Undergraduate vs. Graduate: 8 Student Loan Differences

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Undergraduate vs Graduate Student Loans
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If you’re planning to take out student loans for your second degree, you might think you could draw on your experience with undergraduate debt.

Unfortunately, it’s not that simple. Federal and private student loans are much different for undergraduate vs graduate students.

Before you take on graduate loans, consider these eight differences between the borrowing situations.

1. FAFSA forms
2. Need-based aid
3. Federal loan types
4. Federal loan interest rates
5. Federal loan borrowing limits
6. Qualifying for federal loan forgiveness
7. Private loan terms
8. In-school loan deferments

1. FAFSA form

There are many differences between being a dependent student and an independent one. As a graduate or professional student considered independent of your parents (and their finances), you should have an easier time completing the Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA) — the gateway to Federal Student Aid, including loans.

You’ll no longer need to attach mom or dad’s tax returns to your FAFSA paperwork. It should take you less than an hour to fill out the online form, so don’t procrastinate.

2. Need-based aid

Even though you don’t have to count your parents’ income and assets on your FAFSA form, which should lower your Expected Family Contribution or out-of-pocket cost, there likely isn’t as much need-based aid available to you as a grad student.

Federal Pell Grants, for instance, are typically only available to undergraduate students. Even if you received a Pell Grant for your bachelor’s degree, you likely won’t be eligible to receive one for graduate school. (Aspiring teachers participating in a postgraduate certificate program are the exception to this rule.)

Other need-based grants and aid may also be more difficult to find. Instead, you may have more luck with scholarships and fellowships. Other ways to pay for grad school without resorting to debt include seeking on-campus jobs, especially those with tuition reimbursement perks.

3. Federal loan type

If borrowing loans for your next degree becomes a necessity, the FAFSA opens the door to federal financing. But your options as a graduate student vary from those available to undergrads.

If you borrowed subsidized student loans as an undergrad, for example, you weren’t charged interest on your loans while enrolled as a full-time student. This isn’t the case for graduate students. Instead, your student loan options — Direct Unsubsidized and Direct PLUS loans — would start accruing interest charges right away, whether you’re a full-time student or not.

The longer you take to finish graduate school, the more interest will be added on to the principal balance of your graduate school loans. For example, if you borrow $10,000 when you start school, the balance will increase to about $11,200 two years later. That’s $1,200 more that you would owe than if you were an undergrad with a subsidized loan.

4. Federal loan interest rate

Although federal student loan rates decreased across the board for the 2019-2020 school year, this fact remained unchanged: Graduate students pay higher interest rates than undergraduates do.

Student loan interest rates are set by Congress and are tied to Federal Treasury notes. Currently, rates are 4.53% for undergraduate student loans and range between 6.08% (Direct Unsubsidized Loans) and 7.08% (Direct PLUS Loans) for graduate students.

Of course, the higher your rate, the more interest you’ll have to fork over in repayment.

5. Federal loan borrowing limits

As you’ve likely heard, both undergraduate and graduate student loan balances can add up to a whole lot. But it can be easier to rack up student debt for graduate school because of higher maximum loan limits.

Current allotments are $20,500 per year and $138,500 total for graduate or professional students. The latter limit includes any loans you already borrowed for your undergraduate degree.

Students can borrow even more in Direct Unsubsidized Loans for medical school and other health professional degrees. The student loan limit is capped at $47,160 per year and $224,000 for these students.

In addition, for PLUS Loans, there are no limits short of your school’s cost of attendance. You could borrow every last cent needed via a PLUS Loan.

While borrowing more seems like good news, it can translate to trouble. It’s tempting for students to take out more than they need to because graduate school student loans can be used for living expenses. Student loan money isn’t tracked or monitored, so it’s easy for students to abuse it, using the money for nonessential expenses.

6. Qualifying for federal loan forgiveness

Undergraduate and graduate students are eligible for student loan forgiveness programs like Public Service Loan Forgiveness. However, graduate and professional students face a longer path (25 years) toward forgiveness on the REPAYE income-driven repayment (IDR) plan. Undergrads could have their balance wiped away after just 20 years of qualifying payments.

