Best private student loans in September 2021

As of

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4.3

Bankrate Score
Fixed APR From

3.50%

with AutoPay
Variable APR From

1.13%

with AutoPay
Term10-15yr

4.6

Bankrate Score
Fixed APR From

2.99%

with AutoPay
Variable APR From

0.99%

with AutoPay
Term5-20yr

4.4

Bankrate Score
Fixed APR From

2.99%

with AutoPay
Variable APR From

0.99%

with AutoPay
Term5-15yr

4.6

Bankrate Score
Fixed APR From

2.99%

with AutoPay
Variable APR From

0.99%

with AutoPay
Term5-15yr

4.5

Bankrate Score
Fixed APR From

3.23%

Variable APR From

1.03%

Term5-15yr

4.1

Bankrate Score
Fixed APR From

3.20%

Variable APR From

1.20%

Term5-15yr
Fixed APR From

3.34%

with AutoPay
Variable APR From

1.04%

with AutoPay
Term5-20yr

4.1

Bankrate Score
Fixed APR From

4.25%

with AutoPay
Variable APR From

1.25%

with AutoPay
Term5-20yr

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The Bankrate guide to choosing the best private student loans

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When shopping for a student loan, look for a competitive interest rate, flexible repayment terms that meet your needs, generous hardship options and minimal fees. Loan details presented here are current as of July 23, 2021. Check the lenders’ websites for more current information. The top lenders listed below are selected based on factors such as APR, loan amounts, fees, credit requirements and broad availability. To learn more about how we chose lenders, read our methodology above.

Summary: What you need to know about private student loans

What is a private student loan and how does it work?

A private student loan is a loan used to cover qualifying educational expenses. You can take out private student loans through banks, online lenders and credit unions, and sometimes through colleges and state agencies. These usually have higher borrowing limits than federal student loans and may offer lower interest rates for borrowers with good credit, but they come with fewer borrower protections.

To qualify, you’ll need to meet the lender’s eligibility requirements and go through a credit check. Applicants with good or excellent credit tend to get the lowest interest rates. But because undergraduates usually don’t have extensive credit histories, they typically need a co-signer to take out a private student loan.

How to get a private student loan

While every lender has its own application process, there are a few general steps you'll need to take to get a private student loan:

  1. Check your credit score. Some lenders will list credit score requirements on their websites, but even if they don't, it's safe to assume that you'll need a credit score in the mid-600s to qualify for a student loan.
  2. Enlist a co-signer if needed. If you don't have much credit history or if your credit score is poor, you may need to get a co-signer. This person — usually a parent or family member — signs onto your loan with you in order to help you get approved.
  3. Get prequalified. The rates that lenders advertise aren't necessarily the rates you'll receive. By getting prequalified with a few lenders, you can compare your options to see which loan is best for your needs.
  4. Send in an application. Once you've chosen a lender, you'll send in your full application, which will ask for details like your Social Security number, financial history and school information. You'll also go through a hard credit check at this stage.
  5. Wait for verification. The lender will process your application and confirm your cost of attendance with your school. After a few weeks, the lender will typically disburse the funds directly to your school.

How does a private student loan differ from a federal student loan?

The main difference between private and federal student loans is where you get them. Federal student loans are funded by the federal government, while private student loans originate from private lenders, such as banks and credit unions.

Generally, you can borrow more with private student loans, and they come with flexible borrowing options and potentially lower interest rates, depending on your creditworthiness.

However, the draw of federal student loans is that they come packed with important borrower protections, such as income-driven repayment options, generous forbearance and deferment programs and one fixed interest rate for all borrowers.

If you need to borrow money to pay for college, start with federal loans. Then, if federal loans won’t cover all of your school costs or you’re not eligible to take out this type of loan, private student loans can fill in the gaps.

How do student loan interest rates work?

