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Interest 101: 4 important facts about student loan interest rates

College • September 26, 2018 • Reyna Gobel


What you’ll learn

  • What interest is
  • Which loans have origination fees
  • How interest is applied to subsidized student loans


When it comes to student loan interest rates, there’s more to know than just the rate itself. You need to know if you can take a break from payments, when you may have to pay interest on interest, and if you have to pay other fees for borrowing the money.

Here are four of the most important facts you should learn about student loan interest rates.

  1. Interest rates add to the cost of borrowing money

    An interest rate is simply the amount charged on an annual basis to borrow money. For instance, a 3.5 percent interest rate on $10,000 adds $350 to the cost of borrowing the money for one year. A 6.5 percent interest rate would add $650.

    Interest rates can vary quite a bit. Federal student loans, such as Direct Subsidized and Direct Unsubsidized loans for undergraduate students have an interest rate of 5.05 percent for the 2018/2019 academic year. Graduate and professional students with Direct Unsubsidized loans have to pay at least 6.6 percent in interest to borrow funds. Parents, graduate students, and professional students with Direct PLUS loans pay 7.6 percent in interest.*

    Private student loans can have variable interest rates that vary from about 4 percent to 12 percent, and fixed rates that can range from about 5 percent to 13 percent, depending on the lender.

  2. Origination fees matter

    While most people look primarily at the interest rate as the cost of borrowing funds, origination fees are also important.

    Federal Direct PLUS student loans add a one-time fee of 4.248 percent (between October 2018-October 2019). The fee will be deducted upfront from your loan disbursement, so the amount you receive is less than the amount you borrowed. However, you have to pay back the full amount you borrowed, including the fee that was deducted.*

    Private student loans generally don’t have origination fees. This may be a distinction to consider when applying for loans.

  3. Interest charges can be added to your balance via capitalization

    Accrued interest is considered part of your loan balance. Then interest can be charged on the principal amount. The process of interest being added to your principal amount is called capitalization.

    For example if $1,000 in interest accrued while you had a deferment in college, this $1,000 would be added to your balance when you go into repayment. If you were charged 3.4 percent annually on this principal amount, you’d pay $34 annually on the interest that was capitalized.

  4. There is an exception to when student loan interest is charged

    While there are a variety of reasons for when interest isn’t charged, there is only one type of federal student loan that offers this exception: subsidized student loans.

    Subsidized means the interest is paid by the government during certain time periods such as attending school at least half-time.

Understanding interest rates will help you in the long term

Interest rates aren’t just one factor involved in student loan borrowing, they also come into play with other types of lending like mortgages and car loans. Understanding the basics can help you make good borrowing decisions.


Reyna Gobel is a journalist, author, professional speaker, and educator who's been quoted by Money Magazine, Real Simple, and The Washington Post. She’s spoken at hundreds of colleges across the country about student debt—and she’s the author of "CliffsNotes Graduation Debt" and “CliffsNotes Parents’ Guide to Paying for College and Repaying Student Loans.”


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Reyna Gobel was compensated by Sallie Mae for the content in this article. However, all opinions expressed are her own.

Sallie Mae does not provide financial, tax, or legal advice and the information contained in this article does not constitute tax, legal, or financial advice. Sallie Mae does not make any claims, promises, or guarantees about the accuracy, completeness, or adequacy of the information contained in this article. Readers should consult their own attorneys or other tax advisors regarding any financial strategies mentioned in this article. These materials are for informational purposes only and do not necessarily reflect the views or endorsement of Sallie Mae.