transcript until loans are repaid

Consequences of Defaulting on Private Student Loans

The consequences for defaulting on private student loans may 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, 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

To request a deferment, borrowers will need to submit a form to their loan servicer. As a part of the process, it’s likely that they’ll be asked to provide documents to prove eligibility.

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, meaning 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 and limited options, 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. With federal loans, you can request a forbearance.

Income-Driven Repayments

A longer-term solution could be signing up for an income-driven repayment plan.

Borrowers who qualify, may be able to reduce their monthly payment based on their income. 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, so you might want to look at all options before applying to one. 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.

Remember, with an income-driven repayment plan, monthly payment is based on the borrower’s total discretionary income. That means if someone changes jobs, or sees a significant increase in their paycheck, they’ll be expected to pay a higher monthly bill on the student loan payment.


Here’s the high-level overview of how deferment vs. forbearance compare. 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. You still have to pay interest on all types of your federal loans while they’re in forbearance.

Another Option to Consider: Refinancing

Another long-term solution, depending on personal financial circumstances, could be student loan refinancing. Some private lenders can consolidate a borrower’s loans, whether federal or private. Qualifying borrowers may be able to secure a lower interest rate or options to lengthen the term to 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, a borrower’s monthly payment wouldn’t change strictly based on their income.

Some may find that they are not able to qualify for student loan refinancing on their own. In that case, some lenders may offer the option to apply for refinancing with a cosigner. A very important note: Refinancing federal student loans eliminates them from any federal borrower protections or payment plans. So, borrowers who are taking advantage of things like income-driven payment plans or deferment generally won’t want to refinance. But for other borrowers, student loan refinancing might be a good long-term solution.

Refinancing your federal and private loans can roll many loans into one new loan with one new rate and new monthly payment. So in addition to potentially saving you money on interest, refinancing could also simplify your repayment process.

The Takeaway

Deferment allows borrowers with federal student loans to temporarily pause student loan payments under certain circumstances, such as enrollment in a graduate program. Depending on the type of loan, borrowers may be able to qualify for forbearance, which is another option that allows borrowers to temporarily pause payments on federal student loans, to help those who may be experiencing temporary financial difficulty.

Income-driven repayment plans may be another option for federal student loan borrowers who are experiencing longer-term issues making monthly payments on their student loans. Borrowers who aren’t taking advantage of these federal student loan programs may consider refinancing with a private lender as an option to either potentially secure a lower interest rate or adjust the repayment terms on their loan.

Student loan debt getting you down? Learn more about refinancing student loans with 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 a borrower is facing a temporary financial hurdle, because they are allowed to pause 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 looking to refinance federal student loans, please be aware that the White House has announced up to $20,000 of student loan forgiveness for Pell Grant recipients and $10,000 for qualifying borrowers whose student loans are federally held. Additionally, the federal student loan payment pause and interest holiday has been extended beyond December 31, 2022. Please carefully consider these changes before refinancing federally held loans with SoFi, since the amount or portion of your federal student debt that you refinance will no longer qualify for the federal loan payment suspension, interest waiver, or any other current or future benefits applicable to federal loans. If you qualify for federal student loan forgiveness and still wish to refinance, leave unrefinanced the amount you expect to be forgiven to receive your federal benefit.

CLICK HERE for more information.

Notice: SoFi refinance loans are private loans and do not have the same repayment options that the federal loan program offers such as Income-Driven Repayment plans, including Income-Contingent Repayment or PAYE. SoFi always recommends that you consult a qualified financial advisor to discuss what is best for your unique situation.

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