Most private student loans offer two types of interest rates: variable and fixed. With a fixed interest rate, the rate doesn’t change throughout the life of the loan. This is a good option for borrowers who prefer predictable payments, although the rates usually start a little higher. Variable rates, on the other hand, are tied to changes to an index, such as the Libor. These rates may go up or down over the course of repayment, although lenders usually limit how high the rate can go.

Types of private student loans

Just about any type of student can apply for a private student loan, from undergraduates to students seeking medical, business, dental and law degrees. Some lenders also offer private student loans for international students or people who are in a residency program, studying abroad, attending community college, enrolled in a career-training school or studying for the bar exam. There are even student loans for borrowers with poor credit, although these loans might be more expensive.

Pros and cons of private student loans

Before applying for a private student loan, consider the benefits and drawbacks of this type of financing.

Pros:

  • High borrowing limits: Private loans will often have higher borrowing limits than federal loans, with some covering the full cost of enrollment.
  • Low interest rates: Borrowers with good credit could qualify for the lowest interest rates available.
  • Flexible enrollment requirements: Federal student loans require you to be enrolled at least half time to qualify, but some private lenders offer loans for borrowers taking only a few classes or attending summer school.
  • Choice between fixed and variable rates: You can customize your repayment by choosing either a fixed interest rate or a variable interest rate.

Cons:

  • No federal protections or benefits: Federal student loans come with benefits like standardized forbearance, COVID-19 relief and income-driven repayment plans. Private lenders have fewer of these options available.
  • Average credit required: While most federal student loans don't check your credit, you will likely need a credit score in the mid-600s to qualify for a private student loan.
  • High rates for borrowers with poor credit: The lower your credit score, the higher your interest rates with private student loans. If you have a credit score near the lender's minimum requirement, your interest rate could be in the double digits.

Details: Private student loan rates in 2021

College Ave: Best for international students

Overview: College Ave offers private loans for students seeking undergraduate, graduate, dental, law, medical and business degrees. Parents can also take out loans on behalf of their college-bound kids, and students interested in attending community college or receiving career training may also apply.

Perks: International students can apply for a College Ave private student loan as long as they have a valid U.S. Social Security number and a creditworthy co-signer. Borrowers also have access to a lineup of online resources, including student loan calculators, scholarships, sweepstakes, contests and plenty of educational content.

What to watch out for: College Ave doesn’t disclose its income or credit requirements, meaning you’ll have to get a quote in order to determine if you’re eligible.

Lender College Ave
APR Variable: .99%–11.98% (with autopay); Fixed: 2.99%–12.99% (with autopay)
Loan amounts $1,000–100% total cost of attendance ($150,000 for some degrees)
Loan terms 5 to 20 years
Fees Late fee

CommonBond: Best for payment flexibility

Overview: CommonBond is an online lender that offers private loans for students pursuing undergraduate, graduate, business, dental and medical degrees. CommonBond boasts four different repayment options while you're in school: full deferment, a fixed monthly payment, interest-only payments or full monthly payments.

Perks: Borrowers can take advantage of generous hardship programs, such as personal forbearance for up to 24 months and natural disaster forbearance. Loan amounts start as low as $2,000, which is great for students who don’t need to borrow much.

What to watch out for: Borrowers usually need a creditworthy co-signer to apply, though you can release your co-signer from the loan after you make at least 24 consecutive, on-time payments.

Lender CommonBond
APR Variable: 3.79%–9.35% (with autopay); Fixed: 3.74%–10.74% (with autopay)
Loan amounts $2,000–$500,000
Loan terms 5 to 20 years
Fees Late fee: 5% or $10; Returned check fee: $5; Origination fee: 2% on dental school, medical school and MBA loans

Custom Choice: Best for graduation rewards

Overview: Custom Choice offers private student loans for undergraduate and graduate students. Although you don’t need a co-signer to apply, the lender says that you’re four times more likely to qualify when you add a creditworthy co-signer to the loan.

