While earning a degree in four years or less is typically the best way to get into the job market and start earning money, attending college part time is often the only realistic option, especially if you have kids at home or work a full-time job. Fortunately, part-time college students can utilize many of the same student loan options as full-time students, including federal student loans and private student loans.

Read on to learn who qualifies as a part-time student, which student loans are available to part-timers and how to find the best student loan for your needs.

Who qualifies as a part-time student?

The U.S. Department of Education defines half-time students as those “only enrolled in half of the expected full-time course load.” However, some private student loan lenders may define part-time status differently.

The specific number of credits required for full-time status per semester is determined by your school. It’s common for schools to require a minimum of 12 credit hours per semester for full-time students; taking anything less than this would make you a part-time student.

Since most college courses are worth three to four credits, this generally means taking three courses or fewer per semester to be considered a part-time student.

Student loan options for part-time students

Student loans work the same for part-time students as for full-time students, and they can come with the same benefits as a result. Here are the main student loan options you can qualify for as a part-time college student.

Federal student loans

Federal student loans are available to students who attend college on a half-time basis or more. Federal loans also come with the benefit of low fixed interest rates and flexible repayment terms, including the option to pursue income-driven repayment plans.

To qualify for federal student loans and other federal aid, you’ll need to fill out the Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA). Your federal student loan options could include:

  • Direct Subsidized Loans: These federal loans are offered to undergraduate students who can demonstrate financial need. A major benefit of Direct Subsidized Loans is the fact that the government covers interest charges that accrue while you’re in school.
  • Direct Unsubsidized Loans: These federal loans are available to undergraduate, graduate and professional students who are unable to demonstrate financial need. Unlike Direct Subsidized Loans, these loans accrue interest while you’re in school.
  • Direct PLUS Loans: These loans are available to graduate or professional students, and they are not based on financial need. However, a credit check is required for borrowers. These loans also accrue interest while you’re in school.

Private student loans

In addition to federal student loans, borrowers attending college half time can obtain loans through private lenders — though it’s best to exhaust your federal loans first, since those come with more benefits. With private student loans, part-time college students can qualify for incredibly competitive interest rates and terms, and they can often choose among flexible repayment options.

A few student loan lenders that offer loans to half-time students include:

Some, like Sallie Mae and College Ave, even offer loans to students attending less than half time. To see your eligibility and what rates you’ll be offered, shop around with a few different lenders.

How how much can part-time students borrow in student loans?

Part-time enrollment can cost less than full-time enrollment, because you’re taking fewer classes each semester. This, in-turn, may affect how much you can borrow in student loans.

With federal loans, there’s an annual cap for undergraduates that increases for each academic year you’re enrolled. This starts out as $5,500 for dependent undergraduate students and $9,500 for independent undergraduate student but rises over time. However, you may not be offered the full amount, especially if your part-time cost of attendance is less than that. The other catch is that your academic year is technically classified by credit hours you’ve completed — so if you’re taking a half-time course load, you may be stuck at the first-year loan limit for longer.

For graduate students, the federal loan limits vary by loan type. With Direct Unsubsidized Loans, graduate students may borrow up to $20,500 per year. With grad PLUS loans, the limit is the total cost of attendance, minus other financial aid you’ve received.

If you’re going through a private lender, loan amounts can vary based on the lender. Most lenders allow students to borrow up to the total cost of attendance as determined by your school, minus other financial aid you’ve received. This means that if you switch from full-time enrollment to part-time enrollment, your cost of attendance will decrease and the total amount you’re able to borrow will also decrease.

How to find the best student loans

Most students should take advantage of federal student loans first before turning to private student loans. Federal student loans come with a range of repayment benefits, including deferment, forbearance and income-driven repayment plans. Private student loans often do not.

Borrowers with federal student loans are also most likely to qualify for special assistance during financial hardship. For example, the federal government has set the interest rate at 0 percent and paused payments on federal loans during the pandemic. The current extension of this relief is set to expire on Aug. 31, 2022.

Either way, you should strive to look for student loans with:

  • A fair, competitive student loan interest rate.
  • Flexible repayment terms.
  • A monthly payment you can afford.
  • Options for deferment or forbearance in an emergency.

The only way to determine which student loan is best for you is to get a few quotes, since every private lender determines rates differently.

Also ensure that you only borrow as much for school as you absolutely need to. Since you will need to pay back every cent you borrow, plus interest and fees, you’ll want to borrow with your future in mind.