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Best Student Loan Companies

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by Barbara Friedberg Personal Finance Contributing Editor

Use our guide to research the best student loan company for you. We explain what to look for when taking out federal loans, private loans or both. There are many differences between lenders, including rates and terms, so it is essential to research companies before applying. Compare our top picks for private lenders by loan types, APRs and reviews.

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Our picks for top private student loans

You can apply for private student loans from online lenders, banks and other financial institutions. We based our top picks on overall satisfaction rating and availability and provided a breakdown of each company by loan types, rates and repayment options. Compare available programs to find the right option for you.

Our top pick overallPNC Student Loans
  • Loan types: Undergraduate, graduate and professional
  • Fixed rates: Starting at 3.69% APR
  • Variable rates: Starting at 1.96% APR

PNC's private student loans are an option for students who plan to start repayment while still enrolled in their school’s degree program.

The company offers immediate and interest-only payment plans, and it gives a 0.5% interest rate reduction for automatic payments and co-signer release options. Another plus is there are no application or origination fees.

 A reviewer in Illinois said PNC has “excellent follow up and concern for refinancing opportunities.”

Our pick for student loan marketplaceCredible
  • Loan types: Vary
  • Fixed rates: Vary
  • Variable rates: Vary

Credible is not a direct lender — it's a marketplace for borrowers to compare student loan and student loan refinancing options. It's a free service that charges no application fees or origination fees for student loans.

With more than 100 lenders to choose from, borrowers can compare options for both federal and private student loans. Pre-qualification is quick; all you need is personal information and information about the school you're attending to get started.

“Most loan companies have large interest rates but this has reasonable interest rates,” according to a reviewer in Illinois.

Our pick for loan discountsSoFi
  • Loan types: Undergraduate, graduate, law, MBA and parent loans
  • Fixed rates: Starting at 2.99% APR
  • Variable rates: Starting at 0.99% APR
SoFi Logo Compare Offers on Personal Loan Pro

SoFi's highlights include an easy online application, flexible repayment terms and special rate discounts. Funding can cover up to 100% of the school-certified costs. The maximum you can borrow is $100,000.

You can get an interest rate reduction when you sign up for automated payments, and there are no origination or application fees.

The company also offers student loan refinancing options. “I transferred my student loan to Sofi, because I was able to get a better interest rate and pay it down quicker. The process was easy, the online management is great, and approval was very quick,” a reviewer in California said.

Our pick for career training loansSallie Mae
  • Loan types: Undergraduate, graduate, career training and parent loans
  • Fixed rates: Starting at 3.50%
  • Variable rates: Starting at 1.13%

Sallie Mae is one of the largest providers of private student loans in the U.S. This lender offers loans for medical school and undergraduate, graduate and MBA programs.

Funding is available for non-U.S. citizens to help students pay for online learning. The company might be an easier option for borrowers who've struggled to qualify for student loans in other places.

“Going through my online degree would be far fetched if I didn't have the option of Sallie Mae,” a reviewer in Nairobi said. According to a reviewer in New Jersey, Sallie Mae’s “offers were great” and “repayment was easy.”

What is a student loan?

Student loans are loans for educational expenses, and lenders give them with the expectation that the borrower will pay them back. They don't differ much from other types of loans, but there are some attributes associated with student loans in particular. Their interest rates may be lower than other loan types, and repayment often starts when the borrower leaves school.

In the U.S., there are two types of student loans: federal and private.

Federal student loans are funded by the federal government, and they have fixed rates that are often lower than private loans.

Banks, credit unions and other organizations offer private student loans. They tend to be more expensive than federal student loans, with variable or fixed interest rates.