With that said, many student loan repayment assistance programs exist exclusively for careers that require a postgraduate degree. Doctors, lawyers and teachers are among those professionals who could access relief programs offered by state governments, employers and other entities.

7. Private loan term

When federal student loans aren’t enough to cover your cost of attendance, you might consider private student loans. Again, however, private loans for undergraduate versus graduate students are anything but identical.

Most reputable lenders require undergrads to attach a cosigner to their loan application, for example. As a graduate student, you could net a lower rate by piggybacking on a creditworthy cosigner — but you could also qualify on your own.

In all likelihood, as a grad student, you’ll have a thicker credit file and could score a better deal on a private loan than you might have been able to snag as a wide-eyed underclassman.

Keep in mind, though, that banks, credit unions and online lenders vary their rates depending on the degree you’re pursuing. CommonBond, for instance, advertises five distinctive fixed and variable rate ranges for undergrads, grads and MBA students, as well as dental and medical program attendees.

Also, remember that it typically makes sense to prioritize federal loans over private debt options. Even the best private student loan companies listed on our site fail to match federal loan-only protections like IDR, deferment and forbearance, as well as governmental pathways to forgiveness.

8. In-school deferment

As a full-time graduate student, you’re typically allowed to defer payments on your undergraduate federal and private student loans.

Just beware: Interest will continue to accrue during deferment, too. If possible, you may want to continue to pay off interest on graduate student loans while you’re in school. If not, your bill will continue to grow.

There is some good news: If you have subsidized federal student loans from your undergraduate program, you won’t be charged more interest while they’re in deferment. You can find out how much interest will accrue using our student loan deferment calculator.

Undergraduate vs graduate student loans: Understand the differences before borrowing

There are a host of ways that your graduate or professional program will differ from your undergraduate experience. You could find yourself in smaller classes studying more specific material, for example. You might even have to put in the research to defend a serious thesis project.

As you know now, you’ll also have a new borrowing experience.

While being an undergraduate borrower might prepare you for the process as a graduate student, it’s essential to understand the differences before taking out more loans. In fact, you should review all of your financial aid options for grad school before making a decision.

Andrew Pentis contributed to this report.

Need a student loan?

Here are our top student loan lenders of 2020!
LenderVariable APREligibility 
1.24% – 11.44%1Undergraduate, Graduate, and Parents

Visit Earnest

1.25% – 11.15%*,2Undergraduate and Graduate

Visit SallieMae

1.24% – 11.98%3Undergraduate, Graduate, and Parents

Visit College Ave

1.24% – 12.49%4Undergraduate and Graduate

Visit Discover

1.80% – 11.89%5Undergraduate and Graduate

Visit SoFi

2.71% – 12.99%6Undergraduate and Graduate

Visit Ascent

3.52% – 9.50%7Undergraduate and Graduate

Visit CommonBond

* 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 Important Disclosures for Earnest.

Earnest Disclosures

  1. Rates include 0.25% Auto Pay Discount
     
  2. Explanation of Rates “With Autopay” (APD)
    Rates shown include 0.25% APR discount when client agrees to make monthly principal and interest payments by automatic electronic payment. Use of autopay is not required to receive an Earnest loan.

    Available Terms
    For Cosigned loans – 5, 7, 10, 12, 15 years. 
    Primary Only – 10, 12, 15 years

    In school deferred payment is not available in AL, AZ, CA, FL, MA, MD, MI, ND, NY, PA, and WA).


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

3 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. Rates shown are for the College Ave Undergraduate Loan product and include autopay 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. This informational repayment example uses typical loan terms for a first year graduate student 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 7.10% fixed Annual Percentage Rate (“APR”): 120 monthly payments of $141.66 while in the repayment period, for a total amount of payments of $16,699.21. Loans will never have a full principal and interest monthly payment of less than $50. Your actual rates and repayment terms may vary.

Information advertised valid as of 9/1/2020. Variable interest rates may increase after consummation. Lowest advertised rates require selection of full principal and interest payments with the shortest available loan term.


