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 loanWho can use itInterest rate (2019-20)One-time loan feeAnnual loan limit
SubsidizedUndergraduate students with a demonstrated financial need5.05%1.062%Up to $5,500 per school year
UnsubsidizedUndergraduate students5.05%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 degree6.6%1.062%Up to $20,500 per school year
PLUSGraduate students and parents of undergraduate students7.08%4.236%Cost of attendance after all student aid is applied
ConsolidationStudent loan borrowers in repaymentWeighted 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 LoansPrivate Student Loans
Qualifying for the loanEasy 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 ratesInterest 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 protectionsFederal 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 2021!
LenderVariable APREligibility 
1.04% – 11.98%1Undergraduate, Graduate, and Parents

Visit College Ave

1.25% – 11.35%*,2Undergraduate, Graduate, and Parents

Visit SallieMae

1.05% – 11.44%3Undergraduate and Graduate

Visit Earnest

3.84% – 9.40%4Undergraduate and Graduate

Visit CommonBond

1.24% – 11.99%5Undergraduate and Graduate

Visit Discover

1.78% – 11.89%6Undergraduate and Graduate

Visit SoFi

1.21% – 11.53%7Undergraduate and Graduate

VISIT CITIZENS

2.46% – 12.98%8Undergraduate and Graduate

Visit Ascent

* 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.

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.
 
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 12/14/2020. 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 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).


4 Important Disclosures for CommonBond.

CommonBond Disclosures

Offered terms are subject to change and state law restriction. Loans are offered by CommonBond Lending, LLC (NMLS # 1175900), NMLS Consumer Access. If you are approved for a loan, the interest rate offered will depend on your credit profile, your application, the loan term selected and will be within the ranges of rates shown.  If you choose to complete an application, we will conduct a hard credit pull, which may affect your credit score. All Annual Percentage Rates (APRs) displayed assume borrowers enroll in auto pay and account for the 0.25% reduction in interest rate. All variable rates are based on a 1-month LIBOR assumption of 0.15% effective Jan 1, 2021 and may increase after consummation.


5 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 for Discover Student Loans are available for the most creditworthy applicants for undergraduate loans, 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 0.250% as of January 1, 2021. 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 the Discover Private Consolidation Loan are available for the most creditworthy applicants and include a 0.25% interest rate reduction while enrolled in automatic payments.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 0.250% as of January 1, 2021. 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). Visit Discover.com/student-loans/consolidation.html for more information, including up-to-date interest rates and APRs.
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.

6 Important Disclosures for SoFi.

sofiDisclosures

UNDERGRADUATE LOANS: Fixed rates from 4.23% to 11.26% annual percentage rate (“APR”) (with autopay), variable rates from 1.88% to 11.66% APR (with autopay). GRADUATE LOANS: Fixed rates from 4.13% to 11.37% APR (with autopay), variable rates from 1.78% to 11.73% APR (with autopay). MBA AND LAW SCHOOL LOANS: Fixed rates from 4.30% to 11.52% APR (with autopay), variable rates from 1.95% to 11.89% APR (with autopay). PARENT LOANS: Fixed rates from 4.60% to 10.76% APR (with autopay), variable rates from 1.88% 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 11/04/2020. 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).


7 Important Disclosures for Citizens Bank.

Citizens Bank Disclosures

Undergraduate Rate Disclosure: Variable interest rates range from 1.21% – 11.53% (1.21% – 11.53% APR). Fixed interest rates range from 3.99% – 11.80% (3.99% – 10.92% APR).

Graduate Rate Disclosure: Variable interest rates range from 1.39% – 11.43% (1.39% – 11.14% APR). Fixed interest rates range from 4.39% – 11.70% (4.39%-11.39% APR).

Business/Law Rate Disclosure: Variable interest rates range from 1.39% – 8.37% (1.39% – 8.07% APR). Fixed interest rates range from 4.13% – 9.84% (4.13% – 9.12% APR).

Medical/Dental Rate Disclosure: Variable interest rates range from 1.39% – 8.37% (1.39% – 8.07% APR). Fixed interest rates range from 4.03% – 8.64% (4.03% – 8.34% APR).

Parent Loan Rate Disclosure: Variable interest rates range from 2.13% – 7.44% (2.13%-7.44% APR). Fixed interest rates range from 4.69% – 7.83% (4.69% – 7.83% APR).

Bar Study Rate Disclosure: Variable interest rates range from 4.49% – 9.63% (4.49% – 9.56% APR). Fixed interest rates range from 7.39% – 12.94% (7.39% – 12.82% APR).

Medical Residency Rate Disclosure: Variable interest rates range from 3.58% – 7.08% (3.58% – 6.80% 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 December 1, 2020, the one-month LIBOR rate is 0.14%. 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.


7 Important Disclosures for Ascent.

Ascent Disclosures

Ascent Student Loans are funded by Richland State Bank (RSB), Member FDIC. Loan products December not be available in certain jurisdictions. Certain restrictions, limitations; and terms and conditions December apply.  For Ascent Terms and Conditions please visit: www.AscentStudentLoans.com/Ts&Cs

Rates are effective as of 12/01/2020 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.  For Ascent rates and repayment examples please visit: www.AscentStudentLoans.com/Rates

1% Cash Back Graduation Reward subject to terms and conditions. Click here for details.