Types of federal student loans
Federal loans include Direct Subsidized, Direct Unsubsidized and Direct PLUS loans (for graduate students and students' parents).
  • Federal Direct Subsidized: These loans are meant for undergraduate students with demonstrated financial need. The government pays interest on this type of loan while you're in school and enrolled at least half-time. The government also pays the interest during the first six months after you leave school and during a period of deferment.
  • Federal Direct Unsubsidized: These loans are available to undergraduate and graduate students, and it isn't necessary to demonstrate financial need. You pay interest on these loans at all times.
  • Federal Direct PLUS: These loans are available to both graduate students and parents of dependent undergraduate students. The borrower is responsible for the interest payments.
Private loan availability is determined by the degree you're obtaining, your nationality and state or credit union requirements. Before settling on one loan, you might want to take a look at this list to see if any options apply:
  • Bar loans: Sitting for the bar exam is typically a few hundred dollars. A bar loan covers expenses related to completing the bar exam.
  • International student loans: Some lenders offer student loans specifically for international students. Since they're private loans, many require you to have a co-signer who's a U.S. citizen or permanent resident.
  • State loans: State loan programs can provide assistance if other loan options, such as federal student loans, aren’t obtainable.
  • Credit union student loans: Credit union student loans often provide competitive terms and rates for borrowers.
  • Student loans without a co-signer: If you've built up a good credit history over the years or are getting federal student loans, you can borrow funds without a co-signer.
  • MBA student loans: Some lenders offer private loans specifically for MBA students that have some different features from typical graduate student loans.

Federal vs. private student loans

Most students obtain a federal student loan first and then seek private loans if they need additional funding. Both types come with different options, terms and conditions. It's important to know the differences between these two kinds of student loans:

Federal student loans

  • Income-driven repayment plans for some borrowers
  • No credit check required for consideration
  • Repayment plans and terms can be changed

Private student loans

  • Offer a choice of fixed or variable interest rates
  • Interest-only and fixed repayment plan options for when you’re in school
  • Provides flexibility for students and parents

How do student loans work?

When you take out a student loan, you're committing to paying back the money once you put your degree to work after graduation.

Some private lenders require payments while you're still in school. Private student loans require credit checks and accept co-signers.

Federal student loan interest rates are 3.73% to 6.28% on loans from July 1, 2021, to July 1, 2022.

With federal student loans, payments aren’t due until the student graduates, leaves school or changes enrollment status. Credit checks aren't always required, and there are several repayment plan options.

You should borrow what you need for the whole school year once per year. You can apply for a student loan in the middle of the semester, but only if you haven’t already gone over your borrowing limit.

Getting a student loan without a co-signer: To get a student loan without a co-signer, consider federal student loans first — most of these don’t require one. If you need additional financing, some private lenders offer loans without co-signers.

Getting a student loan with a co-signer: Your spouse, relative, guardian or friend can be a co-signer on your loan, but only one person can co-sign for a private student loan. For instance, if two parents are willing to be co-signers, only one can do it. Your co-signer is responsible for repaying the full amount of the loan if you default.

Student loan pros and cons

Student loans provide access to higher education to those who cannot afford tuition, but they are also a significant responsibility. About 43 million students and graduates have student loan debt, and that number continues to grow with the high cost of postsecondary education.

Pros

  • Receive a higher education
  • Potential for successful career
  • High borrowing limits
  • Paying it off builds credit

Cons

  • Debt (even if you don’t graduate)
  • Penalties for defaulting
  • Interest rates could be variable
  • Co-signer may be required

Benefits of a student loan

For many students, taking out a student loan is the only way higher education becomes attainable. Getting a good education is often a catalyst for a successful and stable career.

Paying back a student loan on time after college can also be a good way to build your credit.

Student loans might make it possible for you to move out of your parents' house. Another benefit is student loan refinancing, which makes it easier to consolidate debt after graduation.

If you use the money to pay for a degree in one of the highest-paying college majors, it might be easier to pay off your loans. Still, it can be hard to get a job after college, no matter what you studied.

Disadvantages of a student loan

Taking out a student loan means starting postgraduate life with debt. Student loan debt can get in the way of other financial and lifestyle goals, such as buying a house, purchasing a car or taking a vacation. Penalties for defaulting on student loan repayments can also cost more in the form of fees, interest or, in extreme cases, wage garnishment.

