The History of Federal Student Loan Interest Rates

More than two out of three of recent college students took out loans to help cover the costs of furthering their education—averaging $29,900 per borrower, including private and federal debts.

When it comes to paying back student loans, both the total amount borrowed (i.e., the principal) and the interest rates (i.e., the percentage charged on top of the principal) can shape how much a borrower ends up shelling out over the life of the loan.

And, just as the cost of attending college in the US has changed with the times, the interest rates charged on educational loans have historically fluctuated.

While the cost of attending college has steadily gone up, the history of student loan interest rates shows both ups and downs. For instance, the 2020-2021 federal loan rates for undergraduates are now 2.75%—compared to 4.29% just five years ago.

A wide variety of educational loans are available to eligible students—including subsidized and unsubsidized federal ones and those handled by private lenders.

Interest rates for different loans change over time. The US government plays a major role in shaping the student loan landscape, setting fixed interest rates each year on federal loans, which can impact the total amount a borrower ends up paying back.

To understand the history of student loan interest rates, it can be helpful to zoom out and take a wide-lens view of the student loan landscape in the US.

The US federal government is the major player in student lending—with $1.51 trillion in debt owed by more than 40 million borrowers. (By comparison, private lenders account for $119 billion in student debts).

Below is an overview of how current rates compare to the recent history of student loan rates:

Understanding US Student Debt

Of the around $14 trillion of outstanding household debt, more than $1.7 trillion comes from student debt—that totals more than what Americans owe for cars or credit card debt, respectively.

Besides mortgages, student loan debt accounts for the largest form of household debt. More than 90% of all outstanding student loans are federal student loans, making the student loan interest rate set by the federal government a significant factor for millions of student borrowers.

Whereas private student loans tend to be set according to a combination of prevailing interest rates and the lender’s projection of the student’s ability to pay, federal student loan rates can be shaped, in part, by something even more confusing than the fine print on a financial statement: politics.

Federal student loans are fixed interest (but the rates are adjusted annually), while private lenders often provide both fixed-rate and variable-interest loans.

Here’s an overview of federal student loan rates and some changes they’ve seen:

What Did the Coronavirus Pandemic Change?

Right now represents an exceptional period in student lending. Typically, federal student loan interest rates are set according to a formula established by the US Congress.

However, presently, the rate is set to zero through September 30, 2021. This means interest will not accrue on Direct Loans, FFEL loans, and Perkins loans issued by the Education Department.

Payments due on federally held student loans have also been paused through at least Sept. 30, 2021. Both actions are a result of a presidential executive order that extended benefits first established in the CARES Act—in response to the extraordinary economic situations triggered by the novel Coronavirus pandemic.

Federal Student Loans

Federal student loans represent the lion’s share of student lending. But, there’s more than one type of federal student loan. There are a variety of federal educational loans with different student loan interest rates that, historically, have changed with time—from subsidized to unsubsidized, from undergraduate to graduate.

Current federally owned student loans include Direct Loans, Direct PLUS loans, and Parent Plus Loans.

Direct Loans

“Direct Loans” are responsible for the majority of federal student lending. Issued by the US Department of Education, these loans include both subsidized and unsubsidized student loans.

Subsidized loans are for borrowers who can demonstrate financial need and are exclusively available for undergraduate education, while unsubsidized loans can be used by graduate students. There are also Direct PLUS loans for graduate students and parents of students.

Direct Loans for the 2020-2021 school year have a fixed interest rate of 2.75% for both direct subsidized and direct unsubsidized loans—notably lower than the interest set on federal loans in previous years.

As a point of comparison, Direct Loans for the 2019-2020 academic year were set at 4.53% for subsidized loans and unsubsidized loans. Two years ago (2018-2019), that rate was 5.05%.

Additional Types of Federal Student Loans

The other type of direct loans are PLUS loans and PLUS parent loans. These both carry interest rates determined through a federal government formula. For the 2020-21 school year, the rate on PLUS loans is 5.3%, coming down from 7.08% in 2019-20, and 7.6% two years ago.

For those going to graduate or professional school, the rate for direct loans is now 4.3%. Federal PLUS education loans have a fixed interest rate.

Disused Federal Student Loan Types

The Federal Perkins Loan Program offered fixed-rate loans, at a 5% interest, to qualifying students. This program was aimed at students with exceptional financial need. Schools stopped disbursing Perkins Loans in 2018—after their authority to do so expired under federal law.

How Are Rates Determined?

Traditionally, federal student loan interest rates have been determined in response to laws passed by the US Congress. According to a piece of legislation from 2013 known as the “Bipartisan Student Loan Certainty Act,” the rate on direct loans is determined by a formula pegged to borrowing cost for government debt.

The first year under this formula produced 3.86% rates on direct loans. During the year before, the 2012-2013 academic year, subsidized loans were 3.4% and unsubsidized loans were 6.8%. (A 2007 bill had lowered the subsidized rate to 3.4%, but it was due to expire in 2012 and go back to 6.8%.) The bill, which set up the formula currently governing federal student loan rates, was meant to address this snapback to a higher rate.

