Your Practical Guide to Federal Direct Loans for College

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Federal direct loans are an important form of student aid that can help college students cover their costs and complete their degrees.

If you’re considering taking out a federal direct loan, learn more about how this type of federal student loan works — and how you can use it to fund your education.

What are federal direct 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, the Federal Student Aid Office offers funding to undergraduate students, graduate students and parents of college students. These loans help students cover costs while they are enrolled in college.

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 direct 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 about $1.2 trillion, accounting for about 80% of funded federal student loans, according to our 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 4.53% 1.059% Up to $5,500 per school year
Unsubsidized Undergraduate students 4.53% 1.059% 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 6.08% 1.059% 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

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 amid 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.

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. It takes about an hour or less to complete the FAFSA. 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 do not have a subsidy but carry some of the lowest federal student loan rates
  • Unsubsidized direct loans for graduate students
  • 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 at your request.

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 the best private student loan rates, which might 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 your options in your own situation to make sure you understand how each choice could affect you both during college and when you enter repayment. Shop around for private student loans that suit your needs.

Andrew Pentis contributed to this report.

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

2 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.

1Rates 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.

2This 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 5/18/2020. Variable interest rates may increase after consummation. Lowest advertised rates require selection of full principal and interest payments with the shortest available loan term.


3 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. Variable rate loans are based on a margin between 2.90% and 16.50% plus the 1-Month London Interbank Offered Rate (LIBOR) rounded to the nearest 1/100th of a percent. The current LIBOR is 0.667%, which may adjust monthly. Your interest rate may increase or decrease, based on LIBOR monthly changes, resulting in an Annual Percentage (APR) range between 3.18% and 13.92%. Fixed rate loans have an APR range between 4.00% and 14.92% based on your credit worthiness and your selected program. Competitive variable rates calculated monthly at the time of loan approval. Rates are effective as of 05/01/2020 and reflect an Automatic Payment Discount of 0.25% on the lowest offered rate and a 2.00% discount on the highest offered rate. 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.)
  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.
  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 0.25% for enrollment in automatic debit applies only when the borrower and/or cosigner signs up for automatic payments and the regularly scheduled, current amount due (including full, flat, or interest only payments, as applicable) is successfully deducted from the designated bank account each month. Interest rate reduction(s) will not apply during periods when no payment is due, including periods of In-School, Deferment, Grace or Forbearance. If you have two (2) returned payments for Nonsufficient Funds, we may cancel your automatic debit enrollment and you will lose the 0.25% interest rate reduction. You will then need to re-qualify and re-enroll in automatic debit payments to receive the 0.25% interest rate reduction.
  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.


4 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. The interest rate ranges represent the lowest and highest interest rates offered on Discover student loans, including Undergraduate, Health Professions, Law, MBA, Residency, and Private Consolidation. 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 1.00% as of April 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.
  5. Get a variable interest rate from 2.99% APR to 6.24% APR (3-Month LIBOR + 1.99% to 3-Month LIBOR + 5.24%) for either a 10-year or 20-year repayment term. Or lock in a fixed interest rate from 3.74% APR to 6.49% APR for a 10-year repayment term or from 3.74% APR to 6.49% APR for a 20-year repayment term. 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 1.00% as of April 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.
Lowest APRs shown are available for the most creditworthy applicants.

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

Undergraduate Rate Disclosure: Variable interest rates range from 3.54%- 6.40% (3.54% – 6.40% APR). Fixed interest rates range from 3.79% – 6.65% (3.79% – 6.65% APR).

Graduate Rate Disclosure: Variable interest rates range from 2.72% – 6.11% (2.72% – 6.11% APR). Fixed interest rates range from 3.49% – 6.36% (3.49%-6.36% APR).

Business/Law Rate Disclosure: Variable interest rates range from 1.47% – 8.35% (1.47% – 8.20% APR). Fixed interest rates range from 4.45% – 10.74% (4.45% – 10.59% APR).

Medical/Dental Rate Disclosure: Variable interest rates range from 1.47% – 7.25% (1.47% – 7.10% APR). Fixed interest rates range from 4.40% – 9.64% (4.40% – 9.49% APR).

