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

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Federal and private student loans may seem like two sides of the same debt coin. After all, whether you get your loans from a private lender or the federal government, you’re on the hook no matter what.

Well, it’s not that simple.

Deciding between a federal student loan or private student loan is not as easy as comparing apples to apples. It’s important for college students, graduates, and parents to understand exactly what makes a federal student loan a different animal from a private student loan. Their financial health might depend on knowing the differences.

Federal student loan definition

Federal student loans are issued and guaranteed by the Department of Education. Because the loans are issued by the government, interest rates for federal student loans are the same for every borrower, rather than being dependent upon the borrower’s credit rating or other financial factors.

You can apply for a federal loan by submitting a Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA) form. The Department of Education uses this to determine your expected family contribution toward your education.

Private student loan definition

A private student loan is any student loan that is not issued by the federal government. Unlike federal student loans, private loans are funded by banks, credit unions, and other types of lenders.

That also means that the interest rates for these loans are set by the lenders, based on the borrower’s credit history and/or other underwriting criteria determined by the lender.

Federal vs. private student loans

It’s important that you consider the following issues when deciding between federal and private student loans, or when considering whether to refinance your federal loans:

Student loan interest rates

In general, student loan interest is fixed on federal loans, which means the rate remains the same throughout the repayment period. Interest rates on federal student loans are currently tied to the 10-year Treasury Note, with an additional set percentage added on.

Private student loans, on the other hand, can offer fixed or variable rates. In the case of a variable-interest loan, your rate can fluctuate, changing your monthly repayment amount and increasing the amount you pay in interest over the life of the loan.

After borrowers have graduated and established a good work and credit history, they may find that private lenders are more interested in helping them to refinance their federal loans to a lower interest rate.

Again, refinancing from a fixed to variable loan could end up resulting in higher payments in the future. But depending on how high your credit score and income level is, you might find you can save money over your loan term by refinancing.

Repayment terms

Private lenders do not offer the same kind of repayment options available with federal loans. In particular, borrowing from Uncle Sam means you are eligible for the following:

  • You are not required to start repayment until after you have graduated. And if you have any subsidized federal student loans, you do not accrue interest while you are still in school or during the grace period after graduation.
  • Federal student loans can be put on forbearance or deferment if you have an economic need for it. Some private lenders offer their own deferment/forbearance options, but they aren’t standard.
  • You can limit the amount of your monthly payment based upon your income with a federal loan, as well as qualify for loan cancellation after 20-25 years.
  • Borrowers who are pursuing careers in public service may be able to have their federal loans forgiven after 10 years.
  • Federal loans are discharged upon the borrower’s death (or permanent disability, in some cases). There is no such discharge of private loans, and since many private loans require a co-signer, your co-signer will become responsible for your student debt after your death.

Consequences of default

Defaulting on your student loans is never a good idea, whether your loan originated federally or privately. However, borrowers do have a few more protections in place in case of default on a federal student loan:

  • A private student loan is considered to be in default after 120 days of non-payment. Federal borrowers are not considered to be in default until 270 days of non-payment.
  • A private lender will begin to seek payment from any co-signers on the loan when payment is simply late. They do not have to wait until the primary borrower is in default. Since federal student loans are not co-signed, borrowers do not have to worry about their student loan hurting their relationships.
  • The lender may add collection charges to the amount the borrower owes, which can increase the loan balance by 25 to 40 percent.
  • While the federal government can garnish your wages without getting a court order, the amount they can take is limited to 15 percent of your disposable income. Private lenders need to get a court judgment against the borrower in order to garnish wages, but depending on the state, they may take as much as 25 percent of the borrower’s income.

Choosing between federal student loans and private loans

In general, it’s a good idea to take out federal student loans in the first place and to keep them and their benefits post-graduation. However, if you have high interest rates and could benefit most from refinancing and saving money, a private loan might make more financial sense.

Need a student loan?

Here are our top student loan lenders of 2019!
LenderVariable APREligibility 
* The Sallie Mae partner referenced is not the creditor for these loans and is compensated by Sallie Mae for the referral of Smart Option Student Loan customers.

