Private student loans are a type of loan that undergraduate and graduate students can use to pay for college. Unlike federal student loans, which come from the federal government (the Department of Education, to be specific), private student loans come from private lenders.
It may seem like a daunting task to understand the concept of private vs federal student loans, especially for 18-year-old high school students. In this piece, we’ll do just that. We’ll walk through the definition of a private student loan, help you get a sense of who can get a private student loan, how much you can borrow, interest rates on private student loans and more.
Let’s get started so you and your student have a better answer to “What is considered a private student loan?”
- Private Student Loan Definition
- Who Can Get a Private Student Loan?
- How Much Can You Borrow in Private Student Loans?
- What Are Interest Rates on Private Loans?
- How to Consider Private Student Loans
- Step 1: Understand financial aid awards.
- Step 2: Shop around.
- Step 3: Know the process to get a private student loan.
- Step 4: Consider refinancing for later.
- How Long Does it Take to Pay Off a Private Student Loan?
- Understand Private Loans Ahead of Time
- How do you know if loans are private?
- Is FAFSA a private student loan?
Private Student Loan Definition
What’s a private student loan? Private student loans come from a private lender such as a bank, credit union or online lender — not the federal government. The private lender sets its own terms and conditions for the private student loan. The application process also looks different for private student loans compared to federal student loans. You don’t file the Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA) to get a private loan — you fill out an application on the lender’s page.
So, what exactly are the differences between private loans and federal student loans? It’s a great question. The federal government sets forth the terms and conditions of federal student loans and often come with more federal protections, such as in federal income-driven repayment plans. You do not get federal protections with private student loans, though private student loan lenders may consider your situation if you’re having trouble making payments.
In another example of additional perks, in the case of Direct Subsidized loans, the government pays the interest while you’re in college, a feature that private lenders don’t offer.
What are private loans and federal loan similarities and differences? Let’s take a quick look at federal and private loans definition and compare private vs federal student loans side by side below.
|Feature||Federal Student Loans||Private Student Loans|
|Repayment||Not due until after you graduate||May require payments when you are in school, but most allow you to wait until you are no longer in school.|
|Interest rates||Fixed interest rate (stays the same); may be lower than private loans||Variable (changing) or fixed; which may be higher or lower than federal student loans|
|Required credit check||No||Yes, in most cases|
|Postponement options||May be able to temporarily postpone or lower your payments using federal protections||May be able to arrange postponement or lowered payments through your lender|
|Repayment plans||Repayment plans available, including income-driven repayment plans and standard 10-year repayment plans||May offer more flexible repayment plans; check with your lender|
|Prepayment penalties||No prepayment penalty||There may be a prepayment penalty; check with your lender|
|Loan forgiveness||Loan forgiveness programs available through the federal student loan program||Many private lenders do not offer loan forgiveness|
Who Can Get a Private Student Loan?
Students and parents can both qualify for private student loans. For example, if you want to help your child pay for college, you can co-sign a private student loan. Typically, undergraduate students will need a cosigner to get a private loan. As a cosigner, private lenders may require you to get your credit score checked to prove your creditworthiness and verify that you have regular income coming in.
If your student is a graduate student, a private lender may grant them a private student loan in their own name. As a graduate student, a private lender may be looking at your student’s credentials, such as income and credit score.
Parents may even be able to get a lower interest rate on private student loans compared to the Parent PLUS loan, a type of federal student loan that parents can borrow to help pay for a child’s education. They come with origination fees that add to the total loan amount, which could potentially cost more over time.
How Much Can You Borrow in Private Student Loans?
Your student can’t borrow as much as they want with federal student loans. However, private lenders allow your child to borrow up to the full cost of attendance (tuition, room, board and fees) as well as other expenses such as books, computers, transportation and living expenses such as rent for an apartment. They do need to meet all lender borrowing requirements, however.
In comparison, undergraduate students may only take out $57,500 in federal student loans (and students can use no more than $23,000 in subsidized loans). Graduate and professional students can only take out a max aggregate amount of $138,500 for graduate or professional studies (with no more than $65,500 of this amount in subsidized loans), which includes all funds from undergraduate studies as well.
If the full cost of an undergraduate institution costs $63,000 per year, you can see how federal student loans might have their limitations and require you to take out private student loans to fill in the gaps.
What Are Interest Rates on Private Loans?
