The coronavirus may be upending the way colleges operate, but at least students and their families will get a break if they borrow money from the government for an education.
The interest rate on new federal student loans for undergraduates will fall to a record low this summer. Those students will pay a rate of 2.75% on loans for the coming academic year, down from 4.53% last year. It has been 15 years since rates near that low were available, according to Mark Kantrowitz, publisher of Savingforcollege.com.
Over a 10-year repayment period, the new rate will save borrowers about $1,000 for each $10,000 borrowed, Kantrowitz calculated.
Rates for other types of loans fell, too, although not to record lows. The rate for graduate students will fall to 4.3%, from 6.08%. The rate on PLUS loans, which are additional loans available to parents and graduate students, will fall to 5.3%, from 7.08%.
The rates take effect July 1 for new loans borrowed for the 2020-21 academic year and remain fixed for the life of the loan.
The federal government hasn’t formally announced the rates, but Kantrowitz calculated them using the formula adopted by Congress. Since 2013, rates on student loans have been set each spring, based on the May sale of 10-year Treasury notes.
Jessica Thompson, associate vice president of the Institute for College Access and Success, a nonprofit research and advocacy group, said the low rates were a “silver lining” during the current economic turmoil.
Students, however, may be wondering whether it is worth borrowing to attend college if classes this fall are all or mostly online. Some colleges are considering switching primarily to remote learning for the semester because of the coronavirus.
While acknowledging the uncertainty, Thompson urged students to take a long-term view when considering their college education. If borrowing for college was part of their plan to begin with, she said, “it’s very worth thinking about staying with their plan.”
Quality four-year institutions are going to do their best, she said, to provide a good experience for students in the year ahead despite the pandemic.
It may be better to stay on track, Thompson said, than to delay starting college, especially since jobs and structured gap-year programs may be difficult to come by in the coming year for students who defer admission. “What is there to do?” she said.
And if a parent — or both — has lost a job, “that changes the decision-making process,” said Jayne Caflin Fonash, an independent college counselor and president of the National Association for College Admission Counseling.
With a tighter financial outlook, families may have to consider borrowing more money. “That’s a big decision to make,” Fonash said.
She urged students to obtain loan details from the financial aid office and to make sure they understood the cost of borrowing. Alternatively, some students may be considering attending a less expensive four-year college — perhaps one closer to home — or even a community college.
About 65% of students graduating from college in 2018 had student debt, owing an average of $29,200, according to the Project on Student Debt at the Institute for College Access and Success.
Here are some questions and answers about student loans:
Q: How much can I borrow for college?
A: There are limits on how much a student can borrow in federal direct loans. Undergraduates generally may borrow $5,500 to $7,500 annually, depending on their year in college. (Limits are higher for independent students.)
Parents can borrow more money by taking out PLUS loans, but rates are higher and applicants must pass a credit check.
Q: Are there fees for borrowing federal loans?
A: Yes. The fee for direct loans for both undergraduate and graduate students is about 1.1% of the loan amount, for amounts borrowed before Oct. 1, 2020. If you borrow $5,500, for instance, the fee is about $60. Fees are deducted from the loan amount before your college receives the funds, according to the Department of Education.
The fee for PLUS loans is about 4.2%. On a $10,000 loan, that would be about $420.
Q: What about private loans?
A: Students also can borrow money for college from private lenders, but those loans are often more expensive and they lack important consumer protections offered by federal loans like repayment plans tied to your income.
Private loans may have variable interest rates, which can start out low but may increase over the life of the loan.
As part of the government’s coronavirus relief program, Thompson noted, interest rates were temporarily set to zero for many federal student loans in repayment. But the mandated relief doesn’t extend to private student loans.
“Federal loans,” Thompson said, “are still the safest form of debt for college.”