1 Important Disclosures for Earnest.

Earnest Disclosures

  1. Rates include 0.25% Auto Pay Discount
     
  2. Explanation of Rates “With Autopay” (APD)
    Rates shown include 0.25% APR discount when client agrees to make monthly principal and interest payments by automatic electronic payment. Use of autopay is not required to receive an Earnest loan.

    Available Terms
    For Cosigned loans – 5, 7, 10, 12, 15 years. 
    Primary Only – 10, 12, 15 years

    In school deferred payment is not available in AL, AZ, CA, FL, MA, MD, MI, ND, NY, PA, and WA).


2 = Sallie Mae Disclaimer: Click here for important information. Terms, conditions and limitations apply.

3 Important Disclosures for College Ave.

CollegeAve Disclosures

College Ave Student Loans products are made available through either Firstrust Bank, member FDIC or M.Y. Safra Bank, FSB, member FDIC. All loans are subject to individual approval and adherence to underwriting guidelines. Program restrictions, other terms, and conditions apply.

(1)All rates shown include the auto-pay discount. The 0.25% auto-pay interest rate reduction applies as long as a valid bank account is designated for required monthly payments. Variable rates may increase after consummation.

(2)This informational repayment example uses typical loan terms for a freshman borrower who selects the Deferred Repayment Option with a 10-year repayment term, has a $10,000 loan that is disbursed in one disbursement and a 8.35% fixed Annual Percentage Rate (“APR”): 120 monthly payments of $179.18 while in the repayment period, for a total amount of payments of $21,501.54. Loans will never have a full principal and interest monthly payment of less than $50. Your actual rates and repayment terms may vary.

(3)As certified by your school and less any other financial aid you might receive. Minimum $1,000.

Information advertised valid as of 7/1/2019. Variable interest rates may increase after consummation.


4 Important Disclosures for Suntrust.

Suntrust Disclosures

Before applying for a private student loan, SunTrust recommends comparing all financial aid alternatives including grants, scholarships, and both federal and private student loans. To view and compare the available features of SunTrust private student loans, visit https://www.suntrust.com/loans/student-loans/private

Certain restrictions and limitations may apply. SunTrust Bank reserves the right to change or discontinue this loan program without notice. Availability of all loan programs is subject to approval under the SunTrust credit policy and other criteria and may not be available in certain jurisdictions.

©2019 SunTrust Banks, Inc. SUNTRUST, the SunTrust logo and Custom Choice Loan are trademarks of SunTrust Banks, Inc. All rights reserved.

* Offer valid for new Custom Choice Loans for which applications are submitted for a credit decision between 12:00:00am EST on June 1, 2019 and 11:59:59pm EST on August 31, 2019. A 0.50% interest rate reduction will be included in the loan options presented to an applicant during the online application process, upon passing the initial credit review. The interest rate reduction will be applied as of the first disbursement date and will be effective for the life of the loan.

