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Funding a college education can be a challenge for many student borrowers, with annual costs running over $26,000 per year, according to the Education Data Initiative. When grants, scholarships, and federal student loans aren’t enough, private student loans can help to cover the difference.
Funded by banks and private lenders, private school loans can help to cover expenses like tuition, fees, housing, books, and supplies. Lenders set their eligibility criteria, and interest rates generally depend on a borrower’s creditworthiness. While private loans are a helpful tool for some, they are not the best option for everyone; weigh the pros and cons of this loan type before borrowing.
One benefit of private student loans is that many lenders let you borrow up to the full cost of your education. However, this policy varies by lender, your credit score, your major and whether you have a co-signer.
Some lenders cap the total loan amount with a lifetime loan limit, which could depend on the type of private student loan you’re applying for. For example, with Citizens Bank, undergraduates and most graduate students may borrow an aggregate $150,000 in student loans. That limit rises to $225,000 for MBA and law degrees and up to $250,000 for healthcare degrees.
Many private student loan lenders have the same grace period as federal student loans, which is six months after graduating, dropping below part-time status or leaving school. They also have a variety of repayment terms, often ranging from five to 20 years.
Some lenders are more flexible than others when it comes to repayment timelines. For example, College Ave lets undergraduate borrowers choose repayment terms of five, eight, 10 or 15 years, while Discover offers only a 15-year term.
You can typically refinance your loans after you graduate. This can be a good option if you don’t like your repayment plan and want to secure a lower monthly payment or different repayment timeline.
All lenders have internal guidelines for which borrowers they accept and which borrowers get the lowest interest rates. Generally speaking, lenders typically look for:
- Good credit: The better your credit score, the more likely you are to qualify for private student loans at the lowest interest rate available. If your credit score is too low, you may need a co-signer.
- High income: Lenders want to see if you’re in a place to comfortably repay your student loans. You or your co-signer must prove you have a solid income to repay your student loans.
- Low debt-to-income ratio: Lenders will be more hesitant to lend you money if you have a lot of debt relative to your income. Try to aim for a debt-to-income ratio of less than 50 percent.
- Citizenship: Many lenders require you to be at least 18 years old and have U.S. citizenship. International students are eligible with some lenders as long as they have a U.S. citizen co-sign their loans.
- Eligible school or program: Lenders may check out your school to verify your enrollment, and some only work with certain schools. They will also check your total cost of attendance minus other aid to make sure that you’re not borrowing more than you legitimately need. You might not qualify for private student loans if you’re not enrolled or accepted into an eligible program.
Federal student loans set interest rates before each academic year, and all borrowers who apply within a given academic year receive the same fixed interest rate. Private lenders, on the other hand, are free to set interest rate ranges and change those rates regularly. Interest rates depend on several factors, including your credit score, loan amount and chosen repayment term. Private student loan rates typically range from around 1 percent to 14 percent.
Private loans generally offer borrowers the choice between a fixed interest rate and a variable interest rate. Starting interest rates for fixed-rate loans are typically higher than for variable-rate loans. However, if you choose a fixed rate, the rate you receive upon accepting your loan is the rate you’ll pay for the duration. If you choose a variable rate, the rate you receive could change regularly, potentially making your loan more expensive over time.
Pros and cons of private student loans
Private student loans have many benefits, but you should also consider the downsides before signing up.
- High loan amounts. Federal student loans have annual caps that can be as low as $5,500 for undergraduate students. After you max out your federal student loans, you may still need money to cover additional costs. Private student loans can help to fill in the gaps.
- Quick application process. While federal student loans require borrowers to fill out the Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA), private student loans do not. You can apply for most private student loans online in just a few minutes without providing nearly as much information.
- Available for part-time college students. You have to be enrolled in school at least half time to qualify for federal loans, but some private lenders will let you borrow money if you attend school less often than that.
- Competitive interest rates. Student loan interest rates and loan terms can be incredibly generous for borrowers with excellent credit or a qualified co-signer. If you want to pay as little interest as possible on your student loans, private student loans may be the best option.
