When the Internal Revenue Service shut down its Data Retrieval Tool for fear of a data breach, federal student loan borrowers were left frustrated and confused. They no longer had a seamless way to apply for income-driven repayment (IDR) to help them ease the burden of student loan debt.
More than two months later, this feature was finally back up and running — this time at StudentLoans.gov. Here’s how you can use this resource to better manage your federal student loans.
Who should use StudentLoans.gov?
The Department of Education’s (DOE) Federal Student Aid office runs StudentLoans.gov. It serves two audiences of federal student loan borrowers:
- Those who are out of school and in the process of repaying or consolidating their debt
- Those who are looking to obtain new loans (in-school students and their parents)
In March 2015, StudentLoans.gov underwent a redesign that made it easier for users to find the content relevant to them. The site has had its share of technical issues though; it has a 1.5-out-of-5 rating on the Is It Down Right Now? website. But its intuitive navigation should get you where you need to go, from start to finish.
Getting started: Creating your FSA ID
You’ll need an FSA ID (formerly the Federal Student Aid Pin) to access the full site. If you don’t have an ID, you can create one in less than five minutes.
However, get this done ahead of time, as you won’t get far on the site without it. The login won’t function until the Social Security Administration (SSA) OKs your personal information. (They notified me via email within about 24 hours that I was good to go.)
The FSA ID allows to users do three things on StudentLoans.gov:
- Sign Federal Student Aid documents electronically
- Access personal records
- Accept legal notices
Once the SSA knows you’re a legit user, you will have access to your own homepage. Here, you can receive online messages, manage personal documents (such as a loan consolidation application), and click to carry out popular tasks.
5 things you can do on StudentLoans.gov
Here are the different tasks you can carry out on StudentLoans.gov — and how to do them.
1. Apply for student loan consolidation
If you’ve decided to consolidate your federal loans into one Direct Consolidation Loan, StudentLoans.gov is the place to get it done. It only takes 30 minutes to fill in the application. Of course, this is only true if you already have a bunch of information at your side.
You will need your FSA ID, personal information, and the following details of your loans (even those you don’t plan to consolidate):
- Loan type
- Full name and mailing address of the loan holder or the servicer
- Account number (found on your statement)
- Estimated amount needed to pay off the loan
As you add your existing loans to the consolidation tool, it will auto-populate your new combined loan balance and interest rate. The rate is a weighted average of your previous loans, plus a minor round-up.
You could also indicate that you’d like your consolidation delayed until your grace period expires. This is a nice option for recent grads who are planning ahead. You can delay consolidation between one and nine months.
After completing the application, you’ll select your loan servicer. As of June 2017, you had the choice of Nelnet, Navient, Great Lakes Educational Services, and FedLoan Servicing. For borrowers with a particular distaste for an existing servicer, being able to choose your own is a plus.
If you don’t want to complete the application digitally, there are instructions to do so on paper. This will require downloading, printing, and mailing your documents to your servicer.
2. Use a repayment estimator to choose an IDR plan
You might be skeptical of a government website’s ability to provide an interactive tool that actually works. Enter StudentLoans.gov’s Repayment Estimator. It allows users to add all their loans and individual characteristics, such as annual income.
The estimator then spits out your monthly and total payouts for the repayment plans that you are eligible for. (If you used StudentLoans.gov to consolidate, you would be eligible for all seven plans.) The tool also shows how much of the loans’ balance could be wiped away by Public Service Loan Forgiveness for each repayment plan.
The site’s tool is especially useful because it might lead users to switch to an income-driven repayment plan. StudentLoans.gov is also where you would complete the income-driven repayment application.
For borrowers new to IDR
You can apply for one of the federal government’s four IDR plans and limit their monthly payment to a percentage of their income. The site’s Repayment Estimator helps borrowers decide which plan is right for them:
- Revised Pay As You Earn Repayment (REPAYE)
- Pay As You Earn Repayment (PAYE)
- Income-Based Repayment (IBR)
- Income-Contingent Repayment (ICR)
The application takes 10 minutes to complete; the Data Retrieval Tool’s (DRT) return is responsible for that speed.