  1. Interest rates and APRs (Annual Percentage Rates) depend upon (1) the student’s and cosigner’s (if applicable) credit histories, (2) the repayment option and repayment term selected, (3) the requested loan amount and (4) other information provided on the online loan application. If approved, applicants will be notified of the rate applicable to your loan. Rates and terms are effective for applications received after on or after 08/01/2019. The variable interest rate for each calendar month is calculated by adding the current index (One-month LIBOR index) to your margin. LIBOR stands for London Interbank Offered Rate. The One-month LIBOR is published in the “Money Rates” section of the Wall Street Journal (Eastern Edition). The One-month LIBOR index is captured on the 25th day of the immediately preceding calendar month (or if the 25th is not a business day, the next business day thereafter), and is rounded up to the nearest 1/8th of one percent. The current One-month LIBOR index is 2.375% on 08/01/2019. The variable interest rate will increase or decrease if the One-month LIBOR index changes or if a new index is chosen. The applicable index or margin for variable rate loans may change over time and result in a different APR than shown. The fixed rate assigned to a loan will never change except as required by law or if you request and qualify for the auto pay discount.
  2.  APRs assume a $10,000 loan with two-disbursements and the summer savings rate discount of 0.50% (applicable to applications submitted for a credit decision between 12:00:00am EST on June 1, 2019 and 11:59:59pm EST on August 31, 2019). The high APRs assume a 15-year term with deferred principal payments. The low APRs assume a 7-year term, no deferment and payments beginning 30-60 days after the last disbursement via auto pay from a SunTrust Bank account. See footnote 6 for details about auto pay.
  3. Any applicant who applies for a loan the month of, the month prior to, or the month after the student’s graduation date, as stated on the application or certified by the school, will only be offered the Immediate Repayment option. The student must be enrolled at least half-time to be eligible for the partial interest, fully deferred and interest only repayment options unless the loan is being used for a past due balance and the student is out of school. With the Full Deferment option, payments may be deferred while the student is enrolled at least half-time at an approved school and during the six month grace period after graduation or dropping below half-time status, but the total initial deferment period, including the grace period, may not exceed 66 months from the first disbursement date. The Partial Interest Repayment option (paying $25 per month during in-school deferment) is only available on loans of $5,000 or more. For payment examples, see footnote 4. With the Immediate Repayment option, the first payment of principal and interest will be due approximately 30-60 calendar days after the final disbursement date and the minimum monthly payment will be $50.00. There are no prepayment penalties.
  4. The 15-year term and Partial Interest Repayment option (paying $25 per month during in-school deferment) are only available for loan amounts of $5,000 or more. Making interest only or partial interest payments during in-school deferment (including the grace period) will not reduce the principal balance of the loan. Payment examples within this footnote assume a 45-month deferment period, a six-month grace period before entering repayment, the summer savings rate discount of 0.50% applicable to applications submitted for a credit decision between 12:00:00am EST on June 1, 2019 and 11:59:59pm EST on August 31, 2019, no rate reduction for auto pay, and the Partial Interest Repayment option. 7-year term: $10,000 loan disbursed over two transactions with a 7-year repayment term (84 months) and 7.553% APR would result in a monthly principal and interest payment of $186.60. 10-year term: $10,000 loan disbursed over two transactions with a 10-year repayment term (120 months) and an 8.014% APR would result in a monthly principal and interest payment of $150.41. 15-year term: $10,000 loan disbursed over two transactions with a 15-year repayment term (180 months) and a 8.488% APR would result in a monthly principal and interest payment of $124.45.
  5. The 2% principal reduction is based on the total dollar amount of all disbursements made, excluding any amounts that are reduced, cancelled, or returned. To receive this principal reduction, it must be requested from the servicer, the student borrower must have earned a bachelor’s degree or higher and proof of such graduation (e.g. copy of diploma, final transcript or letter on school letterhead) must be provided to the servicer. This reward is available once during the life of the loan, regardless of whether the student receives more than one degree.
  6. Earn an interest rate reduction for making automatic payments of principal and interest from a bank account (“auto pay discount”) by completing the direct debit form provided by the Servicer. Earn a 0.25% interest rate reduction when you auto pay from any bank account and an extra 0.25% interest rate reduction when you auto pay from a SunTrust Bank checking, savings, or money market account. The auto pay discount will be applied after the Servicer validates your bank account information and will continue until (1) three automatic deductions are returned for insufficient funds during the life of the loan (after which the discount cannot be reinstated) or (2) automatic deduction of payments is stopped (including during any deferment or forbearance, even if payments are made). In addition, the extra 0.25% interest rate reduction for auto pay from a SunTrust Bank checking, savings or money market account will be discontinued if automatic payments are no longer made from one of the aforementioned SunTrust Bank accounts. In the event the auto pay discount is discontinued, the loan will accrue interest at the rate stated in your Credit Agreement. 
  7. A cosigner may be released from the loan upon request to the servicer, provided that the student borrower is a U.S. citizen or permanent resident alien, has met credit criteria, and met either one of the following payment conditions: (a) the first 36 consecutive monthly principal and interest payments have been made on-time (received by the servicer within 10 calendar days after their due date) or (b) the loan has not had any late payments and has been prepaid prior to the end of the first 36 months of scheduled principal and interest payments in an amount equal to the first 36 months of scheduled principal and interest payments (based on the monthly payment amount in effect when you make the most recent payment). As an example, if you have made 30 months of consecutive on-time payments, and then, based on the monthly payment amount in effect on the due date of your 31st consecutive monthly payment, you pay a lump sum equal to 6 months of payments, you will have satisfied the payment condition. Cosigner release may not be available if a loan is in forbearance.

