Are Variable Rate Student Loans the Best Option for You?

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Private lenders offer variable rate student loans to borrowers looking to take out a new student loan or refinance their existing student debt. Unlike fixed rates, which stay the same over the life of the loan, variable rates fluctuate over time.

Because they can go up or down, variable rates entail more risk than fixed ones. But they also have the potential to save you hundreds of even thousands of dollars in interest payments.

When you borrow or refinance, you’ll have to choose between a variable and fixed rate student loan. Read on to learn whether variable rate student loans could be right for you.

What are variable rate student loans?

Variable rate student loans are defined mainly by how their interest rates are set. Remember, only private student loans have variable rates. All federal student loans have a fixed rate.

A variable rate means that the interest rate you are charged on the debt’s balance can (and often will) change over time. If your interest rate changes, your monthly payment can fluctuate, as well.

However, your lender can’t just raise rates whenever it feels like it to get more money out of you. Instead, rate increases are driven by prevailing interest rates in the financial market.

Most private lenders will set and raise variable rates in step with the London Interbank Offered Rate (LIBOR). This is the average of the interest rates banks charge each other to borrow and lend money between institutions. They usually charge a market rate plus the LIBOR rate.

Historically, LIBOR rates have remained fairly low since plummeting during the Great Recession in 2008. While they rose throughout 2018, rates started falling again in 2019.

Variable rates tend to start lower than fixed rates

Considering the fact that variable rates can increase, you might be wondering why anyone would choose a variable rate over a fixed one. Well, variable rates tend to start out lower than fixed rate student loans (though in a few cases, they could be higher).

So even though you’re assuming a certain level of risk that your rate could go up, you’re also getting a rate that’s lower than the one you’d get on a fixed rate student loan.

When variable rate student loans are a smart option

Because a variable rate student loan starts with a lower interest rate, there can be potential for savings.

If you’re considering taking out private student loans or refinancing student loans, here are some reasons a variable rate student loan could make sense.

You think interest rates will remain low

The variable rate for a loan will be tied to general interest rates. It’s impossible to truly predict the future of interest rates. But if you look at trends you might decide that the lower interest rate now, particularly in this falling rate environment in early 2020, is worth the risk of it rising later.

If you get an offer for a variable rate that’s a lot lower than your fixed rate offer, you could still save money over the life of the loan.

You’re looking for lower initial payments

Another benefit of a variable rate student loan is that with a lower initial rate, you also have lower monthly payments.

With the typical savings of 1.25% on a variable rate student loan, monthly payments will be about $10 to $12 less per month for each $10,000 of the loan.

There are plenty of recent college graduates who have entry-level pay now. However, they may expect big increases in pay in the years to come.

On average, workers see big wage growth in their 20s. Most 30-year-olds are earning 60% more than their entry-level pay, according to a PayScale survey.

If this sounds like you, a variable rate student loan can help you get lower monthly payments now. This is great if you need low monthly bills ASAP.

Just make sure you’re staying on track to earn pay increases. This will help offset the risk of monthly student loan payments becoming unaffordable if your variable rate increases.

You’re choosing a short repayment period

A shorter repayment period can also help you minimize the risk of a variable rate increase on your private student loans.

For example, if you have a 10-year repayment period, that exposes you to the risk of rising rates for a long time. But if you are planning to get a two-, three- or even five-year repayment plan, a variable rate student loan starts making much more sense.

That’s because there’s much less time for rates to increase, which makes it more likely that you will keep the savings you get with the initially lower variable rate. Likewise, you can also prepay your student loans and make extra payments to further limit your risk of rising rates.

Of course, a shorter loan term will mean higher monthly payments. So make sure you can realistically afford these monthly costs. After all, a shorter, variable rate student loan has a lot of potential for savings on interest.

You’re going back to school and want to refinance private student loans

Unlike federal student loans, repayment on private student loans typically can’t be deferred if you are returning to college.

This means many students who want to finish their undergraduate or graduate degree will have to figure out how to cover monthly payments for private student loans — while juggling a full course load in college.

That’s where refinancing private student loans can be a major cost-cutter for borrowers returning to school. Many borrowers with private student loans could refinance to get a lower interest rate. And, choosing a variable rate student loan can get them the biggest savings.

If they refinance with a variable rate student loan, this can help them get lower monthly payments while they finish school. These cheaper payments can ease up a lot of the pressure on a student’s already-tight budget.

Then later on, if rates do rise, they will hopefully have a degree that will help them earn more to cover those higher costs.

Are variable rate student loans right for you?

So should you choose a fixed rate or variable rate student loan when you get a new or refinanced student loan?

First, you should do the math to see what you’d actually be saving on interest. Use one of our student loan calculators to estimate your monthly payments and compare interest rates on multiple loan offers.

Besides doing the math, ask yourself how comfortable you are with the risk of a rate increase, along with how many years you expect it will take you to pay off your debt.

Variable rate student loans aren’t for everybody, but they can be a big money-saver for some. Depending on your circumstances, variable rate student loans could help you save on interest, lower your monthly payments and even pay off your education debt ahead of schedule.

Rebecca Safier contributed to the reporting of this article.

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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 9/24/2020. 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.