How to Get a Student Loan
You can use both federal and private student loans to pay for your education. You should try to get federal student loans first, which you can apply for by completing the FAFSA. Then get private student loans to cover your remaining expenses.
If you want to earn a degree, chances are good that you will need to figure out how to get a student loan. Taking on a large amount of debt just to earn a diploma can be intimidating. However, borrowing for school is often a worthwhile investment.
You just don’t want to borrow more than necessary, so always look into other ways to keep costs down, including scholarships, grants, and working while in school to avoid over-borrowing.
It’s also important that you understand different kinds of student loans available to you and that you shop around for loans with the best repayment options. This guide will cover where you can get student loans, as well as the types of loans you should apply for first.
In this guide:
- How to Get Federal Student Loans
- How to Get Private Student Loans
How to Get Student Loans
There are two major kinds of student loans available — federal student loans and private student loans — and they are not created equal.
Federal student loans come with borrower protections and flexible repayment plans that don’t exist on private loans, so you should always explore your federal options first. In fact, submitting an application for federal student loans is a good idea even if you think your parents earn too much for you to qualify for aid. You may be surprised at the funding available to you.
After you’ve exhausted your options for federal student loans, you should evaluate how much of a funding shortfall you have left and then turn to private lenders.
How to Get Federal Student Loans
Getting federal student loans should be the first step for every student looking for educational funding. Federal student loans are available to most students, with some loans available even to people who can’t prove a lot of financial need.
While the types and amounts of federal loans available do vary depending on your situation, you should always try to get as much federal funding as possible. This is especially true because some scholarships, grants, and even private lenders won’t consider you unless you’ve already looked into federal aid.
Here’s how to get started:
Submit the FAFSA
To apply for federal student aid, you’ll need to submit the Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA). You can access your FAFSA at studentaid.ed.gov, which is the site you’ll go to both when filling out the FAFSA for the first time and when renewing your FAFSA in later school years.
The FAFSA can be completed entirely online and the process usually takes around 30 minutes or less — especially if you have all of your financial information organized upfront. If you’re a dependent undergraduate, you’ll need info about your parents’ or guardian’s finances, too.
Some of the info you may need to provide include:
- Details about your family’s income
- Information about your assets and your family’s assets
- Details about the schools you’ve applied to
You do not have to finish the FAFSA all at one time; you can sign in to your account and complete it later if you need to find additional information after starting the process.
Review your Financial Aid Award Letter
After you’ve completed your FAFSA, you’ll receive a letter from each school where you have been accepted. This letter will summarize all of the aid available to you, including scholarships and federal student loans. It will detail the types of loans you qualify for, as well as the amounts.
Understanding the different kinds of federal student loans available is important so you’ll know the key differences between various federal college funding programs. Federal loan options include:
- Direct Subsidized Loans: These Stafford Loans are only for undergraduates and only for students who show financial need. They come with a low fixed interest rate and a low origination fee. Interest on these loans is subsidized during deferment periods, including when you’re in school. This means the government pays off the interest on your loans as long as you’re enrolled at least half-time in school. Your responsibility for the loan interest won’t begin until after you graduate and your grace period has passed, or you drop out of school.
- Direct Unsubsidized Loans: Undergrads and graduate students can get these loans. Since interest is not subsidized, your loan will start accruing interest as soon as it is disbursed. But you’re still charged a low fixed interest rate and a low origination fee. You do not have to demonstrate financial need to qualify for Direct Subsidized Loans.
- Direct PLUS Loans: Parents of undergraduate students can get PLUS Loans. So can graduate students. However, no one with an adverse credit history is eligible for PLUS Loans. PLUS loans have fixed interest rates and origination fees which are still fairly low, but they’re higher than what you’d get with Direct Subsidized and Unsubsidized Loans.
- Direct Consolidation Loans: Students with multiple federal loans can become eligible for a Direct Consolidation Loan. This would be a new loan used to repay existing federal student debt so the borrower is left with just one monthly payment and one creditor to deal with. Interest rates are a weighted average of the loans that are consolidated.
Finalize your Funding
After you’ve reviewed your federal loan options, you’ll need to reach out to your school’s financial aid office to accept the loans. You’ll only do this at the school you plan to attend. You will have to complete a Master Promissory Note and other final loan paperwork before funds are made available.
Loan funds will be distributed directly to your school, and the school will deduct funds for tuition and fees first. The school will also take out room and board if you plan to live on campus and have a meal plan. Your school then sends any remaining money to you and you can use it for other eligible expenses such as rent, books, or food.
How to Get Private Student Loans
Private loans come from different private or publicly traded lenders, unlike federal student loans which all come from the federal government and have standard rates and terms.
Interest rates are usually higher on private loans, and you don’t get the borrower protections federal loans provide, such as an opportunity for loan forgiveness. These loans also have stricter requirements for who can qualify, and lenders do take your income and credit score into account.
Eligibility for private loans varies, with some lenders accepting bad credit borrowers with cosigners while others lend only to people with good credit. Some lenders also restrict loans only to grad students studying in a particular field where starting salaries tend to be higher and repayment is more likely, such as loans for med school or bar study loans.
It’s important to shop around among likely sources of private loans, including banks, credit unions, and online lenders to find the best deals. Keep in mind that applying with online lenders is usually easiest, and you can go through the whole process in just a few minutes if you have your paperwork ready. This could include:
- Tax returns
- Details on the school you’re attending
- Bank and investment account statements
- Pay stubs or other proof of income