College students are often cautioned to avoid private loans unless absolutely necessary, urged instead to take advantage of all other financial aid options first.
The advice is sound. Generally speaking, private student loans, which are offered by banks, credit unions, and other private lenders, don't offer the same level of borrower protections and benefits that government college loans do.
As a student, you should seek out grants and scholarships first -- money for college that you won't have to repay -- before taking on college loan debt. Then, if you're still going to need college loans, you should, in general, make sure you've maximized all your available government loans before you consider taking out a private student loan.
Interest Rates & Repayment Options
Federal education loans have fixed interest rates and more flexible repayment terms than private loans. The Department of Education offers income-based repayment options that keep your monthly payments at a figure you can afford, repayment extensions to give you more time to repay, and loan deferments and forbearances that can temporarily postpone your college loan payments if you're facing financial hardship.
If you go to work in the public sector, you may also be eligible for the discharge of some or all of your government loan debts.
With private student loans, on the other hand, your interest rate is almost always variable, and private lenders aren't required to provide the kind of repayment flexibility that comes standard on federal college loans.
The current foreclosure crisis that began mushrooming, in part, because of adjustable-rate mortgages should be enough to make anyone leery of adjustable-rate loans on anything.
But it's worth keeping in mind that when interest rates are low, as they are now, adjustable-rate private student loans can have a lower interest rate than their fixed-rate federal counterparts.
If you have excellent credit, or if you have a parent or co-signer with excellent credit, you may qualify for the lowest-rate private college loans, which currently carry interest rates that are as much as 3-percent to 6-percent lower than the rates on federal student and parent loans.
Interest rates are destined to rise as the economy continues to recover from the recession, so private loan rates won't always be this low, but if you or your parents are in a position to pay that private student loan off relatively quickly, you may be able to save money over a government-issued college loan.
Covering Your College Costs
So why take out a private student loan at all?
Private student loans are meant to "fill the gap" in college funding that may be left after you reach your federal student borrowing limits. In many cases, families find that scholarships and federal financial aid simply aren't enough to cover the rising cost of college.
Without private student loans, you may not be able to pay for college or continue your studies.
Statistically, college graduates have a better chance of being gainfully employed than non-graduates do, and college graduates, on average, earn more money in their jobs than workers who don't have a college degree. For you as a college student, better job and salary prospects may make the burden of a reasonable amount of private student loans easier to bear.
Working With Private Student Loan Lenders
College loan companies aren't deaf to the economic realities that college graduates are facing. Recently, some of the largest private student loan lenders have instituted new guidelines for the repayment and forgiveness of college loan debt.
Wells Fargo and Sallie Mae, for example, both announced this year that they would begin discharging private student loans upon the death of the borrower. Beforehand, that debt was being left to the co-signer to repay.
And as the recession and large swaths of unemployment among recent college graduates has led to higher rates of delinquency and default on college loans, some private lenders have shown a slight uptick in their willingness to work out modified repayment plans with troubled borrowers who are unable to repay their private student loans.
Being a Smart Student Borrower
For students who must turn to private education loans, it pays to shop around. Interest rates are always important, but they aren't the only factor worth considering. Repayment policies, payment deferral options, default and late-payments penalties, interest-rate caps, and other terms may give some private student loan programs a clear advantage over others.
Always be mindful of the total amount of your debt from all sources, school loans and otherwise, and aim to limit your reliance on college loans, both federal and private.
The Department of Education's National Student Loan Data System can help you track all your federal loan debt. Additionally, if you're carrying debt from multiple federal college loans, the Education Department's student loan debt consolidation program can help simplify the repayment process and may lower your monthly loan payments.
As you begin to repay your school loans, make it a priority to pay off the higher-interest loans first.
By taking advantage of college scholarships, using all your federal financial aid options, and minimizing the amount of debt you take on to pay for school, you can benefit from the careful and limited borrowing of private student loans to help pay for your college education.
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