A primer on student loans

Student Loans

An education loan is a form of financial aid that must be repaid, with interest. (Scholarships, on the other hand, do not have to be repaid.)

Education loans come in three major categories: student loans (e.g., Stafford and Perkins loans), parent loans (e.g., PLUS loans) and private student loans (also called alternative student loans). A fourth type of education loan, the consolidation loan, allows the borrower to lump all of their loans into one loan for simplified payment. A recent innovation is peer-to-peer education loans.

Federal law sets the maximum interest rates and fees that lenders may charge for federally-guaranteed loans. Nothing prevents a lender from charging lower fees. Many lenders offer a variety of student loan discounts to attract borrowers.

Few students can afford to pay for college without some form of education financing. Two-thirds (65.7%) of 4-year undergraduate students graduate with some debt, and the average student loan debt among graduating seniors is $19,237 (excluding PLUS Loans but including Stafford, Perkins, state, college and private loans), according to the 2003-2004 National Postsecondary Student Aid Study (NPSAS). (The median is $17,120. One quarter of undergraduate students borrow $24,936 or more, and one tenth borrow $35,213 or more.) For federal student loan debt (excluding PLUS Loans), the figures are 62.2% and $17,036. Average cumulative debt increases by about 3% or approximately $550 a year. When one includes PLUS loans in the total, the average cumulative debt incurred is $21,899. (Approximately one in ten (10.8%) parents borrow PLUS loans for their children's college education, with a cumulative PLUS loan debt of $16,317.)

The following table shows the percentage of students borrowing and average cumulative debt per borrower (excluding PLUS Loans) according to type of educational institution.

Undergraduate Education Debt
Institution Level & Control Percent Borrowing Cumulative Debt
Overall Total (4, 2 and < 2 year) 55.5% $15,766
4-year Total 65.6% $19,202
4-year Public 61.7% $17,277
4-year Private Non-Profit 72.8% $21,957
4-year Private For-Profit 87.3% $28,138
2-year Total 37.4% $9,897
2-year Public 33.2% $9,387
2-year Private Non-Profit 69.1% $12,326
2-year Private For-Profit 90.0% $12,107
< 2-year Total 67.1% $7,271
< 2-year Public 34.0% $7,243
< 2-year Private Non-Profit 26.5% $4,854
< 2-year Private For-Profit 77.3% $7,311
Graduate and professional students borrow even more, with the additional debt for a graduate degree ranging from $27,000 to $114,000. The following table shows the percentage borrowing and average amount of cumulative debt per borrower among graduating students according to degree program. It provides the amounts borrowed for just the graduate education and also the combined totals for undergraduate and graduate education.

Graduate Education Debt All Education Debt
(Grad & Undergrad)
Graduate & Professional Degree Programs Percent Borrowing Cumulative Debt Percent Borrowing Cumulative Debt
Total 60.1% $37,067 70.1% $42,406
Master's Degree 58.4% $26,895 69.3% $32,858
Doctoral Degree 51.0% $49,007 58.3% $53,405
Professional Degree 86.5% $82,688 88.4% $93,134
MBA 53.0% $35,525 63.6% $41,687
MSW 76.5% $27,136 81.0% $37,029
PhD 40.0% $36,917 46.8% $41,540
EdD 53.4% $49,050 65.7% $47,725
Law (LLB or JD) 87.7% $70,933 89.7% $80,754
Medicine 95.0% $113,661 95.0% $125,819
Grants, scholarships, work-study and other forms of gift aid just do not cover the full cost of a college education. Many students find that they must supplement their savings with government and private loans. The Federal education loan programs offer lower interest rates and more flexible repayment plans than most consumer loans, making them an attractive way to finance your education. You can also deduct up to $2,500 in student loan interest even if you don't itemize deductions on your income tax return.