Before the legislation passed, Congress directly set the student loan interest rate, with 3.4% rates on subsidized loans and 6.8% on unsubsidized loans for the 2012-2013 school year. The 2013 bill also introduced caps that limit how high interest rates could go on the new formula.

The cap for direct loans to undergraduates was 8.25%, for graduate student loans it was 9.5%, and for PLUS loans, it was 10.5%. Since 2013, the rates have remained well below the legal caps. You can find previous rates for Direct on the Federal Student Aid website .

Politics and Student Loans

Today’s rates are governed by a formula that differs for different types of loans.

For undergraduate loans, the formula is the interest rate on one type of government debt at a certain time of year plus 2.05%. (The extra interest is added to cover the cost of deferrals, forbearance, and defaults). For graduate student loans it’s that same government debt rate plus 3.6%. And, for PLUS loans, it’s that rate plus 4.6%.

Put another way, the cost students pay to borrow money from the federal government is determined by the cost the government pays to borrow money—plus a fixed buffer of extra interest, which is intended to reduce risk to the government of students not being able to pay back their loans.

Since late 2018, government borrowing costs have been coming down and since the coronavirus epidemic slammed the brakes on the world economy, borrowing costs have been especially low. So, since the 2018-19 school year, rates have been falling, from just over 5% to under 3%.

Federal student loan interest rates for the 2020-21 school year dropped considerably, in part due to the COVID-19 pandemic and resulting economic downturn. The interest rate on direct subsidized and unsubsidized loans is just 2.75%, down from 4.53% during the 2019-20 school year.

The Takeaway

The interest rates on federal student loans are set by congress each year and are fixed for the life of the loan. The interest rates are determined based on a formula that the rate on direct loans is determined by a formula tied to borrowing cost for government debt. Federal student loan interest rates for the 2020-21 school year are historically low . The interest rate on direct subsidized and unsubsidized loans is 2.75%.

Millions of students use federal student loans to help them pay for their higher education. These loans come with benefits baked in—including grace periods, income-driven repayment options, forgiveness for public service, and forbearance—that are not guaranteed by private student loans.

But sometimes, federal student aid isn’t enough to cover the cost of tuition and other expenses. For some, a private student loan may help cover the total cost of attending college—including school-certified expenses like, tuition, fees, room and board, and transportation.

Private loans are disbursed by non-government institutions. SoFi, for instance, offers competitive rate in-school loans that come with no fees. And, when a borrower enrolls in autopay, they could get a rate discount.

For those with outstanding student debt, refinancing may be an option to consider. Refinancing student loans may help eligible borrowers pay off their loans faster or lower their monthly payments. (It’s worth noting that refinancing a federal loan with a private lender eliminates federal benefits).

Looking to pay off your student loans? Learn how refinancing with SoFi might help save thousands and lower your interest rate. Check your rate in just two minutes.



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Please borrow responsibly. SoFi Private Student Loans are not a substitute for federal loans, grants, and work-study programs. You should exhaust all your federal student aid options before you consider any private loans, including ours. Read our FAQs.
SoFi Private Student Loans are subject to program terms and restrictions, and applicants must meet SoFi’s eligibility and underwriting requirements. See SoFi.com/eligibility for more information. To view payment examples, click here. SoFi reserves the right to modify eligibility criteria at any time. This information is subject to change.

SoFi Student Loan Refinance
IF YOU ARE LOOKING TO REFINANCE FEDERAL STUDENT LOANS PLEASE BE AWARE OF RECENT LEGISLATIVE CHANGES THAT HAVE SUSPENDED ALL FEDERAL STUDENT LOAN PAYMENTS AND WAIVED INTEREST CHARGES ON FEDERALLY HELD LOANS UNTIL THE END OF SEPTEMBER DUE TO COVID-19. PLEASE CAREFULLY CONSIDER THESE CHANGES BEFORE REFINANCING FEDERALLY HELD LOANS WITH SOFI, SINCE IN DOING SO YOU WILL NO LONGER QUALIFY FOR THE FEDERAL LOAN PAYMENT SUSPENSION, INTEREST WAIVER, OR ANY OTHER CURRENT OR FUTURE BENEFITS APPLICABLE TO FEDERAL LOANS. CLICK HERE FOR MORE INFORMATION.
Notice: SoFi refinance loans are private loans and do not have the same repayment options that the federal loan program offers such as Income-Driven Repayment plans, including Income-Contingent Repayment or PAYE. SoFi always recommends that you consult a qualified financial advisor to discuss what is best for your unique situation.

Checking Your Rates: To check the rates and terms you may qualify for, SoFi conducts a soft credit pull that will not affect your credit score. A hard credit pull, which may impact your credit score, is required if you apply for a SoFi product after being pre-qualified.

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Source: sofi.com

MintFamily with Beth Kobliner: 3 Ways Your Kids Will Redefine the American Dream

A friend’s 20-something son shocked his parents with his post-graduation plans: He was moving to Southeast Asia to sell selfie sticks.

Millennials in a nutshell, #amiright?

