Federal loans to students
Federal student loans in the United States are authorized under Title IV of the Higher Education Act as amended.
These loans are available to college and university students via funds disbursed directly to the school and are used to supplement personal and family resources, scholarships, grants, and work-study. They may be subsidized by the U.S. Government or may be unsubsidized depending on the student's financial need.
Both subsidized and unsubsidized loans are guaranteed by the U.S. Department of Education either directly or through guaranty agencies. Nearly all students are eligible to receive federal loans (regardless of credit score or other financial issues). Both types offer a grace period of six months, which means that no payments are due until six months after graduation or after the borrower becomes a less-than-half-time student without graduating. Both types have a fairly modest annual limit. The dependent undergraduate limit effective for loans disbursed on or after July 1, 2008 is as follows (combined subsidized and unsubsidized limits): $5,500 per year for freshman undergraduate students, $6,500 for sophomore undergraduates, and $7,500 per year for junior and senior undergraduate students, as well as students enrolled in teacher certification or preparatory coursework for graduate programs. For independent undergraduates, the limits (combined subsidized and unsubsidized) effective for loans disbursed on or after July 1, 2008 are higher: $9,500 per year for freshman undergraduate students, $10,500 for sophomore undergraduates, and $12,500 per year for junior and senior undergraduate students, as well as students enrolled in teacher certification or preparatory coursework for graduate programs. Subsidized federal student loans are only offered to students with a demonstrated financial need. Financial need may vary from school to school. For these loans, the federal government makes interest payments while the student is in college. For example, those who borrow $10,000 during college will owe $10,000 upon graduation.
Unsubsidized federal student loans are also guaranteed by the U.S. Government, but the government does not pay interest for the student, rather the interest accrues during college. Nearly all student are eligible for these loans regardless of demonstrated need. Those who borrow $10,000 during college will owe $10,000 plus interest upon graduation. For example, those who have borrowed $10,000 and had $2,000 accrue in interest will owe $12,000. Interest will begin accruing on the $12,000. The accrued interest will be "capitalized" into the loan amount, and the borrower will begin making payments on the accumulated total. Students can choose to pay the interest while still in college; however, few students choose to exercise this option.
Federal student loans for graduate students have higher limits: $8,500 for subsidized Stafford and $12,500 (limits may differ for certain courses of study) for unsubsidized Stafford. Many students also take advantage of the Federal Perkins Loan. For graduate students the limit for Perkins is $6,000 per year.
Federal student loans to parents
Usually these are PLUS loans (formerly standing for "Parent Loan for Undergraduate Students"). Unlike loans made to students, parents can borrow much more - usually enough to cover any gap in the cost of education. However, there is no grace period: Payments start immediately.
Parents should be aware that THEY are responsible for repayment on these loans, not the student. This is not a 'cosigner' loan with the student having equal accountability. The parents have signed the master promissory note to pay and, if they do not do so, it is their credit rating that suffers. Also, parents are advised to consider "year 4" payments, rather than "year 1" payments. What sounds like a "manageable" debt load of $200 a month in freshman year can mushroom to a much more daunting $800 a month by the time four years have been funded through loans. The combination of immediate repayment and the ability to borrow substantial sums can be expensive.
Under new legislation, graduate students are eligible to receive PLUS loans in their own names. These Graduate PLUS loans have the same interest rates and terms of Parent PLUS loans.
Disbursement: How the money gets to student or school
There are two distribution channels for federal student loans: Federal Direct Student Loans and Federal Family Education Loans.
- Federal Direct Student Loans, also known as Direct Loans or FDLP loans, are funded from public capital originating with the U.S. Treasury. FDLP loans are distributed through a channel that begins with the U.S. Treasury Department and from there passes through the U.S. Department of Education, then to the college or university and then to the student.
- Federal Family Education Loan Program loans, also known as FFEL loans or FFELP loans, are funded with private capital provided by banking institutions (i.e., banks, savings and loans, and credit unions). Because the FFELP loans use private capital as their source, students who use FFELP loans are able to take advantage of payment options that are similar to those available to customers who take out a home loan or a consumer loan. For example, some institutions will allow a discount for automatic payments or a series of on-time payments. In 2005, approximately two-thirds of all federally subsidized student loans were FFELP.
According to the U.S. Department of Education, more than 6,000 colleges, universities, and technical schools participate in FFELP, which represents about 80% of all schools. FFELP lending represents 75% of all federal student loan volume.