Your guide to finding the best student loans for your educational future

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How to pick the student loan for you

Most families can’t pay the entire cost of college on their own; after using savings, scholarships, and grants, you may need to take out a student loan. There are different types available, so it’s important to know how to choose the best student loan for you. Here are some basic facts and tips to help you borrow responsibly for college.

Types of student loans

There are two major types of education loans: federal loans (issued by the government and overseen by the Department of Education) and private loans (from banks and other financial institutions).

One thing these loans all have in common is that you’ll need to pay them back after you leave school (whether you graduate or not), and interest will be added to your loan.

Federal vs private school loans

Here's a brief guide to federal and private student loans—what they are, what sets them apart, and how to apply.

Federal student loans

There are two types of federal loans for undergraduate students—direct subsidized (needs-based) and direct unsubsidized (not needs-based). To be eligible for federal student loans you have to fill out the Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA®) each year you’re in school. You’ll find out how much you’re approved for in the financial aid offer you get from each school. The third type of federal loan is available for parents and graduate students: PLUS Loans.

Benefits and drawbacks

  • Flexibility: Undergraduate federal student loans can offer more flexibility in repayment (like income-driven repayment plans, where the monthly amount is based on your salary after college) than private ones.
  • No credit check: The government won’t check your credit. So, whether it’s good, bad, or non-existent, you can still be eligible for federal loans. You won’t need a cosigner. (PLUS loans, however, require a credit check.)
  • Standard interest rate: Federal loans’ interest rates are set each year. However, they only offer fixed interest rates (rather than variable). Depending on economic conditions, one type might be better than another.
  • Specialized forgiveness plans: If you’re planning to teach, work in government, or work in other public service sectors, you may be able to have the government forgive your federal student loans—but there are very strict regulations that need to be followed.

Private student loans

Private student loans can help you pay for college after you've explored scholarships, grants, and federal student loans. These loans are made possible by banks, credit unions, and other financial institutions. There can be differences between private loans, so you need to do some research. You apply for a private loan directly from the company that issues it.

Benefits and drawbacks

  • Credit based: This means the lender will evaluate your credit history, among other factors. Since many students haven’t built up their credit, a creditworthy cosigner is often required.
  • Options: You can generally decide how you want to make payments—in-school or after you leave—and whether you want a fixed or variable interest rate.
  • Programs to lower your total cost: Some private loans offer benefits that can lower your total cost—like a discount when you sign up for auto-debit.
  • Repayment: Unlike federal loans, you generally can’t change the repayment plan that you choose when you first get the loan.

5 Tips to find the best student loan for you

  1. Consider federal loans first (since they have more flexibility); fill out the FAFSA® each year. There may be a limit to how much you can borrow in federal loans; if you need more, consider a private loan.
  2. Factors to consider: Private lenders may offer different interest rates, fees, benefits, and ways to save money on your loan. Check out their websites and keep a spreadsheet for each loan you’re thinking about.
  3. Learn the “language”: When you’re looking for loans you’ll see new words like interest rate, cost of attendance, principal, and more. Like any new topic, understanding these terms will make it easier to make a decision.
  4. Consider future you: If your future job won’t pay much after college, consider how much your monthly loan payments will be—will you be able to handle them? A student loan calculator can give you a starting point.
  5. Get advice from experts and peers: Got an older sibling or relative who’s in college? Check with them about their experience with lenders. Ask your school’s financial aid office and your high school counselors. If you’re new at financial matters, see if family members can help you find your way through all the technical terms.

Find the right student loans for you

If you need to borrow money for college, remember there’s more than just one kind of loan. Many people use both federal and private student loans, but again, you should always start with the federal loans that you’re allowed from your FAFSA®. Then, if you still need more funds to pay for all of your school-related expenses, research private student loans and get one that’s best for your situation.

With a little preparation, you can get yourself ready to examine different loans and choose the one that will work best for you now—and in the future. 

footnote Sallie Mae does not provide, and these materials are not meant to convey, financial, tax, or legal advice. Consult your own financial advisor, tax advisor, or attorney about your specific circumstances.

footnote External links and third-party references are provided for informational purposes only. Sallie Mae cannot guarantee the accuracy of the information provided by any third parties and assumes no responsibility for any errors or omissions contained therein. Any copyrights, trademarks, and/or service marks used in these materials are the property of their respective owners.

footnote FAFSA® is a registered service mark of U.S. Department of Education, Federal Student Aid.

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