Private student loan (United States)

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Student loans in the U.S.
Regulatory framework
Higher Education Act of 1965
U.S. Dept. of Education
FAFSA · Cost of attendance
Distribution channels
Federal Direct Student Loan Program
Federal Family Education Loan Program
Loan products
Perkins · Stafford
PLUS · Consolidation Loans

Private student loan

A private student loan is a financing option for higher education in the United States that can either supplement or replace federally guaranteed loans such as Stafford loans, Perkins loans and PLUS loans. These may offer forbearance and deferral options. Fees vary greatly, and legal cases have reported fees reaching 50% of amount of the loan. Although traditionally unsecured, these loans are increasingly secured, so that the borrower must offer collateral or a third-party guarantee of payment.

Interest rates are set by the financial institution that underwrites the loan, typically based on the perceived risk that the borrower may be delinquent or in default of payments of the loan. The underwriting decision is complicated by the fact that students often do not have a credit history that would otherwise indicate creditworthiness. As a result, interest rates may vary considerably across lenders.

Because private student loans are subject to special treatment in the event of a personal bankruptcy, students may not incur a total debt in excess of the cost of attendance, taking into account scholarships, fellowships, federal loans and private loans.

Parallels to mortgage lending[edit]

The increase in use of private student loans came about around 2001 once the increase in the cost of education began to exceed the increase in the amount of federal student aid available.

The recent history of student loans has been compared to the history of the mortgage industry. Similar to the way in which mortgages were securitized and sold off by lenders to investors, student loans were also sold off to investors; thereby eliminating the risk of loss for the actual lender.

Another parallel between the student loan industry and the mortgage industry is the fact that subprime lending ran rampant over the past few years. Just as little documentation was needed to take out a subprime mortgage loan, even less was needed to take out a subprime or "non traditional" student loan.


After the passage of the bankruptcy reform bill of 2005, even private student loans are not discharged during bankruptcy. This provided a credit risk free loan for the lender, averaging 7 percent a year.[1]

In 2007, the Attorney General of New York State, Andrew Cuomo, led an investigation into lending practices and anti-competitive relationships between student lenders and universities. Specifically, many universities steered student borrowers to "preferred lenders" which resulted in those borrowers incurring higher interest rates. Some of these "preferred lenders" allegedly rewarded university financial aid staff with "kick backs." This has led to changes in lending policy at many major American universities. Many universities have also rebated millions of dollars in fees back to affected borrowers.[2][3]

The biggest lenders, Sallie Mae and Nelnet, are criticized by borrowers. They frequently find themselves embroiled in lawsuits, the most serious of which was filed in 2007. The False Claims Suit was filed on behalf of the federal government by former Department of Education researcher, Dr. Jon Oberg, against Sallie Mae, Nelnet, and other lenders. Oberg argued that the lenders overcharged the U.S. Government and defrauded taxpayers of millions and millions of dollars. In August 2010, Nelnet settled the lawsuit and paid $55 million.[4]

The New York Times recently published an editorial endorsing the return of bankruptcy protections for private student loans in response to the economic downturn and universally increasing tuition at all colleges and graduate institutions.[5]

A recent report (2014) from Consumer Financial Protection Bureau (CFPB), shows a rising problem with these types of loans. Borrowers face “auto-default” when cosigner dies or goes bankrupt. The report shows that some lenders demand immediate full repayment upon the death or bankruptcy of their loan cosigner, even when the loan is current and being paid on time.[6]


The biggest student loan lender, Sallie Mae, was formerly a government sponsored entity turned private between 1997-2004. A number of financial institutions offer private student loans, including banks like Wells Fargo, and specialized companies. Student loan search and comparison websites (e.g., SimpleTuition, allow visitors to evaluate loan terms from a variety of partner lenders, and financial aid offices in universities typically have a preferred vendor list, but borrowers are free to obtain loans wherever they can find the most favorable terms.[7]

As the economy collapsed through 2008-2011, many players withdrew from the private student loan lending world.[citation needed]. Remaining lenders tightened the credit criteria making it more difficult to receive a loan. Most now require a credit worthy cosigner. After the economic collapse of 2008, a number of Peer-to-peer lending and alternative lending platforms emerged to help students find private student loans. For example, U.S. online marketplace lending platform LendKey allow consumers to book loans directly from community lenders like credit unions and community banks.

Buying factors include:

  • Interest rates throughout the life of the loan - lenders may accrue interest at one rate while the student is in school and another after graduation
  • Payment options - lenders typically offer loans that are payable immediately, interest-only loans while the student is enrolled, and no-payment loans until graduation
  • Incentives - lenders may offer improved or tougher terms based on the student's payment record
  • Origination fees - lenders typically charge a fee for originating the loan that is added to the principal of the loan.

The total cost of the loan is usually documented in the Truth in Lending statement that is issued when the loan is originated.


  1. ^ Collinge, Alan. The student loan scam : the most oppressive debt in U.S. history, and how we can fight back. Boston, MA : Beacon Press, c2009. ISBN 978-0-8070-4229-8
  2. ^ "Cuomo: School loan corruption widespread". U.S.A. Today. April 10, 2007. Retrieved 2008-04-08. 
  3. ^ Lederman, Doug (May 15, 2007). "The First Casualty". Inside Higher Education. Retrieved 2008-04-08. 
  4. ^ Field, Kelly (August 15, 2010). "Nelnet to Pay $55 Million to Resolve Whistle Blower Lawsuit". The Chronicle of Higher Education. Retrieved 2011-07-14. 
  5. ^ "Relief for Student Debtors". The New York Times. 26 August 2011. 
  6. ^ PÉREZ-PEÑA, RICHARD (April 22, 2014). "Student Loans Can Suddenly Come Due When Co-Signers Die, a Report Finds". The New York Times. 
  7. ^ Clark, Jane Bennett (July 2007). "Best Deal on Student Loans". Kiplinger's Personal Finance. Retrieved 6 July 2010.