In addition to receiving housing information and their class schedules, students heading back to campus this fall should look out for one more crucial piece of mail this summer.

Beginning July 1, the majority of families who hold federal Stafford, Grad PLUS or Parent PLUS loans will receive notices that their loans have been bought by the Department of Education, says Sam Nelson, director of client relations for the Illinois Student Assistance Commission.

“To help lenders stay in the student loan market, the federal government is buying on the secondary market and servicing the loans themselves,” says Nelson. “Six out of every 10 student loan dollars are now made with federal money instead of with private capital.”

Although the change is no cause for alarm, students should be aware that the switch in loan servicers could affect certain borrower incentives and will affect where payments should be sent. Here’s what to do if the federal government scoops up your student loan.

Consider your incentives

“Having your student loan purchased by the Department of Education doesn’t really change much for the student borrower,” says Jason Delisle, director of the federal education budget project at the New America Foundation, a think tank in Washington, D.C. “The terms and conditions of the loan are already spelled out by the federal government. They won’t change at all. The only thing that changes is who’s servicing the loan.”

Delisle adds that while interest rates, loan limits, fees, repayment conditions and default options will stay the same for new loans and old ones currently in repayment, borrowers who took out student loans before the Department of Education started purchasing them in 2007 could lose certain borrower incentives.

“Before 2007, when the Department of Education started buying loans under ECASLA (Ensuring Continued Access to Student Loans Act), lenders offered certain discounts. For example, you might get a fee waiver before you start payments, or you might get 2 percent off of your remaining principal after making two years of consecutive payments,” says Mark Kantrowitz, publisher of the financial aid Web site Finaid.org. “When ECASLA took effect, lenders who wanted their loans to be purchased by the Department of Education had to stop offering almost all of those incentives.”

Most large student lenders — including Wachovia, JPMorgan Chase, KeyBank, Edamerica and the National Education Loan Network, or Nelnet — switched to the ECASLA program and dropped all borrower incentives except one: ECASLA gives borrowers who set up automatic payments on their accounts a 0.25 percent interest rate reduction.

A few lenders, such as Wells Fargo, service loans outside the ECASLA program and still offer a broad range of incentives. Although students who took out loans before 2007 with lenders who switched to ECASLA have already lost their incentives, those who have stuck with non-ECASLA lenders could lose their current incentives if they consolidate non-ECASLA loans with those sold to the Department of Education.

“That means that if you received any front-end discounts, like a cash principal reduction after you graduated, you could get a letter saying, ‘Please pay that back,'” says Kantrowitz. “It may be worthwhile to keep a loan out of consolidation just to keep the discounts.”

To figure out if consolidation will mean losing lucrative benefits, Kantrowitz recommends that students considering consolidation ask their lenders about benefit loss before combining loans.

Stay in contact

On top of consolidation woes, a change in loan servicers could also affect where and when students should send in payments.

“The biggest thing borrowers need to know if their loan is sold is that they may need to send payments to a different address and to notify the new servicer if they move,” says Nelson. “One of the easiest ways that students end up in default is that the mail never gets to them because the student never tells them where they’re moving. If a borrower wants to be proactive, stay on top of that issue.”

Sending payments to a different address is no big deal for borrowers whose loans were all bought by the Department of Education. However, borrowers who hold multiple loans, some dating prior to 2007, may find that some of their loans have been bought under ECASLA and others haven’t. In that case, students may need to send payments to two different loan-servicing agencies.

To ensure that they’re on top of payments, students should contact their lenders as soon as possible to verify where to send payments and to which servicers, especially if multiple lenders are involved, says Frank Gittens, CEO and co-founder of Advance Your Institution, a Goodyear, Ariz., company that provides liquidity for school-sponsored student loans.

“If I have a Bank of America loan from last year and a Citibank from this year and both entities are selling to the Department (of Education), I would call and ask, ‘How is that going to get reconciled when it comes to paying back my loans?'” says Gittens. “Are they going to combine payments? If not, I’d think about consolidating those loans. When you graduate, you’re not going to want several different bills to pay.”

Students can bypass the change-of-address problem and save a little on interest by enrolling in an automatic payment system that directly withdraws from a bank account each month. Students and parents can also pay loans online at www.dl.ed.gov.

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