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Understanding How Direct Stafford Loans Can Help Fund Your Education

July 26, 2021 · 6 minute read

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Understanding How Direct Stafford Loans Can Help Fund Your Education

Direct Stafford Loans (or simply Stafford Loans or Direct Loans) are the most common federal student loans available for students seeking financial aid for college. While there are Stafford Loan limits, most students who fill out the Free Application for Student Aid (FAFSA®) can receive some amount of financial aid, whether those Stafford Loans are subsidized or unsubsidized.

Students interested in getting federal aid—including grants, federal student loans, and federal work-study—must submit the FAFSA annually. Here are some other important facts, deadlines, and tips to get you ready to apply for federal financial aid.

What Is a Direct Stafford Loan?

A Stafford Loan is a common name for the federal student loans available to eligible students directly from the US Department of Education. These subsidized or unsubsidized federal loans are often referred to as Stafford Loans or Direct Stafford Loans, which are offered under the William D. Ford Federal Direct Loan (Direct Loan) Program.

In 1988, Congress changed the name of the Federal Guaranteed Student Loan program to the Robert T. Stafford Student Loan program in honor of higher education champion, Senator Robert Stafford. This is one reason why Stafford Loans are sometimes referred to by different names.

Direct Stafford Loans are taken out in the student’s (not a parent’s) name. Before one accepts any loans as part of a financial aid package, it’s important to understand the fundamental differences between the two types of Stafford Loans you can apply for: subsidized or unsubsidized.

Subsidized vs Unsubsidized Loans

There are two different types of Direct Stafford Loans: subsidized and unsubsidized. With a subsidized Stafford Loan, the government will pay the interest that adds up while the borrower is in school at least half-time, during the loan’s grace period (the first six months after graduating or dropping below half-time enrollment), and during a deferment—an official postponement of payments. In contrast, borrowers with unsubsidized student loans are responsible for all of the interest that accrues on the loan at all times.

To be eligible for a subsidized loan, borrowers must meet the income requirements for need-based aid. The school determines the amount a student is able to borrow. As of 2012, subsidized Stafford Loans were no longer available for graduate or professional students.

Related: Explaining Federal Direct Unsubsidized Loans

Unsubsidized Stafford Loans start to accrue interest as soon as the loan is disbursed. These loans are available to undergraduate, graduate, and professional students, and there is no requirement to demonstrate financial need.

Students are not required to start paying back unsubsidized Direct Stafford loans while they are in school, but they are responsible for the interest at all times—including before graduation and during the loan’s grace period.

Students can estimate their federal student aid eligibility before filling out the FAFSA. If students have the flexibility to only accept some of the financial aid package, it may be worth accepting subsidized loans before unsubsidized (if eligible) in order to take advantage of the potential interest savings.

Stafford Loan Limits and Rates

It is up to a student’s school to determine which loan type and loan amounts they receive every year. There are Direct Stafford Loan limits, which are determined by a student’s year in school and whether they are considered a dependent or independent student.

What Is the Direct Stafford Loan Interest Rate?

Interest rates for federal student loans are fixed for the life of the loan and are set annually. For subsidized and unsubsidized Direct Stafford Loans disbursed between July 1, 2021, and June 30, 2022, the interest rates for undergraduates is 3.73%.

What Are Direct Stafford Loan Limits For Undergraduates?

First-year undergraduate dependent students are eligible for Direct loans of up to $5,500, but only $3,500 of that amount can be subsidized. (Note: this excludes students whose parents are ineligible for Direct PLUS Loans.)

This amount can increase with each year you’re in school at least half-time, with even higher limits for eligible graduate students.

For undergraduate dependent students, the current annual loan limits are as follows :

•  First Year: $5,500 maximum, no more than $3,500 subsidized

•  Second Year: $6,500 maximum, no more than $4,500 subsidized

•  Third Year and Beyond: $7,500 maximum, no more than $5,500 subsidized

•  Total Direct Stafford Loan Limits: $31,000 max, $23,000 subsidized

The loan limit amounts vary based on a student’s year in school. Additionally, loan limits differ for dependent and independent students. Independent students are generally considered to be financially independent by meeting certain eligibility requirements. Graduate or professional students can take out a maximum of $20,500 annually, but only in unsubsidized loans.