4 Important Disclosures for Discover.

Discover Disclosures

  1. Aggregate loan limits apply.
  2. 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.
  3. Lowest APRs shown are available for the most creditworthy applicants and include an interest-only repayment discount and Auto Debit Reward. The interest rate ranges represent the lowest and highest interest rates offered on Discover student loans, including undergraduate and graduate 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. For variable interest rate loans, the 3-Month LIBOR is 0.375% as of July 1, 2020. Discover Student Loans may 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. Our lowest APR is only available to customers with the best credit and other factors. Your APR will be determined after you apply. It will be based on your credit history, which repayment option you choose and other factors, including your cosigner’s credit history (if applicable). Learn more about Discover Student Loans interest rates.
  4. Lowest APRs shown for Discover Student Loans are available for the most creditworthy applicants for the Discover Private Consolidation Loan and include an Auto Debit Reward. 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. For variable interest rate loans, the 3-Month LIBOR is 0.375% as of July 1, 2020. Discover Student Loans may 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. Our lowest APR is only available to customers with the best credit and other factors. Your APR will be determined after you apply. It will be based on your credit history, which repayment option you choose and other factors, including your cosigner’s credit history (if applicable). Learn more about Discover Student Loans interest rates.
Lowest APRs shown for Discover Student Loans are available for the most creditworthy applicants for undergraduate loans, and include an interest-only repayment discount and a 0.25% interest rate reduction while enrolled in automatic payments.

5 Important Disclosures for SoFi.

sofiDisclosures

UNDERGRADUATE LOANS: Fixed rates from 4.23% to 11.76% annual percentage rate (“APR”) (with autopay), variable rates from 1.90% to 11.66% APR (with autopay). GRADUATE LOANS: Fixed rates from 4.13% to 11.83% APR (with autopay), variable rates from 1.80% to 11.73% APR (with autopay). MBA AND LAW SCHOOL LOANS: Fixed rates from 4.30% to 11.98% APR (with autopay), variable rates from 1.97% to 11.89% APR (with autopay). PARENT LOANS: Fixed rates from 4.60% to 11.26% APR (with autopay), variable rates from 1.90% to 11.16% APR (with autopay). For variable rate loans, the variable interest rate is derived from the one-month LIBOR rate plus a margin and your APR may increase after origination if the LIBOR increases. Changes in the one-month LIBOR rate may cause your monthly payment to increase or decrease. Interest rates for variable rate loans are capped at 13.95%, unless required to be lower to comply with applicable law. Lowest rates are reserved for the most creditworthy borrowers. If approved for a loan, the interest rate offered will depend on your creditworthiness, the repayment option you select, the term and amount of the loan and other factors, and will be within the ranges of rates listed above. The SoFi 0.25% autopay interest rate reduction requires you to agree to make monthly principal and interest payments by an automatic monthly deduction from a savings or checking account. The benefit will discontinue and be lost for periods in which you do not pay by automatic deduction from a savings or checking account. Information current as of 07/10/2020. Enrolling in autopay is not required to receive a loan from SoFi. SoFi Lending Corp., licensed by the Department of Business Oversight under the California Financing Law License No. 6054612. NMLS #1121636 (www.nmlsconsumeraccess.org).


6 Important Disclosures for Ascent.

Ascent Disclosures

Before taking out private student loans, you should explore and compare all financial aid alternatives, including grants, scholarships, and federal student loans and consider your future monthly payments and income. Applying with a cosigner may improve your chance of getting approved and could help you qualify for a lower interest rate. Ascent Student Loans may be funded by Richland State Bank (RSB). Ascent Student Loan products are subject to credit qualification, completion of a loan application, verification of application information and certification of loan amount by a participating school. Loan products may not be available in certain jurisdictions, and certain restrictions, limitations; and terms and conditions may apply. Ascent is a federally registered trademark of Turnstile Capital Management (TCM) and may be used by RSB under limited license. Richland State Bank is a federally registered service mark of Richland State Bank.

