About half of all students nationwide will take out a student loan during their college years. That leaves a lot of debt floating around out there, but it’s for a good cause. Student loans have become a fact of life for many of us, especially since education is getting harder to afford. So, if you decide that a student loan is what you need to get through school, take a moment to consider what you want in a lender.
The right lender can make your loan repayment a fairly painless process. A bad one can mean one big financial headache. All federal student loans must offer the same interest rates and fees. Some lenders offer extra incentives to repay your loans in a timely manner, such as prompt payment discounts. These can be earned by setting up automatic monthly payments through your bank account, or by making your successive monthly payments on time – typically for 12 to 48 months. Students who go the auto-debit route have a higher repayment success rate, but should always make sure they have enough money in their account to cover the bank draft. One missed or late payment is enough to disqualify students from these discounts.
All student loans are not created equal. Federal Stafford loans are some of the cheapest you can find, and the repayment terms are flexible as well. There are limits to how much you can borrow, though. If you need more money, you can ask your family to consider a PLUS loan. They, too, are relatively inexpensive, but parents are held responsible for repayment if the student defaults, just as they would be if they co-signed for a private education loan. Private loans are among the most expensive student loans available. They tend to have higher interest rates, but students can borrow more money with them. (That’s not always a good thing!) Finally, credit card debt should be an option of last resort. It’s expensive, especially if you carry a monthly balance, and it can haunt your credit report for a long time. Go for a Stafford loan first. If you truly need to more, then carefully check out the other options before committing yourself.
Customer service is another area where some lenders clearly excel over others. The federal government can make lenders adhere to interest rate guidelines, but it can’t make them pleasant to deal with. To make sure you choose a good one, pay a visit to your school’s financial aid office. They usually have the scoop on problem lenders. While you’re there, ask them if they have a preferred lender list. This can help narrow down your choices. Ask questions. Does the lender have online repayment options? Do they combine payments of Federal and private loans? Is their customer service available by phone, toll-free and 24 hours? These are things to consider before selecting a lender.
Also, be aware that lenders can sell your loan to third parties once the loan hits repayment status. These third parties will then service your loan, which means you won’t be dealing with the bank or group that issued the loan. This can be good or bad. If you’d rather deal with the same group throughout your repayment process, look around for lenders that offer life-of-the-loan servicing.
Shopping around for a student loan is a lot like shopping for a car or a credit card. The terms and the service make all the difference. You don’t want to end up owing much more than you thought you would, or having to deal with discourteous loan servicers. Look for lenders who have a good reputation for communicating well, taking care of their borrowers, and making the repayment process as convenient as possible.