What exactly does “interest rate” mean? The interest rate is the amount the lender charges a borrower for the privilege of borrowing from them. The lender charges an interest rate as a percentage of the amount borrowed.
Unfortunately, there’s no “one rate” that categorizes private loans — they range considerably, from just over 3% to 12% and more. It’s important to consider the interest rates on private loans among various lenders.
Private loans may be higher or lower federal loan interest rates, depending on credentials. You can get a private student loan interest rate lower than federal interest rates.
Unlike federal student loan interest rates, which stay the same (called a fixed rate), private lenders often offer both fixed and variable interest rates. A variable interest rate means that the interest rate changes throughout the life of the loan.
How to Consider Private Student Loans
We’re going beyond the answer to “what are private student loans?” in this section! How do you consider all of the above factors and choose the right route? Let’s chat about it.
Step 1: Understand financial aid awards.
Instead of comparing and contrasting loan interest rates, one of the most important things you should do is understand how a financial aid award works. Financial aid awards all look different from school to school, and it’s a good idea to understand what must be repaid versus what doesn’t. In other words:
Does not need to be repaid:
Must be repaid with interest:
- Federal loans
- Private loans
Must be earned:
Understand the differences between all the components of each line of every financial aid award so you can help your child make a great decision about private versus federal student loans they will take on.
Look into every aspect of every type of loan on the financial aid award. For example, let’s say your child receives $2,000 in Direct Unsubsidized loans and $3,500 in Direct Subsidized loans. What are the loan fees? What is the interest rate? (Currently, loan fees are 1.057% for these loans and interest rates are 4.99% for undergraduates.)
Step 2: Shop around.
In most cases, all the shopping you’ll have to do stops right at your child’s school. They will likely offer a reputable lender list and help you decide on a recommended selection.
Look into a variety of private lenders to compare all the features — interest rate, repayment structure, fees, borrower protections, whether there is a credit check, prepayment penalty — everything! Check with your local bank, look at online lenders, etc. Ask all the questions you can think of and more.
Note that the higher your credit score and income, the more likely you’ll get a lower interest rate. You may be able to snag a lower interest rate than those offered by the federal government through federal student loans.
Look into at least three different lending institutions so you have a healthy comparison.
Step 3: Know the process to get a private student loan.
How do private student loans work? You and your child will apply on the lender’s website at no cost to you, fill out information such as address, Social Security number, enrollment information, requested loan amount, financial information (you will, too, if you’re a cosigner), employment history and choose interest rate type and repayment preferences.
The lender will review you/your child’s credit, approve the application and choose the interest rate and repayment option. You and/or your child will accept the loan terms and sign. Once completed, your lender will check into your eligibility, including eligibility for enrollment and the full cost of the school.
Step 4: Consider refinancing for later.
Remember that if you and your student can’t get a great interest rate on a private loan now, you can always refinance down the road and get a lower rate. Refinancing means replacing one or all of your loans with a new loan with a private lender. It’s worth reminding your student again (when the time comes) that she will lose the federal protections and federal repayment options of federal student loans when she refinances.
You cannot refinance a federal loan into a federal loan. You can only refinance from a federal student loan into a private student loan. Note that your child will also have to offer proof of regular income and a higher credit score in order to refinance.
How Long Does it Take to Pay Off a Private Student Loan?
Unlike federal student loans, private student lenders do not offer a standard repayment schedule. However, many private lenders offer the same repayment schedule — 120 months (10 years) to repay. Some private lenders will allow you to extend your payments, potentially up to 25 years.
Understand Private Loans Ahead of Time
It’s a good idea to compare and contrast all the benefits of private loans for your child’s situation and all the various ways you can get college paid for. Get a feel for how private loans can offer your child the best benefits. Will they fill in the gaps that scholarships, grants and loans can’t cover? Will you try to fill in some gaps as well?
Paying for college can seem like a giant puzzle, but it’s important to figure out how each piece fits into the picture.
Let’s take a look at a couple of frequently asked questions that digs deeper into answering the question, “What is a private loan?”
How do you know if loans are private?
You’ll know if loans are private if they don’t come from the federal government. Once you and your child file the FAFSA, they will show up on the financial aid award at every school your child applies to in the form of a “Direct Loan.” Private loans will not show up on financial aid awards, which means that you and your child can work with the school’s financial aid office to choose the right private loan.
Is FAFSA a private student loan?
No, the Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA) is a free application that you fill out that enables your child to qualify for federal financial aid, including grants, loans and work-study.