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Student Loan Rates: A Primer

January 29, 2020 · 8 minute read

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Student Loan Rates: A Primer

Trying to figure out ways to lower your student loan interest rates?

The process may seem impossible to understand. Consolidation, refinancing, federal vs. private student loans, variable vs. fixed rates—what do these terms even mean?

The lingo isn’t as scary as it sounds. And snagging a lower student loan rate may not be as difficult as you think.

Granted, there are a lot of moving parts, between understanding average student loans rates and learning the difference between federal and private loans.

Don’t worry, though — we’ve done some homework for you. Once you get the hang of how rates work, you may be able to better determine whether you’re getting a good deal.

Who Sets Student Loan Rates for Federal and Private Loans

Federal student loan rates are set by Congress (through legislation). Your student loan servicer, or the company in charge of your loan repayment plan, doesn’t have any power to change your federal student loan interest rates.

Private lenders set their own interest rates, and each of those lenders may have multiple loan packages offering different rate and term options. The rate can depend on several factors, such as the lender’s underwriting criteria, and the borrower’s credit history, employment history, and income.

Average Student Loan Rates for Federal Loans

For the 2019–2020 school year, the interest rate on undergraduate Direct Loans taken out after July 1, 2019, is 4.53%. And for graduate Direct Loans, it’s 6.08%.

Direct PLUS loans, which are federal loans available to graduate students or to parents of undergrads, have an interest rate of 7.08% as of July 2019.

To break this down a little further, let’s say your debt is $31,172 , which is the average amount of student debt per person in the U.S. as of 2019.

Using SoFi’s Student Loan Calculator for an estimate, if you are paying an interest rate of approximately 4.53% over a 10-year term, your monthly payment would come to around $323.51 and the interest charge would be approximately $7,650, for a total debt of $38.822.

While these numbers may seem high, federal rates are actually down. Rates on federal student loans had been steadily rising for the past two years, but they dropped from 5.05% for the 2018–2019 school year to 4.53% for the 2019-2020 school year.

Federal student loan rates have been reset annually (in July) since a 2013 law that tied loan rates to market conditions and placed a cap on rates. Because of this law, federal student loan rates are based on the yield, or return on investment, of 10-year Treasury notes. These notes are sold at Treasury auctions held annually in May. A lower yield at the Treasury auctions prompts lower student loan rates.

If you’re a parent expecting more than one child to attend college in the coming years, remember that federal rates currently change annually. This means that your second or third child’s rate could be different from the rate of your student starting school in 2020. .

However, if rates rise, you can take comfort in knowing that a higher yield at the Treasury is also seen as a signal of investor confidence in U.S. economic growth—and though there’s obviously no guarantee of where the economy is headed, a strong economy is just the kind of thing you want when your child enters the job market after college.

Average Rates for Private Student Loans

Private lenders each set their own fees, interest rates, terms, and APRs. An APR (or annual percentage rate) combines the interest rate over a year with the fees to reflect the total cost of the loan and make it easier to compare lenders.

As of this writing, APRs on private student loans range from around just under 3% (for variable rate loans) to just under 14% . This range is similar to 2019, but can (and does frequently) fluctuate. Many lenders offer repayment terms of five, 10, or 15 years, and some will offer even more repayment options, like eight-year terms.

Even for a single lender, rates offered can differ depending on factors like the borrower’s credit history, employment, whether they have a cosigner, and the specific loan package chosen.

Lenders typically offer fixed rate loans, meaning the rate doesn’t change over time, or a variable rate loan, meaning the rate could go up or down during the debt repayment term depending on market factors.

Lowering Student Loan Payments by Consolidating or Refinancing

Whether you have one student loan or several, you might be able to get better rates or terms by either refinancing or consolidating your loans.

When you initially took out your student loan(s), you agreed to certain conditions, like fees, length of loan repayment, and, of course, interest rate. But better loan conditions might become available after you’ve agreed to your loan terms.

Maybe there’s a student loan option that better fits your needs but didn’t exist before, or there’s a new financial institution that’s arrived on the scene.

