Can You Settle Student Loan Debt for Less Than You Owe?

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It’s safe to say that none of the millions of student loan borrowers with defaulted debt ever thought they would wind up in such a precarious situation when they originally borrowed their loans. No one starts out intending to end up in student loan settlement.

The very real threat of debt collectors knocking at your door, wage garnishment, offset taxes — or worse, legal action — are consequences that can pose major personal and financial damage if you’ve let your loans go unpaid.

We often hear about credit card debt settlement, but is student loan settlement an option too?

In a word, yes. Achieving a settlement on student loans is possible, and borrowers can often arrange to pay less than what they originally owed. But it does come with some considerations, and there are alternatives that might be a better approach if you find yourself in default.

Student loan settlement: Can it be done?

If you’re current on your loans (in other words, not in default) or if you have enough cash in the bank to pay down your debt, you won’t be eligible for settlement. It is only available if you’re in default on your student loans.

In general, the prime time to pursue debt settlement is after you’ve gone into default (and the collections process has begun), but before any legal moves have been made.

Before going any further, though, note that a loan settlement isn’t the same thing as loan forgiveness or discharge, where your loan balance is canceled under special circumstances. With a settlement, your lender is essentially striking a deal to “settle” for a lower amount than what you originally borrowed if it means resolving your debt without the need for collections, court judgments or other actions.

If you go for a federal student loan settlement (rather than one of alternatives we’ll discuss later in this post), then the collections agency used by the Department of Education will be authorized to offer these three standard payment options:

  • Option #1: Pay all your current principal balance, plus any accrued unpaid interest, with all future collection surcharges and fees waived
  • Option #2: Pay the total principal with half of your interest balance (the other 50% is forgiven)
  • Option #3: Pay 90% of the total principal and balance owed (10% discounted)

If you’re in default, you might be happy with any reduction of your debt at all. But note that with the above options, you’ll generally be expected to pay your student loan debt settlement in one lump sum, usually 90 days from the settlement agreement date.

In some instances, the Department of Education may allow you to pay your settlement balance in monthly installments (just like you would with regular monthly loan repayments), but they’ll typically need to be paid within one fiscal year.

Even with collection fees waived (option No. 1) or a percentage of your principal/interest deducted (options Nos. 2 and 3), that’s still a lot of money to pay at once. You may also owe taxes on any unpaid interest forgiven as part of a debt settlement.

Unless you’ve received a sudden windfall of cash, you’d probably need to borrow money from friends or family. Or you could raid your 401(k) savings, but this is often a bad idea.

While the above refers to federal loans, which are far more common, know that private student loans can also be settled. Here, however, options can vary from lender to lender, so the terms, conditions and amounts you may be able to negotiate could be quite different from those available for federal loans.

When you can’t settle student loan debt

In some cases, student loan debt can’t be settled. Specifically, if any of the following apply to you, you could be ineligible.

1. You’ve deliberately defaulted on your loans just to settle

Also called “strategic default,” this is a form of fraud that can land you in bigger trouble. By holding off on your payments, it sends the message to your lender that you’re forcing them to settle.

If you hold off making your payments and become delinquent with the intent to go into default on purpose, you’ll lose the chance to settle, and you’ll still owe your entire balance as interest continues to accrue.

2. A court judgment has already been issued against you

Once lawsuits have been filed, judgments have been made, and you’ve been ordered to pay your lender what you owe, it’s too late in the game to request debt settlement.

3. You’ve come into a disproportionately large sum of money

Lenders won’t typically approve a settlement if you have enough cash to make your loan payments or pay your debt balance in full.

If, for example, you received an inheritance, won the lottery or were given a big raise at work, it’ll be more difficult to prove the financial hardship necessary to seek out a debt settlement to begin with.

How to settle student loan debt

A collection agency, whether through the U.S. government or private lender, might not settle a defaulted student loan debt if it’s less than the amount that the lender is likely to receive over the life of the original loan. Because of this, negotiation is essential during settlement talks.

Do you go it alone or hire a student loan attorney? While you can navigate through the process on your own, a lawyer can be a great asset and can handle the negotiation. The fees and rates the attorney charges may still be worth the cost if they can get you a good settlement, and you could be able to find low-cost or pro-bono legal aid options.

When a settlement is reached, always make sure to get it in writing. Here too, it’s recommended to have an attorney review the contract to ensure it’s legally binding.

