Private student loan volume grows when federal student loan limits remain stagnant.
Private student loan volume grew much more rapidly than federal student loan volume through mid-2008, in part because aggregate loan limits on the Stafford loan remained unchanged from 1992 to 2008. (The introduction of the Grad PLUS loan on July 1, 2006 and the increases in the annual but not aggregate limits had only a modest impact on the growth of private student loan volume. The subprime mortgage credit crisis of 2007-2010, however, limited lender access to the capital needed to make new loans, reining in growth of the private student loan marketplace.) The annual increase in private student loan volume was about 25% to 35% per year, compared with 8% per year for federal loan volume.
Then the Ensuring Continued Access to Student Loans Act of 2008 increased the annual and aggregate loan limits on the federal Stafford loan starting July 1, 2008. This shifted significant loan volume from private student loan programs to federal. Private student loan volume dropped in half in 2008-09, according to the College Board’s Trends in Student Aid 2009.
Private student loan volume is expected to return to the 25% annual growth rate unless there is another increase in federal loan limits or an expansion of the availability of federal student loans. For example, the proposal for expanding Perkins loan funding from $1 billion a year to $8.5 billion a year will cause a significant decline in private student loan volume. But so long as federal loan limits do not increase every year, private student loan volume will continue to grow at double-digit rates.
If current trends continue, annual private education loan volume will surpass federal student loan volume by around 2030. Accordingly, it is important that students have tools they can use to compare different private student loans.
BEST PRIVATE STUDENT LOANS
As a general rule, students should only consider obtaining a private education loan if they have maxed out the Federal Stafford Loan. They should also file the Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA), which may qualify them for grants, work-study and other forms of student aid. Undergraduate students should also compare costs with the Federal PLUS Loan, as the PLUS loan is usually much less expensive and has better repayment terms.
The fees charged by some lenders can significantly increase the cost of the loan. A loan with a relatively low interest rate but high fees can ultimately cost more than a loan with a somewhat higher interest rate and no fees. (The lenders that do not charge fees often roll the difference into the interest rate.) A good rule of thumb is that 3% to 4% in fees is about the same as a 1% higher interest rate.
Be wary of comparing loans with different repayment terms according to APR, as a longer loan term reduces the APR despite increasing the total amount of interest paid. Finaid’s Loan Analyzer Calculator may be used to generate an apples-to-apples comparison of different loan programs.
The best private student loans will have interest rates of LIBOR + 2.0% or PRIME – 0.50% with no fees. Such loans will be competitive with the Federal PLUS Loan. Unfortunately, these rates often will be available only to borrowers with great credit who also have a creditworthy cosigner. It is unclear how many borrowers qualify for the best rates, although the top credit tier typically encompasses about 20% of borrowers.
Generally, borrowers should prefer loans that are pegged to the LIBOR index over loans that are pegged to the Prime Lending Rate, all else being equal, as the spread between the Prime Lending Rate and LIBOR has been increasing over time. Over the long term a loan with interest rates based on LIBOR will be less expensive than a loan based on the Prime Lending Rate. About half of lenders peg their private student loans to the LIBOR index and about 2/5 to the Prime lending rate.
Some lenders use the LIBOR rate because it reflects their cost of capital. Other lenders use the Prime Lending Rate because PRIME + 0.0% sounds better to consumers than LIBOR + 2.80% even when the rates are the same.
It is not uncommon for lenders to advertise a lower rate for the in-school and grace period, with a higher rate in effect when the loan enters repayment.
Federal student loans are not available for expenses incurred by law, medical and dental students after they graduate, such as expenses associated with study for the bar or finding a residency. There are two types of private student loans for these expenses:
A Bar Study Loan helps finance bar exam costs such as bar review course fees, bar exam fees, as well as living expenses while you are studying for the bar.
A Residency and Relocation Loan helps medical and dental students with the expenses associated with finding a residency, including interview travel expenses and relocation costs, as well as board exam expenses.
COMPARING PRIVATE STUDENT LOANS
Key information to understand student loans includes being aware of the annual and cumulative loan limits, interest rates, fees, and loan term for the most popular private student loan programs. Often the interest rates, fees and loan limits depend on the credit history of the borrower and co-signer, if any, and on loan options chosen by the borrower such as in-school deferment and repayment schedule. Loan term often depends on the total amount of debt.
Most lenders that require school certification (approval) will cap the annual loan amount at cost of education less aid received (COA-Aid). They may also have an annual dollar limit as well.
Lenders rarely give complete details of the terms of the private student loan until after the student submits an application, in part because this helps prevent comparisons based on cost. For example, many lenders will only advertise the lowest interest rate they charge (for good credit borrowers). Borrowers with bad credit can expect interest rates that are as much as 6% higher, loan fees that are as much as 9% higher, and loan limits that are two- thirds lower than the advertised figures.
The APRs for variable rate loans, if listed, are only the current APRs and are likely to change over the term of the loan. Borrowers should be careful about comparing loans based on the APR, as the APR may be calculated under different assumptions, such as a different number of years in repayment. All else being equal, a longer repayment term will have a lower APR even though the borrower will pay more in interest.
This page provides a basic comparison chart that highlights the key characteristics of the major private education loans. FinAid also provides a separate list of private consolidation loans. In addition to the private student loan programs, there are several websites like Credible and other student loan comparison sites that provide tools for comparing private student loans which help identify the loans that match your criteria.
The information presented below is based on lender provided information. Actual rates and fees may differ.