You may have noticed when shopping around for student loans that some lenders display an interest rate, while others show an APR. What’s the difference? The main distinction is that APR (which stands for annual percentage rate) includes any fees or other charges the lender may add to the loan principal. The “interest rate” does not.
When shopping for a student loan, it’s key to know whether you’re looking at an APR or an interest rate, since this can have a significant impact on the total cost of the loan. Read on to learn more about APR vs. interest rate, what each number includes, and how to compare student loan rates apples to apples to find the best deal.
How Do Student Loan Interest Rates Work?
As with any loan, the interest rate represents the amount your lender is charging you to borrow money. It’s expressed as a percentage of your loan amount (or principal) and doesn’t reflect any fees or other charges that might be connected to your loan. Interest rates can be fixed (the same for the life of the loan) or variable (may fluctuate over the life of the loan).
Interest rates work differently depending on whether a student loan is federal or private. Congress sets the interest rate for federal student loans. The rate is fixed — and it’s the same for all borrowers. The federal student loan interest rate for undergraduates is 5.50% for new loans taken out for the 2023-24 school year, effective from July 1, 2023 to June 30, 2024.
Private student loan companies are allowed to set their own interest rates, which may be higher or lower than rates for federal loans. Interest rates on private loans may be fixed or variable and typically depend on the creditworthiness of the borrower (or cosigner) — those with higher credit scores generally qualify for lower rates, while borrowers with lower credit scores tend to get higher rates.
💡 Quick Tip: You can fund your education with a low-rate, no-fee private student loan that covers all school-certified costs.
What Is the Student Loan APR, and How Is It Different From Interest Rate?
A loan’s annual percentage rate (APR) represents a more comprehensive view of what you’re being charged. It tells you the total cost of the loan per year, including any fees, such as an origination fee. Because of that, a loan’s APR may be higher than its interest rate.
Looking at the APR helps you compare different loan offers and get a real picture of the overall cost you will pay for borrowing money for your education. If a loan doesn’t have any fees then the interest and the APR will be the same.
Federal student loans publish interest rates but not the APRs, so it’s important to keep in mind that the headline interest rate of a federal student loan is not the total cost of that loan. These loans also charge an origination fee, which is 1.057% for Direct Subsidized and Direct Unsubsidized loans, and 4.228% for Direct PLUS loans (unsubsidized loans for the parents and graduate/professional students.)
For private student loans, origination fees vary by lender. While some private lenders charge origination fees, it’s possible to find a private loan that doesn’t come with these fees. However, it’s important to keep in mind that private student loans generally don’t come with the same protections as federal student loans, such as income-driven repayment plans and forgiveness programs.
What Fees / Charges Might Be Included in a Student Loan APR?
For student loans, the most common fee is the loan origination fee. Whether the loan is federal or private, this fee is typically based on a percentage of the total loan amount and will be deducted from your loan amount before the loan is dispersed. This means that if you borrow $10,000 and the origination fee is 1.057%, $105.70 will be deducted from your total loan amount — so you would actually receive $9,894.30 for the year.
While origination fees can be small, the cost can add up. Because these fees are deducted from the total loan amount, you are paying the fee with borrowed money and will pay interest on the fee paid.
Both private and federal student loans may also have late fees and returned payment (or insufficient funds) fees, both of which add to the total amount you must repay. However, you can avoid these fees by always paying your bill on time and making sure you have enough money in your bank account to cover the payment.
Fees vary widely from one lender to the next, and some private lenders may not charge any fees.
If a Loan’s Interest Rate and APR Are the Same, Does That Mean There Are No Hidden Fees?
Typically, yes. Just keep in mind that interest rates published for federal student loans are not APRs and do not include the origination fee. This fee will come out of the amount of money that is disbursed (paid out) to you while you’re in school.
The student loan APRs listed by private lenders include any additional charges and fees. If the lender doesn’t charge any fees, the APR and interest rate will be the same.
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When Shopping for a Loan, Should I Look at Interest Rate, APR, or Both?
Whenever available, you’ll want to look at the APR of a student loan, since this number allows a more apples-to-apples comparison of loan costs. If you just compare straight interest rates, you can miss the big picture in terms of the total cost of the loan. Sometimes those additional fees can make a big impact.
It’s also important to know when the interest rate or APR will kick in. Although the interest rate is the same for federal Direct Subsidized and Direct Unsubsidized loans, the latter loan ends up costing significantly more because interest starts accruing from the time the funds are disbursed. With subsidized federal loans, the interest does not accrue while you are still in school.
With private student loans, interest typically begins to accrue as soon as the loan money is disbursed to your school.
Whether interest starts accruing immediately or later, you typically don’t have to start making any payments on private or federal student loans until after you graduate.
💡 Quick Tip: It’s a good idea to understand the pros and cons of private student loans and federal student loans before committing to them.
A student loan’s interest rate is the cost of borrowing money, and is expressed as a percentage of the loan amount. APR includes the interest rate as well as the additional costs and fees associated with borrowing. As a result, it gives you a more complete picture of the total cost of the loan. Understanding APR vs. interest rate is important when you’re researching best rates for student loans. It will help you make informed decisions that may lower your cost of borrowing.
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.
What is a good APR for a student loan?
For new loans taken out for the 2023-24 school year, the federal student loan interest rate is 5.50% for undergraduates (whether the loan is unsubsidized or subsidized). For graduate students it’s 7.05% (subsidized) or 8.05% (unsubsidized). For parents, it’s 8.05%.
Average private student loan annual percentage rates (APRs) range from just under 4% to almost 15% percent.
Is APR better than interest rate?
The annual percentage rate (APR) gives you a more accurate picture of the true cost of financing. The APR of a loan tells you how much you will pay for a loan over the course of a year after accounting for the interest rate as well as any extra costs, like origination fees.
When comparing loan offers, it’s generally better to compare APRs than interest rates, since this allows you to compare loan offers apples to apples.
Can APR and interest rate be the same?
Yes. If no fees are added to your loan amount, the interest rate and the annual percentage rate (APR) will be the same.
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