Interest and origination fees are what make education debts so costly, and defaulting on a loan or being late on a payment can add to the total amount you owe.

When you’re borrowing for college, it's essential to determine what your average student loan payment will be after graduation. If you have at least an estimate, you'll have an idea of what to consider when putting salary expectations on paper during a job interview.

Frequently asked questions

Undergraduate, graduate and professional school students who are U.S. citizens or eligible noncitizens and have financial needs are usually eligible for student loans. Parents can also take out student loans for their children.
Student loan costs include the loan amount, origination fees and interest that you pay back over time. For example, if you borrow $10,000 with a 4.5% interest rate and 15-year term, you'll pay back around $75 toward the loan each month. After 15 years, you’ll have paid back around $13,500.

Origination fees vary by lender. Federal student loans have fees based on a percentage of the total loan amount.

Borrowers can take a tax deduction on student loan interest paid. The maximum tax deduction you can take is $2,500 a year.
Having a bad credit history does not disqualify you from getting a federal student loan. However, it may be a bit difficult to obtain a private loan with poor credit. If you don’t have a good credit score, consider finding a co-signer to guarantee your loan with a private lender.
For federal student loans, the limit depends on what year you are in and whether you're a dependent or independent student. For example, first-year undergraduate loans are available up to $5,500 for dependent students (up to $3,500 can be in subsidized loans). Independent graduate students can borrow up to $10,500 in their second year (no more than $4,500 can be in subsidized loans).

You can use the funds to pay for tuition, room and board and other school-related expenses. For more, read about college planning for parents or how to set a graduate school application timeline.

You can apply for private college loans directly on a lender's website. You should apply after you've made your school decision and once you know how much you need to borrow so you won't have to submit separate student loan applications for schools you're considering.

To get a federal student loan, submit a Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA) form. The information provided can be sent to one or many schools. Based on your FAFSA results, the college you select will send you a financial aid offer letter containing the amount you're awarded and other pertinent information.

For a parent PLUS loan, you need a verified FSA ID, school name, student information, personal information and employer information. You must complete the entire application process in a single session, which takes approximately 20 minutes.

Borrowing money is a major decision that should not be taken lightly. There are many factors to consider before taking out a loan, such as the overall cost of the school you choose to attend. Another important factor is the impact of these loans on your and your family’s financial future.

Before signing a student loan agreement, be sure you've tried to find free money for college through scholarships and grants and that you understand all the terms of the loan.

Not sure how to choose?

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    Student loan company information

    Sallie Mae

    Sallie Mae is one of the largest and most reputable student loan companies offering both undergraduate and graduate student loans. It has been in business for over 40 years and has helped more than 30 million students and their families save, plan and pay for college.

    Read 1439 Reviews
    PNC Student Loans

    PNC Education Loan Center offers private loan solutions for undergraduate and graduate students with special programs for the Military. The comprehensive loan portal provides financial educational resources as well as college scholarship information.

    Read 11 Reviews
    Citizens Bank Education Refinance Loans

    Citizens Financial Group, Inc. began operations as High Street Bank in 1928 and established Citizens Savings Bank in 1871. After many acquisitions, Citizens Financial Group (CFG) became an independent publicly-traded company in 2015.

    Read Review

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    Article sources

    ConsumerAffairs writers primarily rely on government data, industry experts and original research from other reputable publications to inform their work. To learn more about the content on our site, visit our FAQ page.
    1. U.S. Department of Education, “Subsidized and Unsubsidized Loans.” Accessed Oct. 4, 2021.
    by Barbara Friedberg Personal Finance Contributing Editor

    Barbara Friedberg, MBA, MS is a former investment portfolio manager with decades of financial experience. Friedberg taught Finance and Investments at several universities. Her work has been featured in U.S. News & World Report, Investopedia, Yahoo!Finance and many more publications.

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