This will also guarantee that your lender fulfills their end of the settlement, too, which should include a final statement indicating that you’ve paid off your debt in full. Ensure that your agreement includes all of the debts you’re intending to settle and that no loans are omitted.

Alternatives to student loan settlement

While student loan settlement can be helpful in some circumstances, it’s definitely not for everyone. If you’re in danger of falling behind on your student loan payments, consider these alternatives:

1. Sign up for an income-driven repayment plan

If you have federal loans and can’t afford your current payment, you may be eligible for an income-driven repayment (IDR) plan. Under these plans, the government extends your repayment term and caps your monthly payments at a percentage of your discretionary income. Some people qualify for a payment as low as $0.

2. Enter into deferment or forbearance

If you’re facing a financial hardship, such as unemployment or a medical emergency, you may qualify for a deferment or forbearance. With this approach, you can postpone making payments without entering default, giving you time to get back on your feet.

Federal loans and some private loans offer forbearance options. Contact your lender to see if you are eligible for any financial hardship programs.

3. Look into student loan forgiveness

If you have federal student loans, there are some situations where you may qualify for student loan forgiveness or discharge.

There are various forgiveness options for both federal and private student loans. There are also possibilities for discharge — for instance, if you became totally and permanently disabled, you could be eligible for Total and Permanent Disability Discharge, with the remaining balance of your student loans forgiven.

4. Consider student loan refinancing

If you can’t afford your payments, but you can afford a smaller monthly bill, another option is to refinance your student loans.

With refinancing, you work with a private lender to take out a loan for the amount of your current debt. The new loan can have different repayment terms, including length of repayment and minimum payment. If you opt for a longer loan term, you’ll pay more in interest, but you could significantly reduce your monthly payment. You might also qualify for a lower interest rate.

Note, however, that refinancing requires strong credit to be eligible (or a creditworthy cosigner), and there are some downsides.

Impact and consequences of student loan settlement

A student loan debt settlement can have a negative impact on your credit report and FICO score, since it indicates that you’ve gone into both delinquency and default on a loan. However, a settlement may be the lesser of two evils and doesn’t affect your credit score as badly as a collection or judgment might.

In addition to building a budget and paying down your student loan balance on time, make sure you’re aware of how much you owe, how many loans you have, the total balances for each, and what your terms and interest rates are.

By keeping track of your debts, you can avoid falling behind on your loans, so that default and student loan debt settlement never enter the picture.

Kat Tretina contributed to this report.

Interested in refinancing student loans?

Here are the top 9 lenders of 2021!
LenderVariable APREligible Degrees 
1.88% – 6.15%1Undergrad
& Graduate

Visit Splash

1.88% – 5.64%2Undergrad
& Graduate

Visit Earnest

1.88% – 5.64%3Undergrad
& Graduate

Visit NaviRefi

2.50% – 6.85%4Undergrad
& Graduate

Visit CommonBond

2.25% – 6.39%5Undergrad
& Graduate

Visit SoFi

1.90% – 5.25%6Undergrad
& Graduate

Visit Lendkey

1.89% – 5.90%7Undergrad
& Graduate

Visit Laurel Road

2.39% – 6.01%Undergrad
& Graduate

Visit Elfi

2.13% – 5.25%8Undergrad
& Graduate

Visit PenFed

Check out the testimonials and our in-depth reviews!
1 Important Disclosures for Splash Financial.

Splash Financial Disclosures

Terms and Conditions apply. Splash reserves the right to modify or discontinue products and benefits at any time without notice. Rates and terms are also subject to change at any time without notice. Offers are subject to credit approval. To qualify, a borrower must be a U.S. citizen or permanent resident in an eligible state and meet applicable underwriting requirements. Not all borrowers receive the lowest rate. Lowest rates are reserved for the highest qualified borrowers. If approved, your actual rate will be within a range of rates and will depend on a variety of factors, including term of loan, a responsible financial history, income and other factors. Refinancing or consolidating private and federal student loans may not be the right decision for everyone. Federal loans carry special benefits not available for loans made through Splash Financial, for example, public service loan forgiveness and economic hardship programs, fee waivers and rebates on the principal, which may not be accessible to you after you refinance. The rates displayed may include a 0.25% autopay discount

The information you provide to us is an inquiry to determine whether we or our lenders can make a loan offer that meets your needs. If we or any of our lending partners has an available loan offer for you, you will be invited to submit a loan application to the lender for its review. We do not guarantee that you will receive any loan offers or that your loan application will be approved. Offers are subject to credit approval and are available only to U.S. citizens or permanent residents who meet applicable underwriting requirements. Not all borrowers will receive the lowest rates, which are available to the most qualified borrowers. Participating lenders, rates and terms are subject to change at any time without notice.

