You probably want the good news first, so here it goes: Even if you (or your parent) have bad credit, you can secure a Direct PLUS Loan from the federal government.
The bad news actually isn’t so bad: To get the loan, you might have to complete 20 to 30 minutes of free PLUS Credit Counseling.
The counseling is especially important because Direct PLUS Loans come with the highest interest rate (7.00%) and loan fee (4.276%) among federal loan options. That hinders repayment for Parent PLUS Loan borrowers or graduate students taking out PLUS Loans.
But counseling could make it easier.
Why you might need student loan counseling
If you’ve already applied for a PLUS Loan, then you might be familiar with the Federal Student Aid website. The Department of Education (DOE) website allows you to complete entrance counseling, plus other mandatory and optional training upon taking out your loans.
In the case of PLUS Credit Counseling, you might need to complete it while you wait for your loan application to be approved. More likely, you’ll complete it after having your application denied.
The DOE requires that applicants — either postgraduate students or the parents of undergraduate students — complete this counseling if they have an adverse credit history. That’s defined as having a debt of at least $2,085 that is at least 90 days delinquent, according to Federal Student Aid.
It’s also defined as having any of the following within the past five years on your latest credit report:
- Default determination
- Discharge of debt in bankruptcy
- Tax lien
- Wage garnishment
- Write-off of a federal student aid debt
If your PLUS Loan application is denied, you’ll need to either obtain an endorser or prove extenuating circumstances led to your adverse credit history. An endorser is someone who agrees to repay the PLUS Loan if you fail to do so.
Afterward, you’ll need to complete your student loan counseling online.
How to complete PLUS Credit Counseling
The Federal Student Aid website offers credit counseling for Parent PLUS borrowers and independent postgraduate students taking out PLUS Loans.
Although there are free demos of the virtual counseling, you’ll need an FSA ID (formerly the Federal Student Aid Pin) to complete it. If you’re a parent, you’ll need to use your own FSA ID – you can’t use your child’s. You can create an FSA ID in five minutes or less but might need to wait 24 hours to have your credentials approved.
Beyond your loan information, which will be pulled into the counseling automatically via the National Student Loan Data System (NSLDS), you’ll need details on your earnings, such as:
- Tax filing status
- Adjusted gross income
- Family size
- State of residence
You’ll also need to fill out specifics on your living expenses, like:
- Credit card payments
You’ll have the option of adding more expenses as you see fit. Rough estimates are all that’s required to progress through the loan counseling. But the more data points you can enter into the tool, the better information it will pump out.
Although much of this counseling is dictatorial, significant portions of it are interactive. You’ll even be asked quiz questions to ensure you’re not mindlessly clicking along.
Entering your loan, income, and expenses can inform you about your future as a borrower. The advice is one-size-fits-all, but the numbers are yours.
A Parent PLUS Loan borrower earning $50,000 in adjusted gross income while keeping expenses low could be presented with this helpful visual:
What’s covered in PLUS Credit Counseling
The first section allows you to assess your loan situation. There’s more besides taking your loan details, income, and expenses to estimate your monthly budget for repayment. You can also plug your information into the website’s loan repayment estimator to see which repayment plan is best for you (and whether you might be eligible for loan forgiveness).
For an even more holistic view, Parent PLUS Loan borrowers will be able to include their other federal loans. Postgraduate students will be able to do the same.
The second section of the loan counseling focuses on avoiding delinquency and default. You’ll want to pay close attention to the second half of the counseling if you ended the first half on this note:
The section covers everything that might keep you from joining the 11.2 percent of borrowers with delinquent or defaulted loans. The counseling will cover options like:
- Deferment and forbearance
- Loan forgiveness
- Loan cancellation or discharge
- Resolving disputes with your servicer
- Loan consolidation
This portion of your counseling is less interactive than the first half. However, it is just as important. Be sure to take your time.
Why loan counseling is worth your time
If the DOE requires you to complete student loan counseling and you don’t get around to it, you won’t qualify for a PLUS Loan. That’s the biggest reason to finish it as soon as you’re asked.
Beyond that, the counseling is a great way to stay up to date on managing your student debt. The counseling is divided into two main sections — I completed each in about 15 or 20 minutes. You might be faster if you have all of your information handy.
All in all, student loan counseling is what you make of it. The more information you put into the Federal Student Aid’s tools, the better results you’ll receive. And the more time you spend learning about your loans, the more prepared you’ll be to repay them.
So although you might be required to do PLUS Credit Counseling, it can also be worth your while.
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