Jun 17, 2014 Lindie Johnson

What's the Difference Between Federal and Private Student Loans?

If you are looking to borrow for college, you may have heard about federal, private, and state-based student loans. But what is the difference between these loan types and which ones are the right ones for you and your family? 

What's the difference between federal and private student loans?

Federal Student Loans

There are several types of federal education loans that can help your family pay for college. Federal education loans fall into two categories: student loans and parent loans.

Loans in the Student Name

When you borrow a federal loan, your lender is the US Department of Education. Students are advised to use up their Federal Subsidized and Unsubsidized Loans (also offen referred to as "Stafford" loans) before seeking a loan elsewhere. These loans carry a low fixed interest rate (check current rates here) and have an array of flexible repayment options to help new grads afford their monthly loan payments - or delay their payments, if necessary. To apply for one of these loans, you must submit the Free Application for Federal Student Aid. Your school will most likely include these loans in your financial aid package. 

Loans in the Parent Name

There is also a federal college loan option for parents called the Federal PLUS Loan. These loans do offer some repayment flexibility and deferment options although not quite as much as the federal student loans, but they also carry a higher interest rate than the federal student loan options. Check current rates and fees for the PLUS Loan here. 

State-based Student Loans

State-based student loans vary from lender to lender depending on the state in which you are borrowing. Not all states have a state-based student loan program, but these programs are typically available to students who are either a resident of the state or are going to a school in the state. These loans are often offered with low fixed interest rates and low or no fees. They are worth looking into if you think your student will need to borrow beyond the federal student loan limits.

Are you a resident of or going to school in one of the below Northeastern states? Check out the state-based student loan options. 


Private Student Loans

Private student loans are another alternative to the federal PLUS loans. Private student loans usually offer credit-based pricing and variable or fixed rates. Programs rates and fees can vary widely on the individual lender, program and borrower. Variable rate loans may seem enticing right now as markets rates are historically pretty low. But you must assess whether or not you will be able to afford a higher monthly payment if rates increase prior to paying off your loan. Most variable rate loans are based off of Prime or LIBOR. Clicking these links will show you how Prime and LIBOR have changed over time.   

Fixed rate private loan programs are more rare and typically also have credit-based pricing. Unless you have some of the best credit out there, keep in mind you may not qualify for that lowest advertised rate. 

Comparing Student Loans

College is an enormous financial commitment, and loans can no doubt add to your costs. Before borrowing, make sure you have completed the FAFSA and fully explored your eligibility for grants and scholarships. Also, pay what you can from your salary and savings before taking on any debt. 

If you do decide you need to borrow, make sure you understand how much the loan will really cost you. What you repay is not only the amount you borrow, but also interest and fees. If you borrow a state-based or private student loan, you will receive a set of disclosures at the time of application that will give you information on all rates, fees and will display the total cost of the loan. Federal student loans are not subject to the same disclosure requirements but you can get an idea of your total costs by comparing rates and fees, as well as looking at your final loan disclosures. Also be sure to understand all of the loan benefits, from deferment to income-based repayment, to loan forgivenss before committing to any loan. 

Download Borrowing Guide

Published by Lindie Johnson June 17, 2014
Lindie Johnson