Dependent students whose parents are not eligible for a Direct Parent PLUS Loan, might be able to take out additional Direct Unsubsidized Loans.

Additionally, students can’t receive Direct Subsidized Loans for more than 150% of the published length of their degree program. For instance, if you are in a four-year bachelor’s degree program, the maximum amount of time you can receive Direct Subsidized Loans is six years.

Applying for a Direct Stafford Loan

In order to qualify for Direct Loans, students must be a US citizen, permanent resident, or eligible non-citizen; enrolled at least part-time in an accredited college; and not in default on any other education loan.

Students can apply for all federal financial aid online via the FAFSA website. According to the Department of Education, almost every FAFSA applicant is eligible for some kind of student aid package that may include federal student loans. Unlike most private student loans, however, most federal student loans do not require a credit check or a cosigner.

Typically, a student’s school will apply their student loan funds to pay for tuition, fees, room and board, and other school charges. (They also factor in any scholarships, federal grants and work-study.) If any additional funds remain, the money will be returned to you, which is why it’s important to carefully consider the amount of loan funding you need.

While a loan refund may be nice in the moment, that money will still need to be repaid (with interest)—though some students might find the funds useful for other school-related items like books and technology. (All Direct Stafford Loan funds must be used for education expenses.)

When Do You Have to Pay Back Your Direct Stafford Loan?

The simple answer is: after the grace period. The grace period for Direct Stafford Loan repayment begins the day the borrower officially leaves school, and lasts for six months. Also, if you change your student status to less than half-time enrollment, that starts the clock on the grace period, too.

Take note: educational institutions define “half-time enrollment” in different ways. The status is usually, but not always, based on the number of hours and credits in which a student is enrolled. When in doubt, check with the school’s student aid office to confirm their official definition.

The total timeframe of the Direct Stafford Loan repayment grace period: six months, and not a day more (with a handful of exceptions ). Another thing to keep in mind about that grace period: students may want to start making payments on the loan during the grace period.

Even though grace periods are meant to give borrowers time to adjust to their post-school life, the interest on an unsubsidized loan is still accruing during the grace period. At the end of the grace period, the accrued interest is capitalized, or added to the principal amount of the loan.

One quick tip while on the subject of grace periods: Find out who the student loan servicer is so you know who to contact with any questions. Borrowers don’t get to choose their own federal student loan servicer. They’re assigned by the Department of Education to handle billing and other services.

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Repaying Direct Stafford Loans

The default payment plan is the Standard Repayment Plan, which sets the monthly payment to the amount that will pay off the loan in 120 payments, or 10 years. However, there are alternative federal repayment plans to consider that can help lower monthly payments. (Note that lowering the monthly payments is generally the result of extending the repayment term, which will usually make the loan more expensive in the long run).

Direct Consolidation Loans

There are also Direct Consolidation Loans that allow borrowers to consolidate their federal student loans into one new loan, at an interest rate that’s the weighted average of all the existing interest rates (rounded up to the nearest eighth of a percent). That typically doesn’t help save money on interest, but does streamline repayment (one loan, one lender, one payment to make each month).

Student Loan Refinancing

Another option is to refinance student loans with a private lender, which may be appealing to borrowers who are in a financially stable place and have federal and/or private student loans.

Refinancing lets you pay off the loans you already have with a brand-new loan from a private lender. This can be done with both federal and private loans. The new loan from a private lender may allow borrowers to breathe easier with interest rates and repayment terms that work better for them.

But refinancing isn’t without its downsides. Federal student loans that are refinanced with a private lender, will lose all the federal benefits and protections—like income-driven repayment options and loan forgiveness for public service work. Borrowers who want to keep their federal student loans as federal student loans, could consider consolidation instead.

The Takeaway

Direct Stafford Loans are federal student loans offered to students to help them pay for college. There are two major types of direct loans, subsidized and unsubsidized. Students with subsidized student loans are not responsible for any accrued interest while they are enrolled at least half-time and during the loan’s grace period. Unsubsidized student loans begin accruing interest as soon as they are disbursed, and borrowers are responsible for repaying all of the accrued interest at all times.

The size of a Stafford Loan depends on such factors as education costs and financial-aid eligibility. If your costs are higher than your awarded federal student loans and other financial aid, one way to cover the gap is with a private student loan.

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