- Shorter repayment timelines. Private student loans tend to come with shorter repayment timelines than federal loans. Through some government programs, you can adjust your student loan repayment to 25 or 30 years, while most private student loans have caps of 15 years for undergraduates.
- No government-sponsored public service or teacher loan forgiveness. Programs like Public Service Loan Forgiveness (PSLF) are not available for private loans. In general, there are few forgiveness options for private loans.
- No income-driven payment plans. Some federal student loans can be repaid on income-driven repayment plans, which adjust your monthly payment based on your income. Private student loans typically only have traditional repayment options.
- No government deferment or forbearance. While some private student loans have hardship options if you’re having trouble making payments, these programs are not nearly as robust as what federal loans offer.
Federal vs. private student loans
|Federal loans||Private loans|
|Type of interest rates||Fixed rates only||Variable or fixed interest rates|
|Loan amounts||Up to $57,500 aggregate for undergraduates, up to the full cost of attendance for graduates||Up to the full cost of attendance with most lenders|
|Grace period||6 months||Can be as long as 12 months|
|Co-signer required?||No||Often required|
|Repayment terms||Standard term is 10 years; income-driven repayment plans available to extend repayment||5 to 20 years|
|Loan forgiveness programs||Available for all borrowers||None|
|Need good credit to qualify?||No||Yes|
|Best for||Most borrowers||Borrowers who have reached their federal loan limit|
When to consider getting a private student loan?
Most experts suggest maximizing federal student loans before turning to private student loans. That way, you’ll have access to income-driven repayment plans, loan forgiveness programs and extended deferment and forbearance periods.
If you still need money to cover tuition or other expenses, consider private student loans. And only borrow what you need; the more you borrow now, the more you’ll have to pay back after you graduate.
Other scenarios where private loans make sense include:
- Your expenses suddenly change. If you’ve already maxed out federal student loans and your college expenses suddenly go up, private student loans can help you access more funding quickly.
- You don’t qualify for federal loans. International students may not qualify for federal loans, so private loans could be the only source of funding.
- You have a specific plan to repay the money you borrow in a short amount of time. If you have a plan to repay your student loans over a few years, private student loans could end up being cheaper overall.
How to choose the best private student loan
It’s important to shop around before you decide on a lender. In other words, take the time to compare loan options from multiple lenders; don’t just go with the first private student loan company you find. Here’s how to find the best one:
- Decide between a fixed and variable rate. Many private lenders offer the choice between a fixed and a variable rate, but some offer only one or the other. Consider your priorities ahead of time so you know what to look for.
- Compare interest rates. Interest rates determine how much your student loan will cost in total. Compare interest rate ranges from various private lenders to find the lowest one. Take advantage of prequalification offers so you can see what rate you qualify for without incurring a hard check on your credit report.
- Apply for the right loan for your degree. Some student loans are created for students in specific programs. For example, you will need to explore specific private loan programs if you’re pursuing an MBA or planning to attend medical or dental school.
- Research each lender’s reputation. A lender’s reputation is just as important as its interest rate when it comes to applying for a private student loan. There are lots of reputable third parties you can use when looking into a lender’s reviews, like the Better Business Bureau (BBB).
- Browse benefits. Some lenders offer specific benefits, like no late fees or long grace periods. Some might offer programs that make payments more manageable after graduation.
- Ensure that the lender accepts your school. While a lender might sound good on paper, some may have a specific list of approved schools. To find out if your school qualifies, you can check the lender’s website or call to inquire.
Private student loans and loan forgiveness
Private student loans don’t offer forgiveness programs the way that federal loans do. The only way private student loans can be forgiven is if the borrower dies or becomes permanently disabled.
Many private student loan lenders offer hardship assistance programs, but qualifications vary based on your lender and circumstances. There’s no standard across all private student loan lenders, so you’ll need to contact each one to see if you’re eligible.
The bottom line
Private student loans are an important option for many borrowers to fund the rising costs of college. While they are not the best option for everyone, private loans can close the gap between a student’s financial aid package and the billed cost of school.
Before applying, be sure you understand the different kinds of student loans available, the pros and cons of each, and which would best suit your financial needs and educational situation.