Heading to graduate school? Here are 5 tips on managing student loans

It’s back-to-school time! To help you prepare, each Tuesday over the next few weeks, we’re featuring advice on finding, applying, and paying for graduate school. Read our first post on three good reasons (and one bad reason) to go to grad school and our second post on finding the perfect graduate degree program. Want more information? Be sure to visit our Graduate School Resource Center and attend a free Grad School Fair near you!

In this piece,  student loan expert Heather Jarvis shares tips on how to manage your undergrad loans and make sense of your graduate school loans. You can also learn more by listening to our podcasts on the Public Service Loan Forgiveness Program and Income Based Repayment Plan.

by Heather Jarvis

Get the help you need to understand your student loans (Photo credit: Phillip Taylor PT, Creative Commons/Flickr)

If you’re thinking of grad school, here’s what you need to know to get a grip on those student loans.

1.  Start by pulling together your student loan information.

Many of us borrowed to finance undergraduate school.  It makes sense to take an inventory of what you’ve got before starting graduate school.  That will help you decide what you can afford.  You’ll find all your federal student loans listed in the National Student Loan Data System and you can check for those pesky private student loans by pulling a free copy of your credit report from AnnualCreditReport.com.

2.  Understand when your first payment is due.

Most student loans have a six-month grace period before you have to start making payments.  In most cases, Class of 2012 grads will start paying around November or December.  If you enroll in graduate school, you can postpone your payments while you are taking at least a half-time course load using an “in-school deferment”.

Student loans only ever have one grace period.  If the six-month grace period on your undergrad loans expires before you go to grad school, payment will be expected on those loans right after you’re done with your grad program (although borrowers can typically secure a forbearance to postpone payment if necessary).  Your new grad school loans will have their own grace period.

Some undergraduate loans include an interest subsidy so that the government pays the interest during in-school deferment (for example while you are in your graduate program).  But many of us also have unsubsidized loans, and interest on those loans will keep adding up whether or not you’re in school.

Sadly, nobody can get subsidized loans for grad school anymore and interest starts to accrue straight away.  Unless you make payments as you go, your debt will be increasing the whole time you are in school.  Yikes.  Borrow as little as you can, and consider whether you can afford to pay some of all of the interest that accrues while you are in school–you’ll save yourself some big bucks!

3.  Decide whether consolidation makes sense for you.

Heads up Idealists!  Consolidation allows you to group your loans together into the Federal Direct Loan program.  That’s important because only Federal Direct loans are eligible for Public Service Loan Forgiveness. But be careful deciding whether to consolidate Perkins loans, because they have their own cancellation provisions that would be lost upon consolidation.

Student loan borrowers can consolidate either before or after grad school, but not while you are enrolled.  The decision depends on your particular situation.  Get a sense about how consolidation might work in your circumstances using the free personalized assessment offered on GLAdvisor’s site.

4.  Choose your own repayment plan.

If you’ll be out of school beyond your grace period, you’ll need to start making payments (although you can postpone repayment while in grad school).

Choosing a repayment plan can be confusing, but if you don’t choose a repayment plan within 45 days of being notified, your loan servicer will automatically put you into a “standard” repayment plan, and that might or might not be the best plan for you.

If you need reduced monthly payments (for example during a job search), consider the income driven repayment options.  Income-Based Repayment is available now and is a good option for people with low income compared to student loan debt.  Monthly payments are based on a percentage of income so that when you don’t earn a lot, your payments are low.  You’ll need to determine which repayment options are available to you, and evaluate which of the available options provides the most benefits.

Use the Department of Education’s calculators to estimate how much you’ll pay under the different repayment plans.

5.  Know where to go with questions.

Your loan “servicer” handles the billing and administration for your loan (find out your servicer on the National Student Loan Data System).  You can get in touch with your school’s financial aid office.  Some of my favorite sites include:

  • StudentLoanBorrowerAssistance.org (terrific site especially for borrowers struggling financially)
  • Finaid.org (comprehensive information and some really spiffy calculators)
  • GLAdvisor (student loan management and financial advice for hire; I do some consulting for them)
  • askheatherjarvis.com (My site!  Loads of info on Public Service Loan Forgiveness and more)


About the Author

Heather Jarvis

Former capital defense attorney and long-time public service advocate Heather Jarvis dedicates herself to helping students make informed decisions about their student loans.

Since 2005, Heather has helped more than an estimated 25,000 students understand and overcome college debt through in-person and online trainings and resources.

Want to learn more about Public Service Loan Forgiveness?  Heather provides free tools and information for student loan borrowers and the people who love them at askheatherjarvis.com.

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