To check the rates and terms you qualify for, Splash Financial conducts a soft credit pull that will not affect your credit score. However, if you choose a product and continue your application, the lender will request your full credit report from one or more consumer reporting agencies, which is considered a hard credit pull and may affect your credit.

Splash Financial and our lending partners reserve the right to modify or discontinue products and benefits at any time without notice. To qualify, a borrower must be a U.S. citizen and meet our lending partner’s underwriting requirements. Lowest rates are reserved for the highest qualified borrowers. This information is current as of June 1, 2021.


2 Rate range above includes optional 0.25% Auto Pay discount. Important Disclosures for Earnest.

Earnest Disclosures

Interest Rate Disclosure

Actual rate and available repayment terms will vary based on your income. Fixed rates range from 2.59% APR to 5.79% APR (excludes 0.25% Auto Pay discount). Variable rates range from 1.88% APR to 5.64% APR (excludes 0.25% Auto Pay discount). For variable rate loans, although the interest rate will vary after you are approved, the interest rate will never exceed 36% (the maximum allowable for these loans). Earnest variable interest rate student loan refinance loans are based on a publicly available index, the one month London Interbank Offered Rate (LIBOR). Your rate will be calculated each month by adding a margin between 2.04% and 5.8% to the one month LIBOR. Earnest rate ranges are current as of 6/8/2021, and are subject to change based on market conditions.

Auto Pay Discount Disclosure

You can take advantage of the Auto Pay interest rate reduction by setting up and maintaining active and automatic ACH withdrawal of your loan payment. The interest rate reduction for Auto Pay will be available only while your loan is enrolled in Auto Pay. Interest rate incentives for utilizing Auto Pay may not be combined with certain private student loan repayment programs that also offer an interest rate reduction. For multi-party loans, only one party may enroll in Auto Pay.

Student Loan Refinancing Loan Cost Examples

These examples provide estimates based on payments beginning immediately upon loan disbursement. Variable APR: A $10,000 loan with a 20-year term (240 monthly payments of $72) and a 5.89% APR would result in a total estimated payment amount of $17,042.39. For a variable loan, after your starting rate is set, your rate will then vary with the market. Fixed APR: A $10,000 loan with a 20-year term (240 monthly payments of $72) and a 6.04% APR would result in a total estimated payment amount of $17,249.77. Your actual repayment terms may vary.Terms and Conditions apply. Visit https://www.earnest. com/terms-of-service, e-mail us at [email protected], or call 888-601-2801 for more information on our student loan refinance product.

Earnest Loans are made by Earnest Operations LLC or One American Bank, Member FDIC. Earnest Operations LLC, NMLS #1204917. 535 Mission St., Suite 1663, San Francisco, CA 94105. California Financing Law License 6054788. Visit earnest.com/licenses for a full list of licensed states. For California residents (Student Loan Refinance Only): Loans will be arranged or made pursuant to a California Financing Law License.

One American Bank, 515 S. Minnesota Ave, Sioux Falls, SD 57104. Earnest loans are serviced by Earnest Operations LLC with support from Navient Solutions LLC (NMLS #212430). One American Bank and Earnest LLC and its subsidiaries are not sponsored by or agencies of the United States of America.

© 2021 Earnest LLC. All rights reserved.


3 Important Disclosures for Navient.

Navient Disclosures

1. NaviRefi loans are made by Earnest Operations LLC, a member of the Navient family of companies, subject to individual approval and underwriting criteria. California residents only: Loans made or arranged pursuant to a California Finance Lenders Law license. Additional terms and conditions apply.

– To qualify, you must be a U.S. citizen or non-citizen permanent resident of the United States, reside in a state we lend in, and satisfy our minimum eligibility criteria. You may find more information on loan eligibility here: https://www.navirefi.com/help-and-questions. Not all applicants will be approved for a loan, and not all applicants will qualify for the lowest rate. Loan terms are subject to eligibility. Approval and interest rate depend on the review of a complete application. Loan approval is subject to confirmation that your debt-to-income, free cash flow, credit history and application information meet the minimum requirements. You must have a minimum FICO score to be considered.