Or maybe your own financial situation has changed and you have a better-paying job or an improved credit score. Or perhaps you’ve chosen to work for a non-profit or for a government agency to give back to underserved communities.

In these cases, among others, consolidating or refinancing could be a game-changer. These two options are similar but have some important differences.

Lowering Monthly Payments by Consolidating Student Loans

If you have multiple federal loans, you could consider consolidating them with a Direct Consolidation Loan. When you consolidate federal student loans, you lump the loans you have chosen to consolidate into just one loan.

Consolidating your loans won’t necessarily land you a lower rate, first because the outstanding interest on the loans you’re consolidating is added to the principal balance on your new Direct Consolidation Loan..

In addition, to determine your new interest rate with a Direct Consolidation Loan, figure out the weighted average of all your original loans’ rates, then round up to the nearest eighth of a percent. You may want to play with the mix of loans you are thinking about consolidating to view different weighted averages.

In some cases, your monthly payments may decrease when you consolidate your loans, but it’s usually because you end up paying back your loans over a longer period of time—which means paying more for your loans overall.

Consolidation could be an ideal solution, especially if you’re seeking to take advantage of income-driven repayment or Public Service Loan Forgiveness (PSLF), but you might not save much on interest in the long run. However, some borrowers still prefer to consolidate. One reason may be because making one monthly payment is simpler than making several, so it can be easier to keep up.

Lowering Rates by Refinancing Student Loans

If you have private student loans (or a combination of federal and private student loans), you may benefit from refinancing. Essentially, refinancing is taking out a new loan with new terms to pay off an older debt.

How can refinancing lower your interest rate? When you refinance, the lender looks at your financial situation now as opposed to your finances from when you originally took out your loans.

Depending upon market conditions and if your credit has improved or you earn more money now, you could possibly qualify for a lower rate or more favorable terms on a new loan. If you qualify for a better interest rate, refinancing could mean saving thousands of dollars over the life of the loan. And the earlier you refinance into a lower student loan interest rate, the more you could possibly save.

Student loan refinancing into a longer term also could be a great way for working graduates with high-interest loans to save money without having to cut other expenses. Although, just as it is with the Direct Consolidation Loan, lower monthly payments are usually achieved by having a longer repayment term, which likely means paying more interest over the life of the refinance loan.

When refinancing, you can typically choose between fixed or variable interest rates. If a rate is fixed, your monthly payments will stay the same until you pay off the entire loan. When the rate is variable, it can change as economic conditions change.

As of this writing, fixed rates for private refinance loans range anywhere from around 4% to around 13%, and variable rates range between just under 3% to around 13% (but these rates can, and do, change frequently ).

Before you choose between a fixed or variable rate, you might want to talk with your chosen lender and if you are considering a variable rate, check out the London Interbank Offered Rate (LIBOR) movement to view how the LIBOR index is directly tied and can move in tandem with economic conditions and the fed funds rate. Refinancing is always done through a private lender. Many private lenders handle only private loans, but SoFi refinances both private and federal loans. This makes it possible to have only one monthly payment, even if you have both federal and private loans.

This way, you’ll no longer have to deal with the hassle of keeping track of multiple student loan payments that may have different lenders, terms, or interest rates.

SoFi doesn’t charge application fees, origination fees, or prepayment penalties. As a SoFi member, you are also eligible to gain complimentary access to features like career services, exclusive member events, , and live online customer support.

Before refinancing, keep one thing in mind: Refinancing government loans could mean losing out on federal benefits such as student loan forgiveness programs and income-driven repayment options, so it is worth considering this tradeoff before making any decisions.

Ready to refinance your student loans? Find your rate online with SoFi!

SoFi Loan Products
SoFi loans are originated by SoFi Bank, N.A., NMLS #696891 (Member FDIC). For additional product-specific legal and licensing information, see Equal Housing Lender.

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.

External Websites: The information and analysis provided through hyperlinks to third-party websites, while believed to be accurate, cannot be guaranteed by SoFi. Links are provided for informational purposes and should not be viewed as an endorsement.


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