Should I refinance or consolidate student loans?

Student loan consolidation can make debt easier to repay but there’s a difference between consolidating and refinancing your loans.  (iStock)

If you borrowed money to go to school, chances are good you have more than one loan. In fact, you may have several federal student loans as well as some private loans.

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Juggling student loans become expensive and complicated but you have options, including debt consolidation and student loan refinancing. Here's what you need to know about each.

Refinance or consolidate?

There are distinct differences between refinancing and consolidating loans. Let's start by defining these terms — and see which makes the most sense based on your loan type.

  • Student loan refinancing: Refinancing can have the effect of consolidating debt and you can refinance both federal and private loans. But student loan refinance loans are available only from private lenders so you’d be giving up federal loan benefits if you include them in a refinance. 

Credible can reveal what refinance rates you qualify for. You can compare student loan refinancing rates from up to 10 lenders without affecting your credit. Plus, it's 100% free!

  • Student loan consolidation: Debt consolidation has a specific meaning in the context of student loans. It means taking a Direct Consolidation Loan from the Department of Education and it’s an option for federal student loans only.

REFINANCE YOUR STUDENT LOANS NOW TO SAVE THOUSANDS

Which is the right choice for you?

Student loan debt can be a major burden, especially in some parts of the country. If you're worried about your ability to repay your student loans, refinancing or consolidating could help. But you need to consider the pros and cons, including potentially giving up important benefits if you refinance federal loans.

Student loan refinance

Student loan refinance loans are offered through local banks, credit unions, and online lenders rather than the federal government.

What you need to qualify for a student loan refinance (and get a low interest rate):

  • Good or excellent credit score
  • Income
  • Financial credentials

There are always going to be pros and cons to every debt relief option. It all depends what your personal finance goals are. If saving money, lowering monthly payments and securing a lower interest rate is among your goals, however, then you may want to refinance student loans. Head to Credible to view all of your options in one handy location and see if you can pay off your student loans faster or more efficiently by using this method.

Pros

There are definitely some positives when it comes to a student loan refinance, including:

  • You could get a lower rate
  • You could reduce total repayment costs
  • You can change your repayment timeline (just note extending your repayment increases total loan costs)
  • You can repay all current educational debt (same effect of consolidation)

If you're curious about what kind of rates you may qualify for, you can use an online tool like Credible to compare options from different private lenders.

WHAT ARE STUDENT LOAN REFINANCING RATES?

But while you can refinance federal loans as well as private loans, you'd lose your borrower benefits. Unless you're sure you won't use them, it rarely makes sense to include federal student loans in a refinance even if you could qualify for a lower rate.

If you've done your research and decided to move forward, always comparison shop for the right private lender as, unlike with a Direct Consolidation Loan, your rates and terms could vary dramatically from one lender to the next. Here's a simple way to compare rates and lenders.

HOW MUCH DOES IT COST TO REFINANCE A STUDENT LOAN?

Student loan consolidation

Both student loan refinancing and loan consolidation involve taking out a new loan to repay one or more existing loans, leaving you with just one lender to repay. But while refinancing can change the interest rate on your loan, consolidation doesn't — the rate on your new Direct Consolidation Loan is a weighted average of loans you consolidated.

Only federally-guaranteed student loans can be consolidated, including Direct Subsidized and Unsubsidized Loans and PLUS Loans.

Pros

There are also some positives when it comes to consolidation, including:

  • You’ll keep federal loan protections (including flexibility to change your payment plan and access to income-driven plans)
  • More options, including extended payment plans lasting up to 30 years and income-driven payment for Parent PLUS Loans that would otherwise be unavailable
  • Access to Public Service Loan Forgiveness

A Direct Consolidation Loan won't make repayment cheaper, though, even though choosing an extended plan can lower your monthly payment. Stretching out your repayment timeline actually increases total repayment costs if you opt for an extended plan because you pay interest over a longer time.

SHOULD I CONSOLIDATE MY STUDENT LOANS?

How to apply for debt consolidation

You can apply for a Direct Consolidation Loan on the Federal Student Aid website after logging into your account. You'll need to provide some basic information including:

If you want to use a private refinance loan to consolidate your debt, you can submit an online application with the lender of your choosing. You'll need to include similar details but should also expect to provide proof of income and go through a credit check.

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