The interest rate on the Stafford Loan for new loans first disbursed on or after July 1, 2006 is a fixed rate of 6.8%. The same rate applies to the in-school, grace and repayment periods. (A lower interest rate is available on subsidized Stafford loans for undergraduate students for loans first disbursed on or after July 1, 2008 through June 30, 2012. The rate in 2008-09 is 6.0%, then 5.6% in 2009-10, then 4.5% in 2010-11 and 3.4% in 2011-12 and returning to 6.8% for new loans in 2012-13 onward.) The interest rate on new PLUS Loans first disbursed after July 1, 2006 is a fixed rate of 8.5% in the FFEL program and 7.9% in the Direct Loan program.
The interest rates on existing variable rate Stafford and PLUS loans will continue to change annually on July 1, based on the last 91-day T-bill auction in May. The current interest rates on the Stafford Loan are 3.61% during the in-school and grace periods and 4.21% during the repayment period. The current interest rate on the PLUS Loan is 5.01%. FinAid recommends that students who have not yet consolidated their variable rate loans wait until May to decide whether to consolidate them at this year's rates or the new rates that will go into effect on July 1, 2009. There are 111 days left before interest rates change.

Borrowers may be concerned by the possible impact of the subprime credit crisis on the cost and availability of federal and private student loans. Federal loans will remain available, although loan discounts will likely be reduced significantly. A higher minimum balance may be required to consolidate. Private student loans will likely have stricter eligibility restrictions, requiring a higher credit score or a cosigner. There may be increases in the interest rates and fees on private student loans. Lenders will encourage borrowers to make payments of interest while they are in school.

Many student loan providers offer low cost government and private loans with consistently high quality servicing and flexible repayment terms. Citi Student Loans is one of these lenders. FinAid maintains a list of education lenders, guarantee agencies, servicers and secondary markets who offer federal and private student loans, as well as advice on preferred lender lists and choosing a lender and tips on identifying the lenders that currently hold or service your loans.

Loan forgiveness programs (in which the borrower's loans are paid off in exchange for volunteer work, public service or military service) offer an option for easy repayment. If you are having difficulty repaying your education loans, see Defaulting on Student Loans before you decide to skip a payment. It offers you some alternatives. Loan Cancellation and Discharge Forms can be found on the US Department of Education web site.

Also, FinAid provides numerous calculators that can help you better understand your borrowing options. The loan calculators offer estimates of monthly loan payments, estimates of the amount of debt you can afford to repay, an analysis of the cost of capitalizing the interest and tools for comparing loan costs.

Use FinAid's Student Loan Checklist to keep track of your student loans.

Some students, because they do not have prior experience with debt and loan amortization, do not appreciate how much their loans will cost them. FinAid provides some tips concerning calculating the cost of interest.

Help with Loan Problems

If you are having a problem with your federal student loan, contact the FSA Ombudsman at the US Department of Education. The FSA Ombudsman is dedicated to helping students resolve disputes and other problems with federal student loans. The FSA Ombudsman will research your problem in an impartial and objective manner and will try to develop a fair solution. The FSA Ombudsman does not have the authority to impose a solution. Nevertheless, many students have found the FSA Ombudsman to be helpful in resolving disputes with lenders. You can contact the FSA Ombudsman by phone at 1-877-557-2575, by fax at 1-202-275-0549, by mail at U.S. Department of Education, FSA Ombudsman, 830 First Street, NE, Fourth Floor, Washington, DC 20202-5144, or by email at fsaombudsmanoffice@ed.gov.

Another source of assistance is the Student Loan Borrower Assistance Project run by the National Consumer Law Center. Their web site includes a detailed loan FAQ, a step-by-step guide to resolving loan problems and a list of lender and guarantor ombudsmen. The National Consumer Law Center does not, however, provide legal advice about individual cases. The web site also includes a section devoted to policy and legal issues and analysis concerning education debt. They also publish Student Loan Law, a detailed legal guide to remedies for borrowers who are having trouble repaying their student loans.

The American Bar Association has launched SafeBorrowing.com to help the public understand the risks associated with student loans and other forms of consumer debt.

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