5 Important Disclosures for CommonBond.

CommonBond Disclosures

Offered terms are subject to change and state law restrictions. Loans are offered through CommonBond Lending, LLC (NMLS #1175900).

  1.  Rates are as of July 1, 2019 and include auto-pay discount. All loans are eligible for a 0.25% reduction in interest rate by agreeing to automatic payment withdrawals once in repayment. Variable rates may increase after consummation.

6 Important Disclosures for Citizens.

Citizens Disclosures

  1. Undergraduate Rate Disclosure: Variable rate, based on the one-month London Interbank Offered Rate (“LIBOR”) published in The Wall Street Journal on the twenty-fifth day, or the next business day, of the preceding calendar month. As of August 1, 2019, the one-month LIBOR rate is 2.26%. Variable interest rates range from 3.36% – 11.62% (3.36% – 11.47% APR) and will fluctuate over the term of the loan with changes in the LIBOR rate, and will vary based on applicable terms, level of degree earned and presence of a co-signer. Fixed interest rates range from 4.72% – 12.19% (4.72% – 12.04% APR) based on applicable terms, level of degree earned and presence of a co-signer. Lowest rates shown requires application with a co-signer, are for eligible applicants, require a 5-year repayment term, borrower making scheduled payments while in school and include our Loyalty and Automatic Payment discounts of 0.25 percentage points each, as outlined in the Loyalty Discount and Automatic Payment Discount disclosures. Subject to additional terms and conditions, and rates are subject to change at any time without notice. Such changes will only apply to applications taken after the effective date of change. Please note: Due to federal regulations, Citizens Bank is required to provide every potential borrower with disclosure information before they apply for a private student loan. The borrower will be presented with an Application Disclosure and an Approval Disclosure within the application process before they accept the terms and conditions of the loan.
  2. Citizens Bank Student Loan Eligibility: Borrowers must be enrolled at least half-time in a degree-granting program at an eligible institution. Borrowers must be a U.S. citizen or permanent resident or an international borrower/eligible non-citizen with a creditworthy U.S. citizen or permanent resident co-signer. For borrowers who have not attained the age of majority in their state of residence, a co-signer is required. Citizens Bank reserves the right to modify eligibility criteria at anytime. Interest rate ranges subject to change. Citizens Bank private student loans are subject to credit qualification, completion of a loan application/consumer credit agreement, verification of application information, and if applicable, self-certification form, school certification of the loan amount, and student’s enrollment at a Citizens Bank- participating school. 

    Please Note: International Students are not eligible for the multi-year approval feature.

  3. Co-signer Release: Borrowers may apply for co-signer release after making 36 consecutive on-time payments of principal and interest. For the purpose of the application for co-signer release, on-time payments are defined as payments received within 15 days of the due date. Interest only payments do not qualify. The borrower must meet certain credit and eligibility guidelines when applying for the co-signer release. Borrowers must complete an application for release and provide income verification documents as part of the review. Borrowers who use deferment or forbearance will need to make 36 consecutive on-time payments after reentering repayment to qualify for release. The borrower applying for co-signer release must be a U.S. citizen or permanent resident. If an application for co-signer release is denied, the borrower may not reapply for co-signer release until at least one year from the date the application for co-signer release was received. Terms and conditions apply. Borrowers whose loans were funded prior to reaching the age of majority may not be eligible for co-signer release. Note: co-signer release is not available on the Student Loan for Parents or Education Refinance Loan for Parents.

