Editor's Note: For the latest developments regarding federal student loan debt repayment, check out our student debt guide.
Student loan debt is at an all-time high, with more students graduating with debt than ever before. Consider this: Almost 44 million borrowers have federal student loan debt and they owe, on average, $37,338. As recent graduates begin their careers, it can be overwhelming to figure out how to make monthly student loan payments.
Ignoring your payments may seem like an easy way out, but student loan default can have extreme consequences. If you’re struggling with student loan payments or are already in default, there are ways to recover. For instance, you could consolidate defaulted student loans. Refinancing defaulted student loans may also be an option. This guide will help you figure out your best option.
What Is Student Loan Default?
If your student loan is in default, it means you have failed to make payments on your student loans for several months in a row. However, there are a few steps that occur before defaulting on student loans.
Federal student loans are considered delinquent once you miss a student loan payment. After 90 days of delinquency, your loan servicer can report the missed payments to the three major credit bureaus. Generally, after 270 days of nonpayment, your loan will go into default.
If you have private student loans, they can go into default even sooner. Typically, after you miss three payments or 120 days, your private student loans go into default. Different lenders have different terms when it comes to default, however, so be sure to check with yours to get the specifics.
💡 Quick Tip: Get flexible terms and competitive rates when you refinance your student loan with SoFi.
How Common Is Defaulting on Student Loans?
Defaulting on student loans is fairly common. The latest data from EducationData.org finds that one in 10 student loan borrowers has defaulted on a loan. In fact, roughly 4 million student loans go into default every year, and about 7% of loans are in default at any given time. As of 2021, the median loan balance among delinquent and defaulted borrowers was $15,307.
What Are the Consequences of Student Loan Default?
Defaulting on your student loans can have some steep consequences. For starters, the entire balance of your student loans could become due in full.
If you default on your student loans, your lender may eventually turn your debt over to a collection agency who will usually start calling, emailing, and even texting you to try and collect on your debt. You may even have to pay collection fees on top of everything else.
If you default, you may lose eligibility for programs that could help you manage your debt, such as deferment, forbearance, or Public Service Loan Forgiveness.
Once your student loans are in default, your loan servicer or collection agency will report your default to the three major credit bureaus, which will negatively impact your credit score.
And if your servicer can’t collect the money you owe on your federal student loans, they can ask the federal government to garnish a portion of your wages or your tax refund.
How Can You Recover From Student Loan Default?
If you failed to make payments on your student loans and they’ve gone into default, you don’t have to let it ruin your financial future. Here are some steps you can take to get back on track.
One option for getting out of student loan default is student loan rehabilitation. To rehabilitate your loan, you work with your loan servicer and agree in writing to make nine reasonable and affordable monthly payments over a period of 10 months.
In order to rehabilitate a Direct Loan or FFEL program loan, your monthly payments must be no more than 20 days late. Your loan servicer will determine the new monthly payment, which is 15% of your discretionary income.
When you have successfully rehabilitated your loan, the default may be wiped from your credit history. Note that any late payments reported to the credit bureaus before the loan went into default will remain on your credit reports.
Private student loans are not eligible for rehabilitation.
Credit Consumer Counseling Services (CCCS) are typically nonprofit organizations that offer free or low-cost counseling, education, and debt repayment services to help people regain control of their finances and make a plan to get out of debt.
If you’ve defaulted on your student loans, a credit counselor can help by analyzing your financial situation and student debt, laying out all the options for student loan debt relief, and helping you choose the best path forward.
CCCS agencies can also help you set up a budget and manage other debts. In some cases, they will work with your creditors to come up with payment plans where creditors agree that they will not pursue collection efforts or charge late fees while on the plan.
One word of caution: Credit counseling agencies are not the same thing as debt settlement companies, which are profit-driven businesses that often charge steep fees for results that are rarely guaranteed. Even if they are successful in reducing your debt, their fees (plus the unpaid interest and late payment charges on the debt) can add to what you initially owed, reducing your actual savings.
To ensure you find a reputable credit counselor, you might start your search using the U.S. Department of Justice’s list of approved credit counseling agencies.
Repaying Your Loan in Full
Another option to get out from under the shadow of student loan default is to repay your loans in full. Of course, if you had the funds to do so, you probably wouldn’t have defaulted in the first place. That said, you could look into ways to cover the balance due, such as borrowing from a family member or close friend.
