3 Times You Should Pursue Private Student Loans Over Federal

When to get private student loans

Everywhere you look for student loan information, you’ll see a common piece of advice: Exhaust your federal options before considering private lenders.

After all, about 90 percent of student loans are originated by the federal government, according to The College Board.

But what if following conventional wisdom costs you more money? For some borrowers, it’s best to prioritize private loans over federal. Here’s what to consider.

What you give up with private loans

During the 2011-2012 academic year, 11 percent of private loan borrowers applied for federal aid but didn’t take out a Direct Loan, found a Student Loan Hero study. Twenty-eight percent took Direct Loans but didn’t max them out.

Chances are some of those private student loan borrowers would’ve been better off taking only federal aid. For others, though, it might’ve made more sense to take out private loans.

That would be the case if the borrowers didn’t qualify for a Direct Subsidized Loan, on which the government pays in-school interest.

Borrowers might also have found a lower interest rate from private lenders, which can offer variable interest rates in addition to fixed. Variable rates, unlike fixed rates, fluctuate depending on indexes like LIBOR.

That would explain why some of these borrowers gave up significant loan protections — the real differentiating factors between federal and private student loans.

Private lenders might not offer:

You’re much likelier to find a private lender that offers in-school deferment than one that offers a path to any sort of loan forgiveness. If you can’t imagine a loan with any of these protections, ask a private lender before moving forward.

3 types of borrowers who might benefit from private loans

In many cases, the choice between federal and private student loans is black and white. An incoming freshman coming from a low-income family should chase federally subsidized loans and put on their blinders when private lenders come calling.

For certain other borrowers, though, there’s more of a choice. Here are three types of borrowers who could benefit from going private.

1. An undergraduate with a creditworthy co-signer

Unlike federal loans, private loans are credit-based. That is to say that the interest rate you can score from a private lender is highly dependent on your credit history. The longer, more impressive history you have, the lower rate you can secure.

The problem is that most teens and 20-somethings who attend a four-year school have limited credit histories. If you fall into this category, you might not have a credit score at all.

This is where co-signers come into play. A good co-signer — one with a steady income and a credit score that attracts private lenders — could net you a lower interest rate. They do this by supporting your application with their more-attractive credit history.

Citizens Bank, for example, can beat the 4.45% rate on a Direct Unsubsidized Loan. The bank offers sub-4.00% variable-rate loans.

In another case, say you’re considering asking your credit-worthy mom or dad to take out a Direct PLUS Loan (7.00%). Even if you’re wary of variable rates, a lender like Citizens Bank could save you money by having a parent co-sign a fixed-rate loan starting at 5.09%.

Potential red flag: Although many federal loans are not without loan fees, private lenders might try to sneak in a hefty loan origination fee. Make sure you put a low rate in the context of other fees before deciding on a federal or private loan.

2. A professional who is returning to school

Not all of us go straight from high school to college. You might make a little money before heading back to campus.

If you fall into this bucket, you might not need a co-signer to receive a low-rate offer from a private lender. As long as you can fulfill the same criteria — stable income and a strong credit score — you might be in for some serious savings.

If you’re an undergraduate, you might find yourself deciding between a Direct Loan at 4.45% or, say, a Connext private loan with variable rates as low as 3.00% for the same, standard 10-year repayment term.

Check the fine print before taking the plunge, though. Your private lender might not want you quitting your job before returning to school, for example, and your loan agreement might depend on whether you’re enrolled part or full time.

Potential red flag: Making a private-over-federal choice like this one assumes you’re comfortable going with a variable interest rate over a fixed one. Weigh the pros and cons of the debate to make sure the risk of fluctuating rates is worth the reward of potential savings.

3. A graduate student aiming for a high-salaried career

Like professionals returning to school, graduate students are likely independent borrowers who don’t need a co-signer.

If you count yourself in this group, know that taking out private loans isn’t a rarity — it might be a necessity if you max out your federal allowance. Twenty percent of 2012 graduate loans were from private lenders, according to our data.

Once you’ve used up your Direct Subsidized Loan allotment, currently at 6.00%, you’re left with Direct PLUS Loans, which carry a 7.00% rate.

Consider that a private lender like Sallie Mae starts its APRs for graduate and professional students at 3.25%. Further, you’ll find that its graduate student loan option, unlike a PLUS Loan, has no origination fee.

Potential red flag: You usually give up something to get something. Beyond protections, selecting a private loan over a federal loan might not be wise if you prefer a 20- or 25-year repayment term.

Even top-rated private lenders only offer up to 15-year terms. But if you’re headed toward a financially rewarding career, you might prefer a shorter loan term anyway.

Compare federal and private rates

If you fit the profile of someone who might benefit from taking out a private loan before a federal loan, your work isn’t done. You need to go rate shopping.

Just be aware that loan inquiries can affect your credit score. We recommend filing applications with private lenders within a 14-day window.

Although some private lenders might beat the federal government’s rates, there’s more to consider than APRs. Consider term lengths, fees, protections, and repayment options to start.

The point is to collect as much information as you can, even if it eventually directs you to a federal student loan. You don’t want to miss out just because you followed the crowd.

Need a student loan?

Here are our top student loan lenders of 2018!
LenderRates (APR)Eligibility 

1 = Citizens Disclaimer.

2 = CollegeAve Autopay Disclaimer: 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.
3.24% -
Undergraduate, Graduate, and ParentsVisit Citizens
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Undergraduate, Graduate, and ParentsVisit CommonBond
3.54% -
Undergraduate, Graduate, and ParentsVisit CollegeAve
3.98% - 9.07%Undergraduate and GraduateVisit LendKey
3.00% - 10.76%Undergraduate and GraduateVisit Connext
3.25% - 11.85%Undergraduate and GraduateVisit SallieMae
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