Your Practical Guide to Federal Direct Loans for College

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Along with grants, student loans are an important form of federal student aid that can help you pay for college. But before borrowing, it’s important to understand the types of federal student loans available, and how you can use them to fund your education.

This guide will explore the types of federal loans, along with tips on how to get a loan, so you can pay for your degree while avoiding taking on too much debt.

What are federal direct loans?
Types of federal student loans
How to get a federal direct loan in college
Can you get a federal direct loan without filing a FAFSA?
How do federal direct loans compare to private loans?

What are federal direct loans?

Federal direct loans are government-funded student loans offered through the William D. Ford Federal Direct Loan Program, also known as the Direct Loan Program.

Through this program, Federal Student Aid offers funding to undergraduate students, parents of undergraduate students and students in graduate or professional programs. These loans help students cover costs while they are enrolled in college or graduate school.

Federal direct loans commonly mean subsidized and unsubsidized loans for undergraduates. These types of direct loans also might be referred to as Stafford Loans.

Types of federal student loans

The Direct Loan Program is the most common way for students in the U.S. to borrow for college. The total outstanding balance of all federal direct loans is $1.24 trillion, according to Student Loan Hero’s student loan debt statistics.

What’s more, two other federal student loan programs — Perkins loans and Federal Family Education Loan (FFEL) loans — are no longer available. That means all new federal student loans are made under the Direct Loan Program.

Here’s an overview of the five types of federal direct loans and their basic features:

Type of direct loan Who can use it Interest rate (2019-20) One-time loan fee Annual loan limit
Subsidized Undergraduate students with a demonstrated financial need 5.05% 1.062% Up to $5,500 per school year
Unsubsidized Undergraduate students 5.05% 1.062% Up to $7,500 per school year for dependent students and up to $12,500 per school year for independent students
Unsubsidized (for graduate students) Students working toward a graduate or professional degree 6.6% 1.062% Up to $20,500 per school year
PLUS Graduate students and parents of undergraduate students 7.08% 4.236% Cost of attendance after all student aid is applied
Consolidation Student loan borrowers in repayment Weighted average of interest rates on loans being consolidated rounded up to the nearest one-eighth of one percent

Direct subsidized loans provide borrowers with an interest subsidy that lowers the interest they repay. The loans are deferred while the student is enrolled in college, and interest charges don’t apply. Instead, the interest is paid by the Department of Education during deferment.

However, direct subsidized loans are the only form of need-based aid offered through the Direct Loan Program. Students must have a demonstrated financial need, which is calculated based on the information they provide in the Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA).

The Direct Loan Program also provides an option for borrowers who are in active repayment to modify their student loans. Direct consolidation loans combine different federal student loans into one and give borrowers a chance to simplify, and even lower, their monthly payments.

How to get a federal direct loan in college

Students who plan to take advantage of the Direct Loan Program will need to take some steps to be eligible for and receive a direct loan. Here are five things to take care of:

1. Meet federal aid eligibility requirements
2. Create your FSA ID
3. Complete and submit your FAFSA
4. Review your financial aid award
5. Claim your direct loans

1. Meet federal aid eligibility requirements

The laws and policies that set up the Direct Loan Program and other federal student aid require that students meet certain guidelines to participate. So, to find out if you’re eligible, ensure you meet federal student aid requirements.

2. Create your FSA ID

As a general rule, you’ll need to submit a FAFSA to access federal direct loans.

To file a FAFSA, you’ll need to create an account with the Federal Student Aid (FSA) Office. When you do, you’ll also create an FSA ID, which you’ll use to log in to your account and submit your FAFSA.

3. Complete and submit your FAFSA

Visit FAFSA.ed.gov to start a new FAFSA, which takes about an hour or less to complete. If you’re a dependent student (most unmarried college students under age 24 are), your parents also will need to complete forms to submit with your FAFSA.

4. Review your financial aid award

After you submit your FAFSA, the college you’re enrolled in or accepted to will use the information to evaluate you for student aid. The college will send you a financial aid award letter that will outline all the student aid that can be extended to you, including direct loans.

You’ll then need to evaluate your college costs and figure out how much you’ll need to borrow to cover them. From there, you can choose which direct loans to use.