Options for Private Student Loans
If you have private student loans that are in default, you can contact your lender and see what possibilities are available. Some lenders may have hardship options similar to the federal programs. As mentioned, the time it will take for your unpaid private loan to go into default depends on the lender — but the timeframe could be relatively short, even just 120 days.
However, if you’ve only recently missed a payment, you can start making payments again (and repay the missed payment) to try to prevent your loan from going into default.
Is Refinancing an Option for Defaulted Student Loans?
If your student loans are currently in default, refinancing your loans can be difficult. When you refinance your student loans, you take out a new loan with a private lender to pay off the existing loans. When you apply for a refinancing loan, lenders will use your credit score and financial history, among a few other factors, to determine if you qualify.
If your loan is already in default, your credit score has likely decreased significantly and will likely impact your ability to get approved for a new loan. If you have a family member or friend who is willing to cosign the loan, however, you may be able to refinance your student loans that way.
Another possibility for refinancing your student loans would be to rehabilitate your loans first. A lot of lenders might turn you down for having a defaulted loan on your credit history, but others might be willing to look past that and onto your education and income potential to approve you for a loan.
💡 Quick Tip: When refinancing a student loan, you may shorten or extend the loan term. Shortening your loan term may result in higher monthly payments but significantly less total interest paid. A longer loan term typically results in lower monthly payments but more total interest paid.
Can you Consolidate Defaulted Student Loans?
Another way to recover from student loan default is to consolidate your student loans in default. If you have federal loans, you can pursue defaulted student loan consolidation with the Direct Consolidation Loan program. This program allows you to combine one or more federal loans into a new consolidation loan.
To be eligible, you must either make three full, on-time, and consecutive payments on the defaulted loan or agree to make payments on an income-driven repayment plan.
Private student loans aren’t eligible for Direct Consolidation Loans. However, you can consolidate these loans with a private lender by refinancing.
Tips for Consolidating Defaulted Student Loans
Wondering how to consolidate defaulted student loans? To consolidate federal student loans, first gather all the documents you need. This includes your personal information such as your name, address, email, Social Security number, and FSA ID; financial information such as your income; and details about your loans, including amounts, account numbers, and loan servicers.
Next, go to studentaid.gov to fill out the Direct Consolidation Loan application. You’ll need your FSA ID to log in. Specify the loans you want to consolidate.
Then, choose one of the income-driven repayment plans if that’s the option you prefer. Review the plans in advance to determine which one is the best option for you.
Filling out the application typically takes less than 30 minutes.
Pros and Cons of Student Loan Consolidation
Choosing to consolidate defaulted student loans has advantages and disadvantages you’ll want to weigh before you move forward.
• One loan and one monthly bill. This means there will be less for you to keep track of.
• Lower payments. When you consolidate, you can choose an income-driven repayment plan or to lengthen the term of your loan, which could lower your monthly payments. (Note: You may pay more interest over the life of the loan if you refinance with an extended term.)
• Fixed interest rate. You’ll get a fixed interest rate for the life of your loans with Direct Loan Consolidation. The new rate is a weighted average of all your federal loan rates, rounded to the nearest eighth of a percent.
• Access to forgiveness programs. With a Direct Consolidation Loan, you might be able to get access to programs you weren’t eligible for previously, such as Public Service Loan Forgiveness.
• Longer repayment period. You could end up repaying your loans for an extra year or two, which will cost you more overall.
• Pay more in interest over the life of the loan. With consolidation, the outstanding interest on your loans is added to the principal balance, and interest may accrue on that higher balance.
• Possible loss of benefits. Consolidating loans other than Direct loans could mean giving up perks you have with those loans, such as rebates or interest rate discounts.
This comparison chart of the pros and cons of student loan consolidation can be helpful as you consider the question of should you refinance or consolidate your loans.
|Pros of Student Loan Consolidation
|Cons of Student Loan Consolidation
|Simplified payments with just one bill to pay each month.
|Longer repayment period means paying more overall.
|Monthly payments may be lower.
|Pay more in interest over the term of the loan.
|Fixed interest rate.
|Could lose benefits associated with current student loans.
|Possible access to certain forgiveness programs.
