5 Times When the Federal Parent PLUS Loan Is a Mistake

 April 13, 2020
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Today’s parents are borrowing more — and more often — to fund their children’s education. Most parents who borrowed for a child’s education reported a combined student loan balance of $40,000 or higher, according to Student Loan Hero’s parent student loans survey.

But is the parent PLUS loan a good idea? In the following five circumstances, the answer is probably not.

5 times the parent PLUS loan is not a good idea

Here are several situations in which a federal parent PLUS loan likely doesn’t make sense, as well as our suggestions for how to find better options for you.

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1. Your child hasn’t hit their borrowing limits
2. You could pay less with private student loans
3. You want your student to share responsibility for the loan
4. You’re helping your child pay for grad school
5. You can’t afford the payments

1. Your child hasn’t hit their borrowing limits

Before you take out a parent PLUS loan, consider maxing out other student loans. Direct subsidized loans and direct unsubsidized loans, both of which are available only to students, might be more cost-effective.

With a 5.05% interest rate and 1.062% loan fee, these loans for students have significantly lower costs than parent PLUS loans, which currently have a 7.08% interest rate and 4.236% loan fee.

Because of these lower fees, your child’s federal student loans will cost less, meaning parent PLUS loans would not be a good idea. So before taking out parent PLUS loans, families should turn to more affordable options and borrow up to the student loan limits.

These limits are between $5,500 and $7,500 a year for direct unsubsidized loans and direct subsidized loans for undergrads, and $31,000 in aggregate.

2. You could pay less with private student loans

Direct subsidized loans and direct unsubsidized loans aren’t the only potentially cost-effective alternatives to a federal parent PLUS loan. You might be better served by choosing a private student loan for parents over federal options.

Private student loan APRs are often lower than the 7.08% charged on parent PLUS loans. We list our favorite private student loan lenders with rates that start at less than 3.00%, for example.

Plus, many lenders don’t charge origination fees on private student loans. Even when they do, it’s often less than the 4.236% levied on parent PLUS loans.

There’s one catch, however: What you pay on a private student loan will depend on your credit score and other borrowing qualifications. While all parent PLUS loan borrowers are charged the same rate, private lenders set interest rates according to each borrower’s credit score.

Usually, only applicants with excellent credit will qualify for private student loan rates low enough to beat parent PLUS loans. Shop around for private student loans for parents and compare offers to see if you’d pay less with private lenders than you would with a federal parent PLUS loan.

3. You want your student to share responsibility for the loan

Parents often have to get involved with borrowing when students reach their federal student loan limits. If a student can’t borrow more on their own but still has college costs to pay, they can get access to additional loans only with help from Mom and Dad.

For parents who want their child to be primarily responsible for this debt, cosigning a student loan can be the preferable choice. This option is available only on private student loans, however. There are no federal student loans a student and parent can cosign together.

Cosigning allows you to help your child qualify for a student loan — but with the assumption your child will be primarily responsible for repaying it. Keep in mind that you’re equally and legally liable for this debt as a cosigner. If your child stops paying for any reason, you’ll be on the hook to pay it off.

Still, having your child as a cosigner makes this student debt legally owned and shared. This differs from parent PLUS loans and private parent loans, which are held in the parent’s name only and for which students can’t be held responsible.

4. You’re helping your child pay for grad school

Maybe your student is headed for graduate school, med school, law school or another professional program. If you want to help them pay for graduate school, private student loans will be your only option to do so.

The federal parent PLUS loan is available only to parents of undergraduate students. If you want to borrow to help pay for your child’s advanced degree, private student loans are the way to go.

Like undergraduate students, however, graduate students might have access to federal aid and student loans that are a better deal. Talk through all the borrowing options with your graduate student to find the best and most affordable way to finance their degree.

5. You can’t afford the payments

If you’re considering a federal parent PLUS loan, be careful of how much you borrow. These student loans should be used carefully and conservatively, and you should borrow only what you can afford to repay.

But the limit on how much you can take out with parent PLUS loans has more to do with your child’s college costs than with what you can afford to repay. While private lenders usually look at your debt-to-income ratio when they evaluate your application, parent PLUS applications include no such income requirements.

Parents can borrow whatever amount is needed to fully cover their child’s educational expenses. But the fact that you can borrow the loans doesn’t mean that parent PLUS loans are a good idea if you can’t afford to repay them.

Be sure your payments will be manageable when added to the debt you already have. Use our student loan payment calculator to estimate how much you’d pay each month on your new loan.

Keep in mind that this is a debt you’ll be paying off for the next 10 years. If you can’t afford to repay it, it wouldn’t be a good idea to take out a federal parent PLUS loan.

Rebecca Safier contributed to this report.

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