Typically, you’ll want to use direct loans for which you qualify in this order:

  • Subsidized direct loans, as they include an interest subsidy
  • Unsubsidized direct loans, which are available to both undergraduates and graduate students (note that unsubsidized loans for graduate students have a higher interest rate)
  • PLUS loans, as they carry the highest interest rates and fees

5. Claim your direct loans

Next, you’ll claim the direct loans you want to use and the amounts you intend to borrow through your college’s financial aid office. You’ll have to sign a promissory note, which is your agreement to repay and honor the terms of your direct loans.

From there, your student loans will be disbursed to your college, which will apply the funds to any outstanding charges, such as tuition or on-campus living costs. The remaining funds will then be disbursed to you. If you have a large amount left over, you might consider returning the loan money so you’ll owe less later down the road.

Can you get a federal direct loan without filing a FAFSA?

Submitting a FAFSA is the fastest and simplest way to get federal direct loans.

However, the parents of some dependent students might refuse to submit a FAFSA. Or you might encounter other obstacles to submitting a FAFSA and getting subsidized or unsubsidized loans. Without a parent’s FAFSA, however, these students can’t be evaluated for or awarded federal student aid.

There might be a workaround if you talk to your college’s financial aid office. These financial aid administrators might be able to authorize students to borrow unsubsidized direct loans without a complete FAFSA from a parent. Depending on your situation, they might also be able to connect you with other forms of aid.

How do federal direct loans compare to private loans?

Private student loans, which are offered by banks or other private lenders instead of the federal government, can be an alternative for some students or parents. Here’s a comparison of some key differences between federal direct loans and private student loans:

Direct Loans Private Student Loans
Qualifying for the loan Easy to get. You won’t need an income, good credit or a cosigner to qualify. PLUS loans are an exception and will require a non-adverse credit history. However, it’s easier to get PLUS loans than private student loans. Borrowers must qualify, so you’ll need a decent income and job history, as well as good credit. These requirements will be hard for many students to meet, and most who take out private student loans will have a cosigner.
Student loan rates Interest rates are fixed and determined by law. All borrowers receive the same rate regardless of their personal circumstances. Interest rates can be variable or fixed, and each borrower will pay a rate based on their creditworthiness. Well-qualified borrowers receive lower private student loan rates, which could be lower than direct loan rates.
Loan protections Federal student loans come with many ways to pause or adjust payments: deferment and forbearance, including automatic deferment while enrolled in college; income-driven repayment plans; student loan forgiveness, in some cases; subsidized direct loan interest paid during any period of deferment. Private student loans have fewer protections than federal student loans. Each private lender sets its own rules for forbearance and deferment, but private lenders rarely offer options as robust as those available for federal student loans.

Private student loans can be worth considering for some students and their parents. For example, those facing the high interest rates of PLUS loans might find a private student loan that offers savings with a lower rate.

As a general rule, though, federal direct loans are the better choice for most students. These student loans are accessible for most students in college, and they offer expansive protections during repayment.

Other students might hit their federal student loan limits and still have costs to cover; private student loans could help with this funding gap.

Carefully compare the types of federal student loans, along with their private loan counterparts, to make sure you understand how each choice could affect you both during college and when you enter repayment. If you’re pursuing any private loans, make sure to shop around for private student loans that suit your needs.

Rebecca Safier and Andrew Pentis contributed to this report.

 

Need a student loan?

Here are our top student loan lenders of 2020!
LenderVariable APREligibility 
1.24% – 11.98%1Undergraduate, Graduate, and Parents

Visit College Ave

1.25% – 9.44%*,2Undergraduate and Graduate

Visit SallieMae

1.24% – 12.49%3Undergraduate and Graduate

Visit Discover

1.24% – 11.44%4Undergraduate, Graduate, and Parents

Visit Earnest

1.90% – 11.66%5Undergraduate and Graduate

Visit SoFi

2.72% – 13.00%6Undergraduate and Graduate

Visit Ascent

3.52% – 9.50%7Undergraduate and Graduate

Visit CommonBond

* 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 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. Rates shown are for the College Ave Undergraduate Loan product and include autopay 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. This informational repayment example uses typical loan terms for a first year graduate student 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 7.10% fixed Annual Percentage Rate (“APR”): 120 monthly payments of $141.66 while in the repayment period, for a total amount of payments of $16,699.21. Loans will never have a full principal and interest monthly payment of less than $50. Your actual rates and repayment terms may vary.