But who can blame them for taking non-traditional paths, given the poor financial hand they’ve been dealt: record levels of college debt, uncertain job prospects, stagnant wages, and more. It’s why one in three Millennials is deeply dissatisfied with their financial situation, according to a much-quoted new study from George Washington University and PwC.

Findings from a recent Harvard survey cut even deeper: half of Millennials say the American Dream is dead. Yep, that cornerstone of post-war America—the house, the car, the upwardly mobile career track—is about as relevant to them as black & white TV. To parents raised on the mythology of the American Dream, that’s grim news.

But the situation may not be as dire as it appears.

As they’ve done with everything from communications to careers, Millennials are redefining what it means to lead a “better life” (something parents see as key to the American Dream, according to a 2015 60 Minutes/Vanity Fair poll). This new paradigm is rooted in the experiences of people who came of age after the financial crisis of 2008, and reflects how they see the world. It offers a flexible lifestyle (one that some might see as transient) and a reworking of the traditional measures of success.

Here are three ways that our kids will make their own American Dream—and thrive.

1.  They’ll rethink what college means—and how to pay for it.

Two-thirds of parents say the American Dream includes sending their kids to college, according to a September poll from the youth media company Fusion. These moms and dads are right to think this, as college grads earn about $1 million more over their lifetimes.

For Millennials, cost and career aspirations are informing this major life decision more than ever (call it pragmatism if you want). Gone are the days of selecting a school based on its bucolic campus or dominant football program. Kids (and parents) want more value—and less debt.

That’s why it’s so critical to start the college cost conversation early—like 9th grade-early. Want an incentive? A start-up called Raise.me allows high schoolers—as early as freshman year—to earn “micro-scholarships” from over 100 colleges. Got an A in chemistry? Won the lacrosse playoffs? Volunteered at your local animal shelter? Each awesome achievement can earn your kid $500 to over $1,000 from various colleges. Even “mayor” of Millennials Mark Zuckerberg backs it: Facebook is one of Raise.me’s main supporters.

Best way to avoid the college cost guessing game? Fill out the FAFSA (Free Application for Federal Student Aid)—the key to scholarships, grants, work-study, and low-rate federal loans. The form is notoriously long and complicated, but it’s getting better! Starting this year, you can access the FAFSA on October 1, 2016 (up from January 1, 2017). Why the new, early start? It means you’ll be able to auto-fill the form for the 2017-18 school year using your 2015 tax return data. (More details here.)

Parents of kids who excel in hands-on environments can encourage them to consider the growing trend of apprenticeships (a traditionally European idea that’s catching on here in the U.S.), particularly programs offered in tandem with a community college degree.

2.  They’ll understand that owning your own “home sweet home” is only sweet when you can afford it.

In 1986 (back when I was graduating from college!), 76% of young people saw owning a home as essential to the American Dream. Today that’s down to 59%, according to the Fusion poll.

That means your kid is more likely to bunk with you—or rent—than take on a mortgage she can’t afford (so don’t turn her bedroom into a home office just yet). If she does move in with you, make sure she uses this time as an opportunity to save! (And work out any financial details in advance with this helpful guide from eHow.com.)

Renting has traditionally gotten a bad rap, but it lets your kid explore—new towns, new jobs, new people!—without being stuck in one place. Take our selfie-stick seller: his Southeast Asia stint lasted less than a year before he was back in the states and settling into a new city and new gig. Like his fellow Millennials, he’ll probably rent for several years. Buying may not even cross his mind until his early 30s. A Zillow study shows the average first-time homebuyer is now 33, up from 29 in the 1970s. Of course, you’ll want to talk to your kid about the realities of owning a home, including how to sock away a chunk of money for a down payment once she’s ready.

3.  They’ll value happiness and independence over a huge paycheck.

The entrepreneurial goals of Millennials can sometimes seem a little, er, lofty (like the selfie stick plan that didn’t exactly take off), but thankfully, many are starting to pace themselves.

A study from Upwork, a company that helps businesses find freelance workers, showed that 62% (mostly Millennial) freelancers planned to work a full-time job and moonlight on the side for two years before quitting to follow their dreams. Two years may not be a magic number (a specific financial goal would be safer), but at least they’re earning—and learning—prior to taking the leap.

Today’s young people aren’t all work and no play, either. Millennials’ drive for success, salary, and even entrepreneurial goals pales in comparison to their desire to spend time with family and friends, which they rank as “one of the most important things” in their lives, according to the Harvard survey.

The takeaway? We’re raising a generation that demands independence, flexibility, and a true work/life balance. Perhaps that’s the new American Dream.

Sounds like something we can all believe in.

How do you define the American Dream for your kids? Tell me on Twitter using #NewAmericanDream.

© 2016 Beth Kobliner, All Rights Reserved

BethKobliner

Beth Kobliner is the author of the New York Times bestseller Get a Financial Life, and is currently writing a new book, Make Your Kid a Money Genius (Even If You’re Not), to be published by Simon & Schuster. Visit her at bethkobliner.com, follow her on Twitter, and like her on Facebook.

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