How to Manage Student Loans Without Going Into Default
If you’re struggling to make student loan payments but haven’t yet defaulted on your loan, taking action now could help prevent financial issues in the future. Here are some options that could help you take control of your student loan debt and avoid going into default.
Take Advantage of the Temporary Grace Period
Federal student loan payments and interest accrual has been paused since March 2022 in order to alleviate some of the financial challenges created by the coronavirus pandemic. However, the latest debt ceiling bill officially ended the payment pause, requiring interest to begin accruing again on Sept. 1. and payments to resume on October 1.
The Department of Education understands that restarting student loan payments after such a long pause will put many borrowers in a difficult financial position. So to prevent struggling borrowers from facing the harsh penalties of defaulting on their loans, there will be a 12-month ramp-up period to help borrowers adjust to repayment.
During this period, which takes place from Oct. 1, 2023 to Sept. 30, 2024, federal student loan borrowers who don’t make their payments on time and in full will not be reported to the credit bureaus, have their loans placed in default, or be referred to debt collectors.
Forbearance or Deferment
If you’re unable to make payments on your student loans due to a sudden and temporary economic change, you might consider applying for student loan deferment or forbearance. Both allow you to temporarily pause your loan payments.
If your loans are in forbearance, which is granted for 12 months at a time, you will be responsible for paying accrued interest during the forbearance period. If your loans are placed in deferment, which can last up to three years, you may not be responsible for accrued interest during the deferment period, depending on the type of loan you hold.
While your loans are in deferment or forbearance, you do have the option to make interest-only payments on the loan. If you choose not to, the accrued interest on most loans will be capitalized, or added to the principal balance. You’ll then be charged interest based on the larger loan amount.
Applying for Income-Driven Repayment (IDR)
Another option to help manage your student loans is income-driven repayment. There are four income-driven repayment plans available to federal student loan borrowers. Depending on the type of plan you qualify for, your monthly payments will be anywhere from 10% to 20% of your discretionary income. (Beginning in July 2024, the new SAVE plan will adjust payments to 5% of discretionary income.)
Income-driven repayment plans also stretch out the repayment term of the loan to either 20 or 25 years, depending on the specific plan. This means that while you could pay less per month, income-driven repayment could cost you more in interest over the life of the loan. The good news is that if you have any remaining debt at the end of the term, it will be forgiven (but you may need to pay income taxes on the canceled amount).
Consolidating Your Loans
Even if you’re not in default, you can consolidate your federal loans through the Direct Loan Consolidation program. As mentioned, the new interest rate will be the weighted average of the existing loans, rounded to the nearest eighth of a percent. So you won’t lower your effective interest rate, but you’ll only have to keep track of one monthly payment.
Refinancing Your Loans
If your monthly student loan payments are difficult for you to manage, you could consider refinancing with a private lender. If you have a combination of private and federal student loans, you could refinance both types into a single, private loan.
Refinancing can give you an opportunity to qualify for a lower interest rate or lower monthly payments, and you’ll only have to worry about tracking one payment each month. You may also be able to customize your repayment term — either lengthening or shortening the term.
By lengthening the term, you could reduce your monthly payments, but you may end up spending more money in interest over the life of the loan. To see how refinancing could impact your student loans, plug your numbers into this student loan refinance calculator.
It’s important to note that if you’re thinking of taking advantage of any federal programs such as income-driven repayment or Public Service Loan Forgiveness, refinancing may not be a good idea, as you’ll lose your eligibility for these programs.
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.
Does consolidating student loans remove default?
No. When you consolidate your student loans, the record of the default will stay on your credit history. Another option is loan rehabilitation, which removes the default from your credit history.
Can you consolidate defaulted student loans?
Yes, you can consolidate defaulted student loans. If you have federal loans, you can consolidate them with Direct Loan Consolidation. To be eligible, you must either make three full, on-time, and consecutive payments on the defaulted loan or agree to make payments on an income-driven repayment plan. You can fill out an application at studentaid.gov. You can consolidate private student loans with a private lender.
Can you refinance student loans that are in default?
You can refinance student loans that are in default, but it may be difficult. That’s because your credit score has likely decreased, which may impact your ability to get approved for refinancing. If you have a family member or friend who is willing to cosign the loan, you may be able to refinance your student loans that way. Or, you could rehabilitate your loans first, which could help improve your odds of being approved for refinancing.
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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