Information advertised valid as of 7/1/2020. Variable interest rates may increase after consummation. Lowest advertised rates require selection of full principal and interest payments with the shortest available loan term.


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

3 Important Disclosures for Discover.

Discover Disclosures

  1. Aggregate loan limits apply.
  2. 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.
  3. Lowest APRs shown are available for the most creditworthy applicants and include an interest-only repayment discount and Auto Debit Reward. The interest rate ranges represent the lowest and highest interest rates offered on Discover student loans, including undergraduate and graduate 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. For variable interest rate loans, the 3-Month LIBOR is 0.375% as of July 1, 2020. Discover Student Loans may 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. Our lowest APR is only available to customers with the best credit and other factors. Your APR will be determined after you apply. It will be based on your credit history, which repayment option you choose and other factors, including your cosigner’s credit history (if applicable). Learn more about Discover Student Loans interest rates.
  4. Lowest APRs shown for Discover Student Loans are available for the most creditworthy applicants for the Discover Private Consolidation Loan and include an Auto Debit Reward. 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. For variable interest rate loans, the 3-Month LIBOR is 0.375% as of July 1, 2020. Discover Student Loans may 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. Our lowest APR is only available to customers with the best credit and other factors. Your APR will be determined after you apply. It will be based on your credit history, which repayment option you choose and other factors, including your cosigner’s credit history (if applicable). Learn more about Discover Student Loans interest rates.
Lowest APRs shown for Discover Student Loans are available for the most creditworthy applicants for undergraduate loans, and include an interest-only repayment discount and a 0.25% interest rate reduction while enrolled in automatic payments.

4 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).


5 Important Disclosures for SoFi.

sofiDisclosures

UNDERGRADUATE LOANS: Fixed rates from 4.23% to 11.76% annual percentage rate (“APR”) (with autopay), variable rates from 1.90% to 11.66% APR (with autopay). GRADUATE LOANS: Fixed rates from 4.13% to 11.83% APR (with autopay), variable rates from 1.80% to 11.73% APR (with autopay). MBA AND LAW SCHOOL LOANS: Fixed rates from 4.11% to 11.81% APR (with autopay), variable rates from 1.78% to 11.72% APR (with autopay). PARENT LOANS: Fixed rates from 4.23% to 11.26% APR (with autopay), variable rates from 1.90% to 11.16% APR (with autopay). For variable rate loans, the variable interest rate is derived from the one-month LIBOR rate plus a margin and your APR may increase after origination if the LIBOR increases. Changes in the one-month LIBOR rate may cause your monthly payment to increase or decrease. Interest rates for variable rate loans are capped at 13.95%, unless required to be lower to comply with applicable law. Lowest rates are reserved for the most creditworthy borrowers. If approved for a loan, the interest rate offered will depend on your creditworthiness, the repayment option you select, the term and amount of the loan and other factors, and will be within the ranges of rates listed above. The SoFi 0.25% autopay interest rate reduction requires you to agree to make monthly principal and interest payments by an automatic monthly deduction from a savings or checking account. The benefit will discontinue and be lost for periods in which you do not pay by automatic deduction from a savings or checking account. Information current as of 07/10/2020. Enrolling in autopay is not required to receive a loan from SoFi. SoFi Lending Corp., licensed by the Department of Business Oversight under the California Financing Law License No. 6054612. NMLS #1121636 (www.nmlsconsumeraccess.org).


6 Important Disclosures for Ascent.

Ascent Disclosures

Before taking out private student loans, you should explore and compare all financial aid alternatives, including grants, scholarships, and federal student loans and consider your future monthly payments and income. Applying with a cosigner may improve your chance of getting approved and could help you qualify for a lower interest rate. Ascent Student Loans may be funded by Richland State Bank (RSB). Ascent Student Loan products are subject to credit qualification, completion of a loan application, verification of application information and certification of loan amount by a participating school. Loan products may not be available in certain jurisdictions, and certain restrictions, limitations; and terms and conditions may apply. Ascent is a federally registered trademark of Turnstile Capital Management (TCM) and may be used by RSB under limited license. Richland State Bank is a federally registered service mark of Richland State Bank.

