A quiet announcement by the U.S. Department of Education recently could translate into thousands of dollars of savings for student borrowers...

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A quiet announcement by the U.S. Department of Education recently could translate into thousands of dollars of savings for student borrowers by allowing them to consolidate their loans before rates go up July 1.

The announcement applies to students with government-backed Stafford loans from banks or commercial lenders.

Students who borrow directly from the government have always been free to consolidate while still enrolled, but until this past week it was unclear if borrowers from commercial lenders could, too.

The discrepancy was no big deal in the past because students were in no rush to consolidate loans.

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Interest rates were falling, and the price of consolidating — students must forfeit a six-month grace period after graduation before repayment is required — wasn’t worth it.

This year, however, interest rates for students still in school are expected to rise from 2.77 percent to as much as 5 percent when the new rates are announced July 1.

By consolidating, students will still forfeit the grace period — but some may save thousands of dollars by locking in the lower rates.

Even before the announcement, many students and banks were already interpreting federal guidelines as allowing students to begin their repayment period while still enrolled — thus making them eligible to consolidate.

Last Monday, the department gave a formal green light to the practice.

The Department of Education said that, as of April 1, there were 5.7 million borrowers with outstanding loans from private lenders who were either in school or in the post-graduation grace period.

The College Loan Corp. estimates the average borrower with $20,500 in debt — the average amount consolidated last year — would save more than $2,100 over a 10-year loan by consolidating now, based on the most recent interest-rate estimates.

Experts caution consolidation is not for everyone, however, given the forfeited grace period and the risk that interest rates could decline in the future. If so, students might regret locking in at a higher rate.