Perks: Borrowers who complete their degrees receive a graduation reward of 2 percent off the principal balance. The lender also offers generous hardship options: In the event of a job loss or natural disaster, borrowers can pause payments in increments of two months, up to a maximum of 12 months total.

What to watch out for: International borrowers aren’t eligible for Custom Choice products. Loans also aren’t available in Arizona, Iowa or Wisconsin.

Lender Custom Choice
APR Variable: 1.16%–9.37% (with autopay); Fixed: 4.14%–10.7% (with autopay)
Loan amounts $1,000–$99,999 annually ($180,000 cumulative)
Loan terms 7 to 15 years
Fees None

Discover: Best for academic achievement bonus

Overview: Discover offers private student loans to students seeking undergraduate, graduate, medical, dental, business and law degrees. You can also apply for a loan if you’re in a residency program or studying for the bar exam.

Perks: In addition to its long menu of student loans, Discover’s standout feature is the academic achievement bonus. Borrowers are eligible for a 1 percent cash reward if they maintain at least a 3.0 GPA.

What to watch out for: Discover limits its loan terms to either 15 years or 20 years depending on the type of loan. There’s also no prequalification option and no co-signer release.

Lender Discover
APR See rates at DiscoverStudentLoans.com/Rates
Loan amounts $1,000–100% total cost of attendance
Loan terms 15 or 20 years
Fees No fees

Earnest: Best for applying without a co-signer

Overview: Earnest offers private student loans for students seeking undergraduate, graduate, business, law and medical degrees. Borrowers may qualify on their own or use a co-signer.

Perks: Borrowers can choose from four main repayment plans, access forbearance and deferment programs and even skip a payment once a year if needed. Also, borrowers aren’t required to get a co-signer on the loan (though it’s an option if you want to score a lower interest rate).

What to watch out for: If you have a co-signer, there’s no option to release them from the loan. Plus, Nevada residents can’t take out any of Earnest’s student loans.

Lender Earnest
APR Variable: Starting at 1.04% (with autopay); Fixed: Starting at 3.34% (with autopay)
Loan amounts $1,000–100% total cost of attendance
Loan terms Not specified
Fees Returned check fee: Up to $8; Florida documentary stamp tax: 0.35%

Sallie Mae: Best for multiple loan options

Overview: Of all the lenders on this list, Sallie Mae offers the most extensive menu of private student loan options. There are loans for students seeking undergraduate, graduate, medical, dental and law degrees, plus career-training loans, parent loans and even loans for people who pay tuition for K–12 school.

Perks: Sallie Mae supports students through free study help and college expense calculators, and borrowers can take out loans even if they’re enrolled less than half time, attending online or summer classes, studying abroad or enrolled in professional certification courses.

What to watch out for: If you need to apply for hardship programs, Sallie Mae offers fewer options and shorter forbearance periods than others on this list.

Lender Sallie Mae
APR Variable: 1.13%–11.64% (with autopay); Fixed: 3.5%–12.60% (with autopay)
Loan amounts $1,000–100% total cost of attendance
Loan terms 10 to 20 years
Fees Late fee: 5% or $25; Returned check fee: Up to $20

SoFi: Best for online borrower resources

Overview: SoFi offers undergraduate student loans, law school loans, medical school loans, MBA loans and parent loans, plus other financial products such as personal loans and mortgages.

Perks: With SoFi’s unemployment protection program, a professional can help you search for jobs and provide one-on-one career training. And unlike many other student loan lenders, SoFi has an app where you can browse deals, use financial planning tools and find educational resources.

What to watch out for: SoFi’s minimum loan amounts are higher than those of any other lender on this list, which might not be a good fit for people who only need to borrow a small amount.

Lender SoFi
APR Variable: 0.99%–11.33% (with autopay); Fixed: 2.99%–10.90% (with autopay)
Loan amounts $5,000–100% total cost of attendance
Loan terms 5 to 15 years
Fees None

Frequently asked questions about private student loans