  1. Competitive variable rates calculated monthly at the time of loan approval based on a margin plus the 1-Month London Interbank Offered Rate (LIBOR) rounded to the nearest 1/100th of a percent. The current LIBOR is 0.176%, which may adjust monthly. Your interest rate may increase or decrease, based on LIBOR monthly changes. Rates are effective as of 08/01/2020 and reflect an Automatic Payment Discount. Automatic Payment Discount is available if the borrower is enrolled in automatic payments from their personal checking account and the amount is successfully withdrawn from the authorized bank account each month. (See Automatic Payment Discount Terms & Conditions.)
    1. Undergraduate Loans: Variable rate loans have an Annual Percentage (APR) range between 2.72% – 13.00%. Fixed rate loans have an APR range between 3.53% and 14.50% based on your credit worthiness and your selected program. Rates reflect an Automatic Payment Discount of 0.25% (for Credit-Based Loans) on the lowest offered rate and a 2.00% (for Undergraduate Future Income-Based Loans ) discount on the highest offered rate. (See Undergraduate Loan repayment examples.)
    2. Graduate Loans: Variable rate loans have an APR range between 5.33% and 11.42%. Fixed rate loans have an APR range between 6.14% and 11.92% based on your credit worthiness and your selected program. Rates reflect an Automatic Payment Discount of 0.25%. (See Graduate Loan repayment examples.)
  2. Payments may be deferred. Subject to lender discretion, forbearance and/or deferment options may be available for borrowers who are encountering financial distress.
  3. Making interest only or partial interest payments while in school will not reduce the principal balance of the loan. There are three (3) flexible in-school repayment options that include fully deferred, interest only and $25 minimum repayment. (See Undergraduate Loan repayment examples.)
  4. Flexible repayment plans may be offered up to a fifteen (15) year repayment term for a variable rate loan and ten (10) year repayment term for a fixed rate loan. Students must be enrolled at least half-time at an eligible school. Minimum loan amount is $2,000.
  5. Interest rate reduction of either 0.25% (for Credit-Based Loans) or 2.00% (for Undergraduate Future Income-Based Loans) applies only when the borrower and/or cosigner sign up for automatic payments and the payment amount is successfully deducted from the designated bank account each month. The amount of the discount is dependent upon the loan product and credit history of the borrower at the time of application. Interest rate reduction(s) will not apply during periods when no payment is due, including periods of in-school, deferment, grace or forbearance, unless a regular payment amount has been arranged with the servicer. If you have two (2) consecutive returned payments for Nonsufficient Funds, we may cancel your automatic debit enrollment and you will lose the interest rate reduction. You will then need to re-qualify and re-enroll in automatic debit payments to receive the interest rate reduction.(See Automatic Payment Discount Terms & Conditions.)
  6. All applicants (individual and cosigner) are required to complete a brief online financial literacy course as part of the application process to be eligible for funding.
  7. Eligibility, loan amount and other loan terms are dependent on several factors, which may include: loan product, other financial aid, creditworthiness, school, program, graduation date, major, cost of attendance and other factors. Aggregate loan limits may apply. The cost of attendance is determined and certified by the educational institution.
  8. The legal age for entering into contracts is eighteen (18) years of age in every state except Alabama where it is nineteen (19) years old, Nebraska where it is nineteen (19) years old (only for wards of the state), and Mississippi and Puerto Rico where it is twenty-one (21) years old.
  9. 1% Cash Back Graduation Reward subject to terms and conditions. Click here for details. In order to be eligible for the 1% Cash Back Graduation Reward, borrower must meet the following criteria after graduation:
    • The student borrower has graduated from the degree program that the loan was used to fund.
    • The student borrower may change majors and/or transfer to a different school, but must obtain the same level of degree (e.g. – undergraduate or graduate)
    • The graduation date is more than 90 days and less than five (5) years after the date of the loan’s first disbursement.
    • Any loan that the student has borrowed under the Ascent loan is not more than 30-days delinquent or in a default status as of the graduation date and until any Graduation Reward is paid.
  10. Students can apply to release their cosigner and continue with the loan in only their name after making the first 24 consecutive regularly scheduled full principal and interest payments on-time and meeting the other eligibility criteria to qualify for the loan without a cosigner.

* Application times vary depending on the applicant’s ability to supply the necessary information for submission.


7 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.

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.