  1. Competitive variable rates calculated monthly at the time of loan approval based on a margin plus the 1-Month London Interbank Offered Rate (LIBOR) rounded to the nearest 1/100th of a percent. The current LIBOR is 0.176%, which may adjust monthly. Your interest rate may increase or decrease, based on LIBOR monthly changes. Rates are effective as of 09/01/2020 and reflect an Automatic Payment Discount. Automatic Payment Discount is available if the borrower is enrolled in automatic payments from their personal checking account and the amount is successfully withdrawn from the authorized bank account each month. (See Automatic Payment Discount Terms & Conditions.)
    1. Undergraduate Loans: Your variable interest rate may increase or decrease, based on LIBOR monthly changes, resulting in an APR range between 2.71% and 12.99%.  Fixed rate loans will not increase or decrease over the life of the loan and have an APR range between 3.53% and 14.50%. Rates reflect an Automatic Payment Discount of 0.25% on the lowest offered rate and a 2.00% discount on the highest offered rate. The following table shows a 48 month in-school period plus 9 months of grace prior to a full repayment term of either: 60-months (lowest fixed/variable rate), 144-months (highest fixed rate) or 180-months (highest variable rate) with examples of (i) Interest Only payments, (ii) $25 Minimum payments, and (iii) Deferred repayment options. (See Undergraduate Loan repayment examples.)
  2. Payments may be deferred. Subject to lender discretion, forbearance and/or deferment options may be available for borrowers who are encountering financial distress.
  3. Making interest only or partial interest payments while in school will not reduce the principal balance of the loan. There are three (3) flexible in-school repayment options that include fully deferred, interest only and $25 minimum repayment. (See Undergraduate Loan repayment examples.)
  4. Flexible repayment plans may be offered up to a fifteen (15) year repayment term for a variable rate loan and ten (10) year repayment term for a fixed rate loan. Students must be enrolled at least half-time at an eligible school. Minimum loan amount is $2,000.
  5. Interest rate reduction of either 0.25% (for Credit-Based Loans) or 2.00% (for Undergraduate Future Income-Based Loans) applies only when the borrower and/or cosigner sign up for automatic payments and the payment amount is successfully deducted from the designated bank account each month. The amount of the discount is dependent upon the loan product and credit history of the borrower at the time of application. Interest rate reduction(s) will not apply during periods when no payment is due, including periods of in-school, deferment, grace or forbearance, unless a regular payment amount has been arranged with the servicer. If you have two (2) consecutive returned payments for Nonsufficient Funds, we may cancel your automatic debit enrollment and you will lose the interest rate reduction. You will then need to re-qualify and re-enroll in automatic debit payments to receive the interest rate reduction.(See Automatic Payment Discount Terms & Conditions.)
  6. All applicants (individual and cosigner) are required to complete a brief online financial literacy course as part of the application process to be eligible for funding.
  7. Eligibility, loan amount and other loan terms are dependent on several factors, which may include: loan product, other financial aid, creditworthiness, school, program, graduation date, major, cost of attendance and other factors. Aggregate loan limits may apply. The cost of attendance is determined and certified by the educational institution.
  8. The legal age for entering into contracts is eighteen (18) years of age in every state except Alabama where it is nineteen (19) years old, Nebraska where it is nineteen (19) years old (only for wards of the state), and Mississippi and Puerto Rico where it is twenty-one (21) years old.
  9. 1% Cash Back Graduation Reward subject to terms and conditions. Click here for details. In order to be eligible for the 1% Cash Back Graduation Reward, borrower must meet the following criteria after graduation:
    • The student borrower has graduated from the degree program that the loan was used to fund.
    • The student borrower may change majors and/or transfer to a different school, but must obtain the same level of degree (e.g. – undergraduate or graduate)
    • The graduation date is more than 90 days and less than five (5) years after the date of the loan’s first disbursement.
    • Any loan that the student has borrowed under the Ascent loan is not more than 30-days delinquent or in a default status as of the graduation date and until any Graduation Reward is paid.
  10. Students can apply to release their cosigner and continue with the loan in only their name after making the first 24 consecutive regularly scheduled full principal and interest payments on-time and meeting the other eligibility criteria to qualify for the loan without a cosigner.

* Application times vary depending on the applicant’s ability to supply the necessary information for submission.


7 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 0.17% effective Sep 1, 2020 and may increase after consummation.


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.