What to know about student loans before borrowing

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Editor’s Note: This story originally appeared on Live on the cheap.

Are you considering taking out a student loan for your studies or those of your children?

This is not a decision to be taken lightly.

Here is the basic information you need to know.

Federal student loans aren’t always superior

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A long time ago, private student loans were given for ridiculously high amounts and interest rates varied, which meant that over a 10-year repayment period, you could have an interest rate of 4% at some times and 12% at other times.

Payments could not only exceed $1,000 per month, but also vary by hundreds of dollars due to changes in interest rates.

Now, private student loans are available at fixed interest rates that do not change and are often lower than the parent PLUS loan interest rate. Compare federal parent loan rates with rates from lenders such as SoFi.

There is a big difference between student loans and parent loans

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Parent PLUS loan interest rates are higher than traditional undergraduate student loans, income-contingent repayment plan prices are higher, and the only limit is the cost of attendance.

For example, let’s say a school costs $30,000 per year, including room and board, books, etc. The limit for dependent undergraduate students for the first year is $5,500.

If parents qualify, they can borrow significantly more, up to the full cost of tuition minus any other student financial aid. So a parent could easily end up in debt of $100,000 because of a child’s undergraduate degree.

Credit score and income determine eligibility for private student loans

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Whether it’s a private loan for parents or students, credit rating and income matter. Students who obtain a loan in their own name with a limited credit history can obtain loans with a parent or other co-signer with more established credit.

A co-signer is someone who agrees to repay the loan if the primary borrower cannot. Thus, they are also responsible for the loan, and the loan payment history also appears on the co-signer’s credit report.

The credit rating can also determine the interest rate. For example, someone with a better credit rating may qualify for an interest rate two or more percentage points lower than another person with a lower credit rating.

There are different types of federal student loans

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For students, most federal student loans are issued as subsidized or unsubsidized loans. Interest on subsidized student loans is paid by the federal government while students are in school with at least half-time status and a few other circumstances. These loans must be used up to their limit before taking out any other type of student loan.

Unsubsidized loans are available for the remaining amount a student is eligible to receive within normal borrowing limits. The gaps are filled by PLUS parent loans or PLUS graduate loans. Private student loans also fill in the gaps.

Remember that you are never obligated to borrow the full amount granted. I can’t stress that enough. Compare financial aid programs and call the financial aid office to apply for more scholarships and also inquire about local and state scholarships. If you are still or recently in high school, ask your high school counselor to help you find scholarships.

Repayment term and terms vary

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Repayment periods vary from 5 to 30 years. The five-year repayment is only for private student loans, but it depends on the lenders. Some lenders will have the option of a 15 year repayment term. Longer repayment periods generally mean smaller payments. Although you pay more interest because you are borrowing for a longer period, you can still pay off the loan sooner. Usually there is no penalty for this.

The standard repayment term for repaying federal student loans is 10 years. There is a 20 year plan where payments are based on earnings and up to 25 years for an extended payment plan.

There are consolidated loans with repayment periods of up to 30 years, with payment never increasing as income increases.

One benefit of loan consolidation is that it can make you eligible for civil service loan forgiveness., a program in which you can potentially have your remaining balance canceled for working for a public service employer for 10 years. Student loan consolidation allows borrowers to combine multiple federal student loans into one federal student loan. Although consolidation allows you to pay off multiple loans with one simplified payment, it will likely increase the amount of interest you pay over time.

Sound complicated? It can be. A student loan is a decision that involves comparing interest rates, long-term protections for financial emergencies, and avoiding over-indebtedness.

The best way to make the decision easier is to complete the FAFSA so that you know all the federal options assigned to you. Then talk to your financial counselor and a college financial aid counselor or high school counselor about what your options might mean for your family’s future. It’s better to spend a few hours making an informed decision about borrowing now than to spend years worrying about the financial impact of loan repayments later.

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