7 Important Disclosures for PNC.

PNC Disclosures

  1. Annual Percentage Rates (APRs): APRs from 4.52% to 11.11% are for the fully deferred repayment option, include the 0.50% interest rate discount for automatic payment and encompass the full range of APRs for the three repayment term options (5, 10 and 15 year). APRs within this range may vary based on the repayment term chosen. See break down of APR ranges by repayment terms below.
  2. Fixed Annual Percentage Rates (APRs): APRs range from 4.52% to 9.58% for a 5-year term. APRs range from 5.05% to 10.26% for a 10-year term. APRs range from 5.55% to 10.84% for a 15-year term. Fixed rates are based on the creditworthiness of the borrower and co-signer, if any. Loan Payment Example: The monthly payment per $10,000 borrowed at a fixed rate range of 5.05% APR to 10.26% APR for 10 years means you would make 120 payments which may range from $131.94 to $207.24. For the fixed rate loan, the monthly payment will remain fixed for the term of the loan. Payments may vary for other repayment term options.

    Variable Annual Percentage Rates (APRs): APRs range from 4.90% to 9.92% for a 5-year term. APRs range from 5.38% to 10.57% for a 10-year term. APRs range from 5.85% to 11.11% for a 15-year term. Variable rates are based on the London Interbank Offered Rate (LIBOR) index plus a margin depending on the creditworthiness of the borrower and co-signer, if any. The LIBOR index, adjusted quarterly, is equal to the average of the one-month LIBOR rates as published in the “Money Rates” section of the Wall Street Journal on the first business day of each of the three (3) calendar months immediately preceding each quarterly adjustment date. The LIBOR index is currently 2.47%. If the index increases or decreases, your rate will increase or decrease accordingly. Loan Payment Example: The monthly payment per $10,000 borrowed at a variable rate range of 5.38% APR to 10.57% APR for 10 years means you would make 120 payments which may range from $135.93 to $212.65. For the variable rate loan, the monthly payment may increase or decrease if the interest rate increases or decreases. Payments may vary for other repayment term options.

    APRs and loan payment examples are for the fully deferred repayment option for the Undergraduate & Graduate loan programs and include the 0.50% interest rate discount for automatic payments. The lowest APR is available to well qualified applicants. Your actual APR will be based on your credit qualifications, selection of fixed or variable rate option, loan program, repayment term, repayment option and whether you elect the automatic payment feature. Loan payment examples assume 30 days to first payment after the deferment period (45 months in school and 6 month grace period). Payments vary for other rates, repayment terms and repayment options.

    In addition to Undergraduate and Graduate loans, PNC offers loans for Health & Medical Professions, Health Professions Residency and Bar Study. Rates may vary by loan program and are subject to change at any time. Visit pnconcampus.com for current rates, additional loan payment examples and more details about the Solution loan products.

  3. Automatic Payment Discount: During repayment, an interest rate discount of 0.50% is available for automatic payments. Borrower must be making scheduled payments that include both principal and interest. Interest only payments do not qualify for the 0.50% interest rate discount. Automatic payment can be established through the loan servicer American Education Services (AES). Advertised rates include the 0.50% automatic payment interest rate discount. The rate discount will be applied at the time automatic payment is established. If automatic payment is not established, the available rates will be 0.50% higher than the advertised rates. If automatic payment is established and discontinued at any time during repayment, the borrower will no longer receive an automatic payment discount and the rate will increase by 0.50%. Discount may also be suspended during periods of forbearance or deferment. Payments may be made from a checking or savings account. A federal regulation limits the number of transfers that may be made from a savings or money market account. Please contact your financial institution for more information on transfer limitations on savings accounts.
  4. Repayment Options: Immediate, interest only payments while in school and full deferment of principal and interest options available. Interest will continue to accrue during periods of deferment. You will receive quarterly interest statements during this deferment period. Paying the interest as it accrues each quarter will save you money over the repayment term of the loan because any accrued interest that you do not pay will be added to the principal balance at the end of the deferment.
  5. Co-Signer Release: A request to release a co-signer requires that, as of the date of the request, you have made at least forty-eight (48) consecutive timely payments of principal and interest with no periods of forbearance or deferment within the forty-eight (48) month timeframe. “Timely payment” means each payment is made no later than the 15th day after the scheduled due date of the payment. “Consecutive payment” means the minimum monthly payment must be made for the most recent forty-eight (48) months straight without any interruption. To qualify for a co-signer release, the borrower must submit a request, meet the consecutive, timely payment requirements, provide proof of income and pass a credit check.
  6. Tax Deductibility: Interest may be tax deductible. Consult a tax advisor.