– You can choose between fixed and variable rates. Fixed interest rates are 2.75% – 6.04% APR (2.50% – 5.79% APR with Auto Pay discount). Starting variable interest rates are 2.13% – 5.89% APR (1.88% – 5.64% APR with Auto Pay discount). Variable rates are based on an index, the 30-day Average Secured Overnight Financing Rate (SOFR) plus a margin. Variable rates are reset monthly based on the fluctuation of the index. We do not currently offer variable rate loans in AK, CO, CT, HI, IL, KY, MA, MN, MS, NH, OH, OK, SC, TN, TX, and VA.

– You can take advantage of the 0.25% Auto Pay interest rate reduction by setting up and maintaining active and automatic ACH withdrawal of your loan payment. The interest rate reduction for Auto Pay will be available only while your loan is enrolled in Auto Pay. Interest rate incentives for utilizing Auto Pay may not be combined with certain private student loan repayment programs that also offer an interest rate reduction. NaviRefi rate ranges are current as of June 1, 2021 and are subject to change based on market conditions and borrower eligibility.

– The information provided on this page is updated as of 06/1/2021. Earnest Operations LLC reserves the right to modify or discontinue (in whole or in part) this loan program and its associated services and benefits at any time without notice. Check www.navirefi.com for the most up-to-date information. Terms and Conditions apply. Call 855-284-4893 for more information on our student loan refinance product.

– Earnest Operations LLC – NMLS #1204917, CA CFL #6054788 – 535 Mission St., Suite 1663, San Francisco, CA 94105.
Navient Solutions, LLC – NMLS #212430 – 123 Justison St., Wilmington, DE 19801. Visit https://navirefi.com/lending-licenses for a full list of licensed states.


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. ‍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 SoFi.

SoFi Disclosures

Fixed rates from 2.74% APR to 6.74% APR (with autopay). Variable rates from 2.25% APR to 6.39% APR (with autopay). All variable rates are based on the 1-month LIBOR and may increase after consummation if LIBOR increases; see more at SoFi.com/legal/#1. If approved for a loan your rate will depend on a variety of factors such as your credit profile, your application and your selected loan terms. Your rate will be within the ranges of rates listed above. Lowest rates reserved for the most creditworthy borrowers. SoFi refinance loans are private loans and do not have the same repayment options that the federal loan program offers, or may become available, such as Income Based Repayment or Income Contingent Repayment or PAYE. SoFi loans are originated by SoFi Lending Corp. or an affiliate (dba SoFi), a lender licensed by the Department of Financial Protection and Innovation under the California Financing Law, license #6054612; NMLS #1121636 (www.nmlsconsumeraccess.org). Additional terms and conditions apply; see SoFi.com/eligibility for details. SOFI RESERVES THE RIGHT TO MODIFY OR DISCONTINUE PRODUCTS AND BENEFITS AT ANY TIME WITHOUT NOTICE.


6 Important Disclosures for LendKey.

LendKey Disclosures

Refinancing via LendKey.com is only available for applicants with qualified private education loans from an eligible institution. Loans that were used for exam preparation classes, including, but not limited to, loans for LSAT, MCAT, GMAT, and GRE preparation, are not eligible for refinancing with a lender via LendKey.com. If you currently have any of these exam preparation loans, you should not include them in an application to refinance your student loans on this website. Applicants must be either U.S. citizens or Permanent Residents in an eligible state to qualify for a loan. Certain membership requirements (including the opening of a share account and any applicable association fees in connection with membership) may apply in the event that an applicant wishes to accept a loan offer from a credit union lender. Lenders participating on LendKey.com reserve the right to modify or discontinue the products, terms, and benefits offered on this website at any time without notice. LendKey Technologies, Inc. is not affiliated with, nor does it  endorse,  any educational institution.

Subject to floor rate and may require the automatic payments be made from a checking or savings account with the lender. The rate reduction will be removed and the rate will be increased by 0.25% upon any cancellation or failed collection attempt of the automatic payment and will be suspended during any period of deferment or forbearance. As a result, during the forbearance or suspension period, and/or if the automatic payment is canceled, any increase will take the form of higher payments. The lowest advertised variable APR is only available for loan terms of  5 years and is reserved for applicants with FICO scores of at least 810.