Parent Loan Rate Disclosure:  Variable interest rates range from 3.09%-6.23% (3.09%-6.23% APR). Fixed interest rates range from 5.48%-8.52% (5.48%-8.52% APR).

Bar Study Rate Disclosure:  Variable interest rates range from 4.79% – 9.93% (4.79% – 9.85% APR). Fixed interest rates range from 7.39% – 12.94% (7.39% – 12.82% APR).

Medical Residency Rate Disclosure:  Variable interest rates range from 3.88% – 7.38% (3.88% – 7.04% APR). Fixed interest rates range from 6.99% – 10.49% (6.97% – 10.08% APR).

Variable Rate Disclosure: Variable Rates are 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 May 1, 2020, the one-month LIBOR rate is 0.44%. Variable interest rates will fluctuate over the term of the loan with changes in the LIBOR rate, and will vary based on applicable terms, level of degree and presence of a co-signer. The maximum variable rate is the greater of 21.00% or Prime Rate plus 9.00%.

Fixed Rate Disclosure: Fixed rate ranges are based on applicable terms, level of degree, and presence of a co-signer.

Lowest Rate Disclosure: Lowest rates require a 5-year repayment term, immediate repayment, a graduate degree (where applicable), 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. Rates are subject to additional terms and conditions, and are subject to change at any time without notice. Such changes will only apply to applications taken after the effective date of change.

Federal Loan vs. Private Loan Benefits: Some federal student loans include unique benefits that the borrower may not receive with a private student loan, some of which we do not offer. Borrowers should carefully review federal benefits, especially if they work in public service, are in the military, are considering possible loan forgiveness options, are currently on or considering income based repayment options or are concerned about a steady source of future income and would want to lower their payments at some time in the future. When the borrower refinances, they waive any current and potential future benefits of their federal loans. For more information about federal student loan benefits and federal loan consolidation, visit http://studentaid.ed.gov/. We also have several resources available to help the borrower make a decision on our website including Should I Refinance My Student Loans? and our FAQs. Should I Refinance My Student Loans? includes a comparison of federal and private student loan benefits that we encourage the borrower to review.

Eligibility Criteria: Applicants must be a U.S. citizen, permanent resident, or eligible non-citizen with a creditworthy U.S. citizen or permanent resident co-signer. For applicants 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 any time. Citizens Bank private student loans are subject to credit qualification, completion of a loan application/Promissory Note, 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.

Loyalty Discount Disclosure: The borrower will be eligible for a 0.25 percentage point interest rate reduction on their loan if the borrower or their co-signer (if applicable) has a qualifying account in existence with us at the time the borrower and their co-signer (if applicable) have submitted a completed application authorizing us to review their credit request for the loan. The following are qualifying accounts: any checking account, savings account, money market account, certificate of deposit, automobile loan, home equity loan, home equity line of credit, mortgage, credit card account, or other student loans owned by Citizens Bank, N.A. Please note, our checking and savings account options are only available in the following states: CT, DE, MA, MI, NH, NJ, NY, OH, PA, RI, and VT and some products may have an associated cost. This discount will be reflected in the interest rate disclosed in the Loan Approval Disclosure that will be provided to the borrower once the loan is approved. Limit of one Loyalty Discount per loan and discount will not be applied to prior loans. The Loyalty Discount will remain in effect for the life of the loan.

Automatic Payment Discount Disclosure: Borrowers will be eligible to receive a 0.25 percentage point interest rate reduction on their student loans owned by Citizens Bank, N.A. during such time as payments are required to be made and our loan servicer is authorized to automatically deduct payments each month from any bank account the borrower designates. Discount is not available when payments are not due, such as during forbearance. If our loan servicer is unable to successfully withdraw the automatic deductions from the designated account three or more times within any 12-month period, the borrower will no longer be eligible for this discount.

2.00% – 10.01%*,1Undergraduate and Graduate

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1.49%
11.98%
2
Undergraduate, Graduate, and Parents

Visit College Ave

3.18% – 13.92%3Undergraduate and Graduate

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2.09%
11.49%
4
Undergraduate and Graduate

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3.52% – 9.50%5Undergraduate and Graduate

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3.54% – 6.40%6Undergraduate and Graduate

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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.