Yes, There’s a Limit to Federal Student Aid — Here’s How Much

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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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“So I guess I can’t get any more financial aid this semester,” the text read. “I’m going to have to pay my tuition out of pocket.”

I stared at my phone for a few seconds, not comprehending what I was reading. My boyfriend’s financial aid had run out. How was that possible? And where was he going to get that tuition money?

As I quickly learned, the federal government has a maximum student loan amount — and once you reach it, you aren’t allowed to borrow more.

Here’s what to do if you’re about to hit that ceiling.

What is the maximum student loan amount?

Federal student loan limits are based on several factors:

  • Type of schooling: undergraduate or graduate
  • Student status: dependent or independent
  • Annual vs. aggregate: per year vs. per lifetime

This chart from the Pennsylvania State University student aid office breaks down the limits depending on your situation:

Dependent Undergraduate Student Dependent Undergraduate Student with a Parent PLUS Loan Denial Independent Undergraduate Student Graduate or Professional Degree Student
First Year (0-29 credits) $5,500. A maximum of $3,500 may be subsidized. $9,500. A maximum of $3,500 may be subsidized. $9,500. A maximum of $3,500 may be subsidized. $20,500
Second Year (29.1-59 credits) $6,500. A maximum of $4,500 may be subsidized. $10,500. A maximum of $4,500 may be subsidized. $10,500. A maximum of $4,500 may be subsidized. $20,500
Third, Fourth, and Fifth Years (59.1+ credits) $7,500. A maximum of $5,500 may be subsidized. $12,500. A maximum of $5,500 may be subsidized. $12,500. A maximum of $5,500 may be subsidized. $20,500
Aggregate Maximum Loan Amount $31,000. A maximum of $23,000 may be subsidized. $57,500. A maximum of $23,000 may be subsidized. $57,500. A maximum of $23,000 may be subsidized. $138,500. The graduate debt limit includes Direct Loans received for undergraduate study.

My boyfriend, an independent undergraduate student, had hit the cap of $57,500.

He was getting a second bachelor’s degree — and since it was the same level of schooling, he hit the maximum amount of student loans after only two semesters. If he wanted to go on to get a master’s degree, he could take out more (but that’s another conversation).

Although they aren’t technically student loan limits, there are two other limitations to be aware of:

  1. You can’t exceed the cost of attendance at your school; in other words, you can’t take out more loans than you actually need.
  2. You can receive Direct Subsidized Loans only for your maximum eligibility period, which is “150 percent of the published length of your program” — for example, six years for a four-year bachelor’s degree or three years for a two-year associate’s degree.

What to do if you hit the maximum student loan amount

If you’ve borrowed the maximum amount of student loans — or are close to it — here are four steps you can take.

1. Talk to your financial aid office

The federal government isn’t the only place that offers aid; states and colleges have programs too.

So talk to your financial aid office and ask if there’s anything it can do. Perhaps it can offer some need- or merit-based aid or recommend a local scholarship program. It also might be able to help you find aid from your state.

As one expert told Student Loan Hero, “There are things colleges can do above and beyond the formula — whatever the methodology — to determine additional funding.”

2. Drop down to part time

If you discover you’re about to hit the student loan ceiling, decreasing your course load will lower your costs and give you time to work while attending school. By doing so, you’ll hopefully be able to cover your tuition without taking on additional loans.

As for the federal loans you’ve already taken out? If you’re enrolled in classes half time, your loans will remain in deferment — which means you won’t need to make payments on them.

If they’re subsidized loans, the government will cover the interest. But if they’re unsubsidized loans, you might want to start making minimum payments to avoid ballooning interest charges.

3. Dip into your emergency or retirement savings

Although it’s never ideal to spend your savings, sometimes it’s necessary.

When my boyfriend ran out of financial aid, we dipped into our joint emergency fund to help pay for his tuition — and have been slowly building it back up ever since.

If you’ve been in the working world for a while, you could tap your retirement savings for tuition. For example, if you’ve had a Roth IRA open for more than five years, you can withdraw contributions for your education penalty- and tax-free.

Think long and hard before you do so, however. The best thing to do with retirement investments is let them sit and grow.

4. Consider private student loans

One final option to consider is private student loans. Since they aren’t offered by the federal government, they aren’t subject to traditional student loan limits.

You can obtain private student loans from a variety of lenders, including big brick-and-mortar banks and smaller online startups.

Although these loans have fewer restrictions than federal loans, their interest rates are higher. And you’ll probably need a cosigner (unless, of course, you’ve already been in the workforce and have established credit of your own).

Before you take on any additional loans, make sure you understand the terms — and how much you’ll end up paying in the long run. (You can use our student loan payment calculator to run the numbers.)

Taking on an additional $30,000 at a 9.00% interest rate, for example, will lead to monthly payments of $380 when you graduate and a total of $15,603 in interest over 10 years. Add that to the federal loans you already have, and you could be overwhelmed by debt when you graduate.

If you’ve hit the maximum student loan amount, don’t panic. Take a few deep breaths and carefully consider your options.

And remember: Whatever you take out, you’ll have to pay back.

Need a student loan?

Here are our top student loan lenders of 2019!
LenderVariable APREligibility 
* 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.

(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 9/3/2019. Variable interest rates may increase after consummation.


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 2.50% as of July 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

  1. 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 September 1, 2019, the one-month LIBOR rate is 2.14%. Variable interest rates range from 3.24% – 11.50% (3.24% – 11.35% 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.
  2. Citizens Bank Student Loan Eligibility: Borrowers must be enrolled at least half-time in a degree-granting program at an eligible institution. Borrowers must be a U.S. citizen or permanent resident or an international borrower/eligible non-citizen with a creditworthy U.S. citizen or permanent resident co-signer. For borrowers 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 anytime. Interest rate ranges subject to change. Citizens Bank private student loans are subject to credit qualification, completion of a loan application/consumer credit agreement, 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. 

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

  3. Co-signer Release: Borrowers may apply for co-signer release after making 36 consecutive on-time payments of principal and interest. For the purpose of the application for co-signer release, on-time payments are defined as payments received within 15 days of the due date. Interest only payments do not qualify. The borrower must meet certain credit and eligibility guidelines when applying for the co-signer release. Borrowers must complete an application for release and provide income verification documents as part of the review. Borrowers who use deferment or forbearance will need to make 36 consecutive on-time payments after reentering repayment to qualify for release. The borrower applying for co-signer release must be a U.S. citizen or permanent resident. If an application for co-signer release is denied, the borrower may not reapply for co-signer release until at least one year from the date the application for co-signer release was received. Terms and conditions apply. Borrowers whose loans were funded prior to reaching the age of majority may not be eligible for co-signer release. Note: co-signer release is not available on the Student Loan for Parents or Education Refinance Loan for Parents.
3.25% – 10.65%*,1Undergraduate and Graduate

Visit SallieMae

3.70%
11.98%
2
Undergraduate, Graduate, and Parents

Visit College Ave

3.37%
11.87%
3
Undergraduate and Graduate

Visit Discover

3.52% – 9.50%4Undergraduate and Graduate

Visit CommonBond

3.24% – 11.50%5Undergraduate 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.

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