Understanding Your Options for Federal and Private Student Loans

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Most students need to borrow money to cover the cost of their college education. It’s important to understand the borrowing options available. If you completed the Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA) and received an award letter from your college financial aid office, you’ll likely have the option to borrow through the federal loan program called the Direct Loan Program, or simply known as Direct Loans. In the Direct Loan Program, you can borrow through the Direct Subsidized Loan or the Direct Unsubsidized Loan programs. Graduate students and parents of dependent students can also borrow in the Direct PLUS Loan program. These are all federal loan programs, which are generally your first option.

If you’re an undergraduate student, you’ll want to explore Direct Subsidized and Unsubsidized Loans first. A subsidized loan simply means that you do not incur any interest charges while you’re in school. You can receive a Direct Subsidized Loan if you have financial need as determined by the results of your FAFSA. A Direct Unsubsidized Loan may also be available to you. As you might guess, the unsubsidized loan means that you are responsible for interest that accrues on the loan while you are in school.

After you’ve exhausted your federal loan options, you may still have outstanding expenses at your college. That’s when you might seek additional funding options in the form of a private loan. While your college financial aid office will instruct you on how to apply for federal loans, you’ll need to determine which private loan lender you want to use. Some schools may provide you with a list of private loan providers for you to evaluate and select. Other schools may simply direct you to find a private loan provider on your own.

A few years ago, there were significant differences in federal loans and private loans. Now, the programs have many similarities and offer unique benefits. The chart below outlines some key factors in the federal and private loan programs.

As you can see from the chart, there are a lot of similarities in both programs. If you’re trying to decide between the two, here are some important factors to consider:

  • If you’re an undergraduate student, in most cases you will have a more favorable interest rate and loan terms with a federal loan. If you think you’ll be entering any type of career that might qualify for Public Service Loan Forgiveness, you will want to stay with federal loans when possible. Private loans do not typically offer any type of forgiveness for public service.
  • Federal loans typically provide a greater array of repayment options, including income-driven repayment plans. Most private loan providers do not offer repayment plans tied to your income.
  • If you can afford to make a higher monthly payment over a shorter repayment period, you may find a lower interest rate with a private loan.
  • Many borrowers, especially undergraduate students, find it necessary to use a cosigner for their private student loans. Learn more about the benefits of having a cosigners here.

Regardless of what type of funding you’re considering, you will generally still want to complete the FAFSA to take advantage of all the financial aid opportunities available to you before borrowing any type of loan. Check out your federal loan options first and then turn to private loans only when necessary to cover additional school costs. Do your research to get a full understanding to know your options and be an informed consumer. If you do consider private loan options, not all private loans or lenders are the same. You may find significant differences between private loan providers, so find one that best fits your needs and circumstances.

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