The DRT pulls your tax information into your application — that’s important because your annual salary plays a role in choosing one of these repayment plans. If your income has changed since the last tax return, you will be directed to a share newer a pay stub or employer letter with your loan servicer.
Under all four repayment plans, your payments are affected by marriage. If you and your significant other aren’t separated and routinely file a joint tax return, your payment will be determined by your combined income.
That explains why IDR applications must be cosigned by a spouse (if you have one). This requirement can also be completed on StudentLoans.gov.
As long as the spouse has their applicant’s reference code and Social Security number, he or she can enter their information and digitally sign the IDR request within 10 minutes. Unlike the traditional role of a federal loan cosigner, spouses aren’t promising to repay the loan by signing their name here.
For borrowers already using IDR
This section of StudentLoans.gov allows returning applicants to:
- Provide updated income and family-size information to recertify an IDR plan
- Request to reduce your monthly payment because of a change in income or family size
- Switch from one IDR plan to another
Recertification is performed annually, while requesting a lower payment or switching IDR plans can occur at any time. Each task requires that your information is current in the National Student Loan Data System. If it’s not, you’ll land on a web page instructing you to update it.
3. Complete mandatory counseling
The remainder of the site is meant for undergraduate students, graduate and professional students, and their parents.
Students can check off mandatory trainings like entrance and exit counseling. They’re meant for brand-new borrowers or those who are just leaving school. There are also optional resources, such as Finance Awareness Counseling, that could be helpful for new borrowers.
Similarly, credit-deficient applicants for PLUS Loans can fulfill their own federal requirement: Sitting through 20 to 30 minutes of PLUS Credit Counseling. Many of the training sessions on the site take this long to finish.
StudentLoans.gov is also the one-stop shop for in-school and parent borrowers to complete a master promissory note (MPN). The MPN, which is necessary for all Direct Loans, is a pledge that borrowers will repay their loans and the accruing interest over time.
The MPN application permits you to receive federal loans for up to 10 years and takes less than 30 minutes to fill out.
4. Apply for PLUS Loans if you’re a parent
The next reason for parents of enrolled undergraduates to visit StudentLoans.gov is to apply for a PLUS Loan. Although the school determines the application’s fate, parents must complete this 20-minute process with the DOE.
In completing the application, parent borrowers can:
- Direct the school to use loan funds for education expenses beyond tuition and fees
- Decide who receives the loan’s credit balance
- Request a deferment while their child is in school
- Request an additional, six-month deferment after their child leaves school
Parents will need their own FSA ID, their child’s information, and their employer’s information to complete the PLUS Loan application.
5. Find forms and get more help
If you can’t get a task completed or a question answered on StudentLoans.gov, the site is good about telling you where to do so. It suggests, for example, to contact your school’s financial aid office for questions about a loan’s disbursement date and your loan servicer for questions about your balance.
If you’re not sure how to find a particular form — or don’t know which form you need — head to the site’s Forms Center. Here you can find downloadable application forms for anything related to repayment, deferment, forbearance, and discharge and forgiveness.
You can also be sent to the right document by taking a quick quiz about your situation. Someone who can’t afford a current monthly payment and needs to press the pause button, for example, would be directed to a list of deferment and forbearance options.
StudentLoans.gov contact information
The website provides more than a StudentLoans.gov contact phone number (1-800-557-7394). It also has a built-in email system and live chat.
But if you prefer hearing the voice of another human, its telephone support is available Monday through Friday, from 8 a.m. to 11 p.m. EST.
StudentLoans.gov is a valuable resource
Like most students, you started the process of financing your education at FAFSA.gov and StudentAid.gov. But once you leave school, StudentLoans.gov is where you can manage your federal student aid.
Having an all-in-one platform like this is especially important if you have multiple loans with multiple servicers, or if one of those servicers is being difficult.
But StudentLoans.gov is more than a valuable resource to manage your loans. It’s a platform that helps you take control of your debt before it starts taking control of you.
So log on, use the repayment estimator, and come up with your own an action-plan. Meanwhile, Student Loan Hero will still be here when you need our support.
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