How to Get a Student Loan When Financial Aid Isn’t Enough

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In an ideal world, financial aid you don’t have to repay would fund your college education. Unfortunately, most students can’t get enough grants and scholarships to cover all their tuition. If you max out on free sources of financial aid, you’ll need to figure out how to get a student loan to pay the remaining costs of your education.

How to get a student loan

So what can you do when grants, scholarships, money from savings, and working doesn’t cover the full cost of your education? At this point, you’ll need to explore your options for federal student loans and private student loans. Here’s how to do it.

Federal student loans

It’s always a good idea to max out federal student loan options before you consider private loans. This is because federal loans come with a variety of unique benefits, including:

  • Student loan interest rates set by the government
  • Subsidized interest for eligible loans in deferment
  • A grace period before repayment begins after graduating or dropping below full-time status
  • Access to income-driven repayment plans
  • Clear criteria for deferment and forbearance
  • Eligibility for student loan forgiveness if you work in a qualifying public interest position

Fortunately, figuring out how to get a student loan from the federal government is easy.

The process starts with filling out the FAFSA. The FAFSA should be completed as soon as possible when it becomes available on Oct. 1 each year, as many sources of financial aid are limited. Our ultimate guide to filling out the FAFSA can help you complete this online form.

Completing the FAFSA is necessary not only to qualify for federal loans but also to become eligible for many sources of free financial aid, such as need-based Pell Grants. You have to fill out the FAFSA every year to receive financial aid. The forms should be completed in the year before you need aid to pay tuition.

When you complete your FAFSA, you’ll list the schools you’re interested in attending. Information from your FAFSA will be sent to those schools. Each school will put together a financial aid package that shows how much in federal student loans you qualify to borrow.

However, it’s important to note that just because you qualify for a certain amount of federal loans doesn’t mean you have to borrow the full amount. The less debt you take on while in school, the less you’ll have to pay back when you graduate. Your school will tell you how to accept all or part of your financial aid package.

Undergraduates can take out between $5,500 and $12,500 per year in Direct Subsidized Loans and Direct Unsubsidized Loans.

Private Student Loans

Private loans work a little bit differently from federal loans. So it’s important to figure out how to get student loans from private lenders. When considering private loans versus federal loans, remember that with private loans:

  • Interest rates are determined by your creditworthiness.
  • Interest generally begins accruing as soon as your loan is disbursed.
  • Repayment terms and benefits are determined by the lender or servicer, rather than by the federal government.

Borrowing limits also differ with private student loan lenders. Rather than having annual and aggregate limits to how much you can borrow, private loans typically let you borrow up to 100% of the cost of attendance minus financial aid. If your cost of attendance exceeds the maximum amount of federal student loans you’re able to borrow, private loans can help fill that gap.

Also unlike federal student loans, you don’t qualify for private loans through the FAFSA. Instead, you apply to the bank, credit union, or another lender. Because terms, conditions, interest rates, and other factors can vary depending on the lender, it’s important to do your due diligence and research private lenders to make sure you’re getting the best deal possible.

Again, while it might be tempting to take out the maximum amount you’re approved to borrow, you should explore all other options for funding your education before relying on student loans, particularly private student loans. This is because private loans don’t offer the generous repayment benefits that federal student loans do.

As far as timing goes, you should fill out the FAFSA as soon as you are able. Then, wait to apply for private student loans until you have received your complete financial aid package from your institution. That way, you know you’re only borrowing as much as you absolutely need.

Honey Smith contributed to this article. 

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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)All rates shown include the auto-pay 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.

(3)As certified by your school and less any other financial aid you might receive. Minimum $1,000.

Information advertised valid as of 11/4/2019. Variable interest rates may increase after consummation.


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

3 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. Lowest rates shown are for the undergraduate loan and include an interest-only repayment discount and a 0.25% interest rate reduction while enrolled in automatic payments. The interest rate ranges represent the lowest interest rate offered on the Discover Undergraduate Loan and highest interest rates offered on Discover student loans, including Undergraduate, Graduate, Health Professions, Law and MBA 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. 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 2.250% as of October 1, 2019. Discover Student Loans will 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. Please visit discover.com/student-loans/interest-rates for more information about interest rates.
Discover's lowest rates shown are for the undergraduate loan and include an interest-only repayment discount and a 0.25% interest rate reduction while enrolled in automatic payments.

4 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.

5 Important Disclosures for Citizens.

Citizens Disclosures

Undergraduate Rate Disclosure: Variable rate, 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, 2019, the one-month LIBOR rate is 1.70%. Variable interest rates range from 2.80% – 11.06% (2.80% – 10.91% APR) and will fluctuate over the term of the loan with changes in the LIBOR rate, and will vary based on applicable terms, level of degree earned and presence of a co-signer. Fixed interest rates range from 4.72% – 12.19% (4.72% – 12.04% APR) based on applicable terms, level of degree earned and presence of a co-signer. Lowest rates shown requires application with a co-signer, are for eligible applicants, require a 5-year repayment term, borrower making scheduled payments while in school 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. Subject to additional terms and conditions, and rates are subject to change at any time without notice. Such changes will only apply to applications taken after the effective date of change. Please note: Due to federal regulations, Citizens Bank is required to provide every potential borrower with disclosure information before they apply for a private student loan. The borrower will be presented with an Application Disclosure and an Approval Disclosure within the application process before they accept the terms and conditions of the loan.

Please Note: International Students are not eligible for the multi-year approval feature.

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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.

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