Please note: PNC reserves the right to modify or discontinue the terms of these program at any time without notice. You are encouraged to explore all scholarship, grant and federal borrowing options before applying for a private loan. Private loans are subject to credit approval.

PNC is a registered service mark of The PNC Financial Services Group, Inc.
© 2019 The PNC Financial Services Group, Inc. All rights reserved. PNC Bank, National Association.


7 Important Disclosures for Discover.

Discover Disclosures

  1. Students who get at least a 3.0 GPA (or equivalent) qualify for a one-time cash reward on each new Discover undergraduate and graduate student loan. Reward redemption period is limited. Please visit DiscoverStudentLoans.com/Reward for any applicable reward terms and conditions.
  2. View Auto Reward Debit Reward Terms and Conditions at DiscoverStudentLoans.com/AutoDebitReward.
  3. Aggregate loan limits apply.
  4. Lowest rates shown are for the undergraduate loan and include an interest-only repayment discount and a 0.25% interest rate reduction while enrolled in automatic payments. The interest rate ranges represent the lowest interest rate offered on the Discover Undergraduate Loan and highest interest rates offered on Discover student loans, including Undergraduate, Graduate, Health Professions, Law and MBA Loans. The fixed interest rate is set at the time of application and does not change during the life of the loan. The variable interest rate is calculated based on the 3-Month LIBOR index plus the applicable Margin percentage. The margin is based on your credit evaluation at the time of application and does not change. For variable interest rate loans, the 3-Month LIBOR is 2.50% as of July 1, 2019. Discover Student Loans will adjust the rate quarterly on each January 1, April 1, July 1 and October 1 (the “interest rate change date”), based on the 3-Month LIBOR Index, published in the Money Rates section of the Wall Street Journal 15 days prior to the interest rate change date, rounded up to the nearest one-eighth of one percent (0.125% or 0.00125). This may cause the monthly payments to increase, the number of payments to increase or both. Please visit discover.com/student-loans/interest-rates for more information about interest rates.
Discover's lowest rates shown are for the undergraduate loan and include an interest-only repayment discount and a 0.25% interest rate reduction while enrolled in automatic payments.
3.35% – 11.44%1Undergraduate and Graduate

Visit Earnest

3.37% – 10.75%*,2Undergraduate and Graduate

Visit SallieMae

3.96%
11.98%
3
Undergraduate, Graduate, and Parents

Visit College Ave

3.14% – 10.68%4Undergraduate and Graduate

Visit SunTrust

3.52% – 9.50%5Undergraduate and Graduate

Visit CommonBond

3.36% – 11.62%6Undergraduate and Graduate

VISIT CITIZENS

4.90% – 11.11%7Undergraduate and Graduate

Visit PNC

3.37%
11.87%
8
Undergraduate and Graduate

Visit Discover

Our team at Student Loan Hero works hard to find and recommend products and services that we believe are of high quality. We sometimes earn a sales commission or advertising fee when recommending various products and services to you. Similar to when you are being sold any product or service, be sure to read the fine print to help you understand what you are buying. Be sure to consult with a licensed professional if you have any concerns. Student Loan Hero is not a lender or investment advisor. We are not involved in the loan approval or investment process, nor do we make credit or investment related decisions. The rates and terms listed on our website are estimates and are subject to change at any time.

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