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.

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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.

1Rates 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.

2This 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 5/18/2020. Variable interest rates may increase after consummation. Lowest advertised rates require selection of full principal and interest payments with the shortest available loan term.


3 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. Variable rate loans are based on a margin between 2.90% and 16.50% plus the 1-Month London Interbank Offered Rate (LIBOR) rounded to the nearest 1/100th of a percent. The current LIBOR is 0.667%, which may adjust monthly. Your interest rate may increase or decrease, based on LIBOR monthly changes, resulting in an Annual Percentage (APR) range between 3.18% and 13.92%. Fixed rate loans have an APR range between 4.00% and 14.92% based on your credit worthiness and your selected program. Competitive variable rates calculated monthly at the time of loan approval. Rates are effective as of 05/01/2020 and reflect an Automatic Payment Discount of 0.25% on the lowest offered rate and a 2.00% discount on the highest offered rate. 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.)
  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.
  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 0.25% for enrollment in automatic debit applies only when the borrower and/or cosigner signs up for automatic payments and the regularly scheduled, current amount due (including full, flat, or interest only payments, as applicable) is successfully deducted from the designated bank account each month. Interest rate reduction(s) will not apply during periods when no payment is due, including periods of In-School, Deferment, Grace or Forbearance. If you have two (2) returned payments for Nonsufficient Funds, we may cancel your automatic debit enrollment and you will lose the 0.25% interest rate reduction. You will then need to re-qualify and re-enroll in automatic debit payments to receive the 0.25% interest rate reduction.
  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.


4 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. The interest rate ranges represent the lowest and highest interest rates offered on Discover student loans, including Undergraduate, Health Professions, Law, MBA, Residency, and Private Consolidation. 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 1.00% as of April 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.
  5. Get a variable interest rate from 2.99% APR to 6.24% APR (3-Month LIBOR + 1.99% to 3-Month LIBOR + 5.24%) for either a 10-year or 20-year repayment term. Or lock in a fixed interest rate from 3.74% APR to 6.49% APR for a 10-year repayment term or from 3.74% APR to 6.49% APR for a 20-year repayment term. 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 1.00% as of April 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.
Lowest APRs shown are available for the most creditworthy applicants.

5 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.

6 Important Disclosures for Citizens.

Citizens Disclosures

Undergraduate Rate Disclosure: Variable interest rates range from 3.54%- 6.40% (3.54% – 6.40% APR). Fixed interest rates range from 3.79% – 6.65% (3.79% – 6.65% APR).

Graduate Rate Disclosure: Variable interest rates range from 2.72% – 6.11% (2.72% – 6.11% APR). Fixed interest rates range from 3.49% – 6.36% (3.49%-6.36% APR).

Business/Law Rate Disclosure: Variable interest rates range from 1.47% – 8.35% (1.47% – 8.20% APR). Fixed interest rates range from 4.45% – 10.74% (4.45% – 10.59% APR).

Medical/Dental Rate Disclosure: Variable interest rates range from 1.47% – 7.25% (1.47% – 7.10% APR). Fixed interest rates range from 4.40% – 9.64% (4.40% – 9.49% APR).

Parent Loan Rate Disclosure:  Variable interest rates range from 3.09%-6.23% (3.09%-6.23% APR). Fixed interest rates range from 5.48%-8.52% (5.48%-8.52% APR).

Bar Study Rate Disclosure:  Variable interest rates range from 4.79% – 9.93% (4.79% – 9.85% APR). Fixed interest rates range from 7.39% – 12.94% (7.39% – 12.82% APR).

Medical Residency Rate Disclosure:  Variable interest rates range from 3.88% – 7.38% (3.88% – 7.04% APR). Fixed interest rates range from 6.99% – 10.49% (6.97% – 10.08% APR).

Variable Rate Disclosure: Variable Rates are 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 May 1, 2020, the one-month LIBOR rate is 0.44%. Variable interest rates will fluctuate over the term of the loan with changes in the LIBOR rate, and will vary based on applicable terms, level of degree and presence of a co-signer. The maximum variable rate is the greater of 21.00% or Prime Rate plus 9.00%.

Fixed Rate Disclosure: Fixed rate ranges are based on applicable terms, level of degree, and presence of a co-signer.

Lowest Rate Disclosure: Lowest rates require a 5-year repayment term, immediate repayment, a graduate degree (where applicable), 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. Rates are subject to additional terms and conditions, and are subject to change at any time without notice. Such changes will only apply to applications taken after the effective date of change.

Federal Loan vs. Private Loan Benefits: Some federal student loans include unique benefits that the borrower may not receive with a private student loan, some of which we do not offer. Borrowers should carefully review federal benefits, especially if they work in public service, are in the military, are considering possible loan forgiveness options, are currently on or considering income based repayment options or are concerned about a steady source of future income and would want to lower their payments at some time in the future. When the borrower refinances, they waive any current and potential future benefits of their federal loans. For more information about federal student loan benefits and federal loan consolidation, visit http://studentaid.ed.gov/. We also have several resources available to help the borrower make a decision on our website including Should I Refinance My Student Loans? and our FAQs. Should I Refinance My Student Loans? includes a comparison of federal and private student loan benefits that we encourage the borrower to review.

Eligibility Criteria: Applicants must be a U.S. citizen, permanent resident, or eligible non-citizen with a creditworthy U.S. citizen or permanent resident co-signer. For applicants 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 any time. Citizens Bank private student loans are subject to credit qualification, completion of a loan application/Promissory Note, 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.

Loyalty Discount Disclosure: The borrower will be eligible for a 0.25 percentage point interest rate reduction on their loan if the borrower or their co-signer (if applicable) has a qualifying account in existence with us at the time the borrower and their co-signer (if applicable) have submitted a completed application authorizing us to review their credit request for the loan. The following are qualifying accounts: any checking account, savings account, money market account, certificate of deposit, automobile loan, home equity loan, home equity line of credit, mortgage, credit card account, or other student loans owned by Citizens Bank, N.A. Please note, our checking and savings account options are only available in the following states: CT, DE, MA, MI, NH, NJ, NY, OH, PA, RI, and VT and some products may have an associated cost. This discount will be reflected in the interest rate disclosed in the Loan Approval Disclosure that will be provided to the borrower once the loan is approved. Limit of one Loyalty Discount per loan and discount will not be applied to prior loans. The Loyalty Discount will remain in effect for the life of the loan.

Automatic Payment Discount Disclosure: Borrowers will be eligible to receive a 0.25 percentage point interest rate reduction on their student loans owned by Citizens Bank, N.A. during such time as payments are required to be made and our loan servicer is authorized to automatically deduct payments each month from any bank account the borrower designates. Discount is not available when payments are not due, such as during forbearance. If our loan servicer is unable to successfully withdraw the automatic deductions from the designated account three or more times within any 12-month period, the borrower will no longer be eligible for this discount.

2.00% – 10.01%*,1Undergraduate and Graduate

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1.49%
11.98%
2
Undergraduate, Graduate, and Parents

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3.18% – 13.92%3Undergraduate and Graduate

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2.09%
11.49%
4
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3.52% – 9.50%5Undergraduate and Graduate

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3.54% – 6.40%6Undergraduate 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.