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Consolidating your student loans involves combining some or all of your federal loans into one Direct Consolidation Loan. By doing this, you’ll end up with one monthly payment instead of several with different interest rates.
Consolidation is a great way to stay on top of your monthly payments, and in some cases it’s a necessary step to access federal student loan repayment and forgiveness plans. However, there are times when consolidating may not be the best idea.
Pros of consolidating student loans
Consolidating student loans is a smart step for many federal borrowers; here are a few of the advantages:
- Potentially lower monthly payments: Direct Consolidation Loans have a repayment timeline of up to 30 years, as opposed to the standard repayment period of 10 years. This longer repayment term can make your loans more manageable by lowering your monthly payment.
- One payment per month: Instead of making multiple student loan payments on your federal loans, you’ll make one every month. If this move helps you avoid late payments, your credit score could rise over time and it could reduce the possibility of extra interest accruing.
- Access repayment plans: Some older student loans, such as FFEL loans and Perkins Loans, are not eligible for certain income-driven repayment plans or Public Service Loan Forgiveness (PSLF) unless consolidated. Combining those loans into a Direct Consolidation Loan would open up access to those programs.
- Retain federal benefits: While some borrowers may consider refinancing their loans with a private lender as a way of combining several loans, choosing to instead consolidate ensures that you retain federal benefits like forbearance, income-driven repayment and hardship relief options.
Cons of consolidating student loans
While consolidating can be a useful tool, there are still some drawbacks to be aware of before making the decision:
- Pay more interest over time: Choosing to pay off your loan over 30 years will lower your monthly payment but cost you more in interest over time. You’ll also be in debt for a longer period of time, which could impact other parts of your finances. However, you can choose to pay off more than your set monthly amount if your budget allows.
- No lower interest rate: The primary draw of refinancing is that you can often find a lower interest rate than what you’re currently paying. With consolidation, your interest rate is calculated as the weighted-average interest rate of the loans you’re consolidating, rounded up to the nearest one-eighth of a percent. Because of this, your interest rate could be slightly higher than what you’re currently paying, which will end up costing you more over the life of the loan.
- Lose progress toward federal forgiveness programs: Consolidating your loans could cause you to lose the progress you’ve made on federal programs like PSLF or an existing income-driven repayment plan. Make sure to check with your servicer prior to consolidating so you don’t erase years of progress toward forgiveness.
- Interest is added to your balance: If you have any unpaid interest on the loans that you’re consolidating, that interest will be added to your principal balance when you consolidate. Interest will then accrue on this higher balance.
Should I consolidate my student loans?
Consider loan consolidation carefully. Whether or not you should consolidate your student loans depends on the type of loans you have and your financial circumstances.
You should consolidate if:
- You have old FFEL or Perkins Loans and want to pursue loan forgiveness.
- You’re having trouble keeping track of your monthly payments.
- You have a large amount of student loan debt.
You should reconsider consolidating if:
- You don’t have many student loans.
- You’re close to meeting the requirements for a loan forgiveness program.
- You can pay off your loans quickly.
- You qualify for federal loan forgiveness.
Can I consolidate my private student loans?
You cannot consolidate private student loans, since consolidation is done through the U.S. Department of Education. However, you can refinance your private student loans, which is a similar process in theory — you’ll trade several private loans for one new private loan. This could help you manage multiple payments or get a lower monthly bill.
Should I refinance or consolidate my federal loans?
One of the biggest benefits of student loan consolidation is that it keeps your federal student loans with the Department of Education. While consolidation won’t necessarily save you money, it ensures that you retain access to benefits like hardship payment options and debt-relief programs.
With that being said, some borrowers may choose to refinance instead of consolidating. When you refinance, your federal loans will turn into private loans, so you’ll lose federal benefits. However, refinancing could get you a much lower interest rate on your loans, which could help you pay them off faster and more cheaply.
Before making the jump to refinance, take a look at the entire portfolio of options offered by the Department of Education. There may be forgiveness programs that you didn’t know existed that you could qualify for. If you just jump into refinancing your federal loans, you could be leaving thousands of dollars in forgiveness on the table.
Before applying for a Direct Consolidation Loan, consider what you stand to gain and lose. Once you’ve evaluated your financial situation and have decided that consolidating is the route you want to pursue, you’ll apply via an online application on the Federal Student Aid website.
If you’re stuck on figuring out your next move, the Department of Education’s Loan Simulator can help you decide whether you should consolidate or not. You can also run the numbers with a refinancing calculator to better compare the impact to your loan cost.