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Do you need a co-signer for student loans?

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A student loan co-signer is an adult with a good credit history and score who signs for a loan with you. A co-signer’s credit score and finances are considered alongside your own, and the co-signer shares legal responsibility for the loan. Having a co-signer can help you get the best student loan rates, but it may also be necessary in order for you to qualify at all.

Do you need a co-signer for student loans?

Whether you need a co-signer for student loans depends on which type of loan you’re taking out and your financial situation.

When you don’t need a co-signer

For most federal student loans, you can apply without a co-signer. This is because all undergraduate loans and some graduate school loans do not require a credit check and therefore are available to all eligible students who wish to apply.

You may also be able to get a private student loan without a co-signer if you have good credit — anything above 650 is typically best. If you have a great credit score and no history of late payments, you may be able to qualify on your own. Some lenders also advertise nontraditional application requirements or offer loans specifically to students without co-signers.

When you may need a co-signer

Private student loans do require a co-signer if you don’t have much credit history or if your credit score is low. Even if you qualify for a loan, you may want to consider a co-signer if you’re still building credit. In this case, you’ll probably be offered high interest rates, and adding a co-signer will help you get more competitive offers.

Co-signing federal student loans vs. private student loans

The process of co-signing a student loan differs by lender. Here’s what to know if you’re applying for federal or private student loans.

Federal student loans

All undergraduates can apply for federal student loans without a co-signer, and the same is true for graduates who apply for Direct Unsubsidized Loans. For grad PLUS loans, graduate students must go through a credit check; those who have an adverse credit history will need an endorser, who essentially serves as a co-signer on the loan.

To apply for these government-backed loans, you will need to fill out a Free Application for Federal Student Aid, or FAFSA. If you’re a dependent on your parents’ tax return, they will need to supply their information as well. Endorsers don’t need to apply with you, but they will need to submit an endorser addendum.

Private student loans

Private student loans, unlike their federal counterparts, are issued by banks, credit unions and online lenders. Instead of filling out a FAFSA, you apply for private student loans by submitting an application on the lender’s website or, if the lender has physical offices, in person. This application considers your credit history, credit score, income and employment history to determine whether you qualify and what rate you’ll receive.

If you don’t meet a lender’s credit requirements, you will need a co-signer to get a private student loan — which is why most undergraduates who take out a private student loan do so with a parent or other family member. You’ll need to include the co-signer’s information when you submit your application.

Releasing a co-signer from your loan

Private lenders commonly require co-signers, but some lenders may release co-signers from student loans once the primary borrower can meet certain requirements (e.g., creditworthiness, a certain number of on-time payments, etc.).

Releasing a co-signer from your loan is typically a straightforward process as long as your lender has the option to do so and you’ve met the payment requirements. In most cases, you’ll simply fill out a form requesting the release and potentially go through a credit check.

If you anticipate wanting to release your co-signer from the loan eventually, look for lenders that are upfront about their co-signer release policy. From there, ensure that you make timely payments on your loans and take steps to build your credit score to give yourself the best chance of qualifying. In many cases, you can apply for co-signer release after 12 to 36 months.

How to get a student loan without a co-signer

Your best option for getting a student loan without a co-signer is to apply for a federal student loan. If you must apply for a private student loan, you’ll need to make sure that you’re in good financial health to qualify for a loan without a co-signer.

Here are the best ways to increase your chances of being approved:

  • Make timely payments on existing credit. Make your payments on your credit cards on or before the due date. This shows that you are trustworthy, and it will help boost your credit score.
  • Don’t max out your credit card. Every credit card has a maximum credit limit. If you are constantly using the full amount, it will impact your credit score negatively. It is recommended that you use 30 percent or less of your credit limit to be considered a safe borrower.
  • Establish a steady income. Many lenders have a minimum annual income requirement, but they also typically look for borrowers with a steady source of income.
  • Find a lender with fewer requirements. There are some student loan lenders that want to make it easier for borrowers with little credit to access student loans. These lenders may look at your school information, major and future earnings potential to qualify you for a loan.

The bottom line

When you need help paying for college, consider all your options before taking out a loan with a co-signer. A co-signer might help you secure a student loan when your personal credit or income isn’t strong enough to qualify on your own, but they are equally liable for student loan debt, as much as if they were the sole borrower. You don’t want to make someone liable for your loans if you don’t have to. If you do enlist a co-signer, have an honest conversation beforehand about expectations once the loan enters repayment.

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Written by
Emma Woodward
Contributing writer
Emma Woodward is a former contributor for Bankrate and a freelance writer who loves writing to demystify personal finance topics. She has written for companies and publications like Finch, Toast, JBD Clothiers and The Financial Diet.
Edited by
Student loans editor