As of 04/07/2021 student loan refinancing rates range from 1.90% APR – 5.25% Variable APR with AutoPay and 2.95% APR – 7.63% Fixed APR with AutoPay.


7 Important Disclosures for Laurel Road.

Laurel Road Disclosures

All credit products are subject to credit approval.

Laurel Road began originating student loans in 2013 and has since helped thousands of professionals with undergraduate and postgraduate degrees consolidate and refinance more than $4 billion in federal and private school loans. Laurel Road also offers a suite of online graduate school loan products and personal loans that help simplify lending through customized technology and personalized service. In April 2019, Laurel Road was acquired by KeyBank, one of the nation’s largest bank-based financial services companies. Laurel Road is a brand of KeyBank National Association offering online lending products in all 50 U.S. states, Washington, D.C., and Puerto Rico. All loans are provided by KeyBank National Association, a nationally chartered bank. Member FDIC. For more information, visit www.laurelroad.com.

As used throughout these Terms & Conditions, the term “Lender” refers to KeyBank National Association and its affiliates, agents, guaranty insurers, investors, assigns, and successors in interest.

  1. Checking your rate with Laurel Road only requires a soft credit pull, which will not affect your credit score. To proceed with an application, a hard credit pull will be required, which may affect your credit score.
  2. Savings vary based on rate and term of your existing and refinanced loan(s). Refinancing to a longer term may lower your monthly payments, but may also increase the total interest paid over the life of the loan. Refinancing to a shorter term may increase your monthly payments, but may lower the total interest paid over the life of the loan. Review your loan documentation for total cost of your refinanced loan.
  3. After loan disbursement, if a borrower documents a qualifying economic hardship, we may agree in our discretion to allow for full or partial forbearance of payments for one or more 3-month time periods (not to exceed 12 months in the aggregate during the term of your loan), provided that we receive acceptable documentation (including updating documentation) of the nature and expected duration of the borrower’s economic hardship. During any period of forbearance interest will continue to accrue. At the end of the forbearance period, any unpaid accrued interest will be capitalized and be added to the remaining principle amount of the loan.
  4. Automatic Payment (“AutoPay”) Discount: if the borrower chooses to make monthly payments automatically from a bank account, the interest rate will decrease by 0.25% and will increase back if the borrower stops making (or we stop accepting) monthly payments automatically from the borrower’s bank account. The 0.25% AutoPay discount will not reduce the monthly payment; instead, the discount is applied to the principal to help pay the loan down faster.

Assumptions: Repayment examples above assume a loan amount of $10,000 with repayment beginning immediately following disbursement. Repayment examples do not include the 0.25% AutoPay Discount.

Annual Percentage Rate (“APR”): This term represents the actual cost of financing to the borrower over the life of the loan expressed as a yearly rate.

Interest Rate: A simple annual rate that is applied to an unpaid balance.

Variable Rates: The current index for variable rate loans is derived from the one-month London Interbank Offered Rate (“LIBOR”) and changes in the LIBOR index may cause your monthly payment to increase. Borrowers who take out a term of 5, 7, or 10 years will have a maximum interest rate of 9%, those who take out a 15 or 20-year variable loan will have a maximum interest rate of 10%.

KEYBANK NATIONAL ASSOCIATION RESERVES THE RIGHT TO MODIFY OR DISCONTINUE PRODUCTS AND BENEFITS AT ANY TIME WITHOUT NOTICE.

This information is current as of April 29, 2021. Information and rates are subject to change without notice.
 


8 Important Disclosures for PenFed.

PenFed Disclosures

Annual Percentage Rate (APR) is the cost of credit calculating the interest rate, loan amount, repayment term and the timing of payments. Fixed Rates range from 2.89%-4.78% APR and Variable Rates range from 2.13%-5.25% APR. Both Fixed and Variable Rates will vary based on application terms, level of degree and presence of a co-signer. These rates are subject to additional terms and conditions and rates are subject to change at any time without notice. For Variable Rate student loans, the rate will never exceed 9.00% for 5 year and 8 year loans and 10.00% for 12 and 15 years loans (the maximum allowable for this loan). Minimum variable rate will be 2.00%. These rates are 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.