If you're planning on going to college, you'll likely need to take out student loans to pay for it. According to the College Board, a year at a public university for an in-state student costs $9,410, on average. Opt for a private school, and that number jumps to $32,410.
It's best to exhaust all of your federal student loan options before even considering private student loans. Rates for federal loans issued between July 1, 2020 and June 30, 2021 will drop from 4.53% to 2.75% for undergraduate Direct Subsidized and Unsubsidized loans.
Federal aid may not be enough to cover the total cost of attendance. In that situation, taking out private student loans can help fill the gap.
But which lenders offer the lowest rates and the most robust benefits? We've compiled a list of the best private student loan lenders available today to help you find the best option for you.
Best Private Student Loans of September 2020
- Credible: Best Student Loan Marketplace
- Rhode Island Student Loan Authority: Best Overall
- College Ave: Best Student Loan Interest Rate
- Splash Financial: Best Student Loan Consolidation
- College Ave: Best Parent Student Loan
- MPOWER Financing: Best for International Students
- Funding U: Best for Students Without a Cosigner
Best Student Loan Marketplace: Credible
Before applying for a student loan, it's smart to compare rates from several different lenders to ensure you get the best interest rate and loan terms. Instead of doing this process on your own, which can be frustrating and time-consuming, you can use a student loan marketplace to speed things up.
With Credible, you fill out a simple form and get rate quotes from multiple student loan lenders within minutes. Getting a quote doesn't affect your credit score, and you can view multiple repayment options. Once you find a loan that works for you, you and your cosigner (if applicable) can complete your loan application online.
Using Credible is completely free. Credible gets a referral fee when you apply for a loan through a lender on its marketplace. Credible doesn't include all private student loan lenders available, but it does have a range of top lenders, including RISLA, Citizens Bank, College Ave, and Discover.
Learn more in our full review of Credible.
Best Overall: Rhode Island Student Loan Authority
When looking for an undergraduate student loan, it's important to pay attention to interest rates, loan terms, and lender perks that can improve your borrower experience. With those factors in mind, the Rhode Island Student Loan Authority (RISLA) stands apart as the best overall lender.
Despite its name, residents from any state can qualify for a RISLA loan. However, applicants who live, work, or attend college in Rhode Island may be able to get a lower interest rate than other borrowers.
Applicants can borrow $1,500 to $45,000 per year to pay for their undergraduate degrees. There are no application, origination, or prepayment penalties.
Unlike some other lenders, RISLA only offers fixed-rate loans. However, the fixed rate loans have fairly low interest rates. As of July 31, 2020, the interest rate on a loan with Student Immediate Repay is 3.99%, while a Student Deferred Repay loan has a rate of 5.24% (both of these rates include an autopay discount).
As an undergraduate borrower, you have two main repayment options:
- Student Immediate Repay: With this option, you begin making payments 15 days after the final loan disbursement. You'll repay the loan over 120 months, and you'll get the lowest possible interest rate.
- Student Deferred Repay: If you opt for Student Deferred Repay, you'll get a higher interest rate. However, you won't have to start making payments until six months after you leave school. You'll have 180 months to repay your loan.
While RISLA offers low interest rates and different repayment plans, what really sets the lender apart is the benefits it offers to borrowers:
- Income-Based Repayment: If you're facing a financial hardship and can't afford your payments, you may qualify for RISLA's Income-Based Repayment Plan. With this approach, your repayment term is extended to up to 25 years, and your payments are based on your income and family size.
- Nursing Reward Program: Rhode Island resident or students attending eligible schools in Rhode Island may be eligible for the Nursing Reward Program. Under this program, RISLA will lower the interest rates on the loans of qualifying borrowers to 0% for 48 months.
- Loan Forgiveness for Interns: Students who complete an eligible internship can receive up to $2,000 in student loan forgiveness.
- Autopay Discount: Sign up for automatic payments and receive a 0.25% discount on your interest rate.
- Forbearance: In some cases, you may be able to temporarily postpone your payments if dealing with financial issues.
- Multi-year approval: Some borrowers will qualify for RISLA's multi-year program. As long as your information and your cosigner's income, credit score, and other key information remain consistent or improve, you can qualify for additional loans without having to submit another application.
RISLA provides families with information on how to find financial aid, including federal loans, grants, and scholarships. It also has programs that reward students for completing internships, helping them prepare for careers after graduation.
Learn more about RISLA student loans in our full review.
Best Student Loan Interest Rate: College Ave
When you’re applying for a student loan, you can often choose between variable and fixed interest rates. While fixed-rate loans have the same interest rate for the duration of the repayment term, the interest rate on variable-rate loans can fluctuate over time. If you want to pay off your debt quickly, opting for a variable-rate loan can allow you to take advantage of the lower initial rate.
If you want the lowest rate possible, College Ave offers some of the lowest rates on undergraduate student loans as of September 24, 2020:
- Variable Rates: As low as 1.24% (including 0.25% automatic payment discount).
- Fixed Rates: As low as 3.49% (including 0.25% automatic payment discount included.
With College Ave, you can borrow up to the total cost of attendance. There are four different repayment terms to choose from, and you can defer your payments until after graduation or opt to make in-school payments.
Learn more about College Ave student loans in our full review.
Best Student Loan Consolidation: Splash Financial
Private student loan consolidation, also known as student loan refinancing, can be a smart way to lower your interest rate and save money over the life of your loan. Splash Financial is our pick for top student loan refinancing company.
There’s a few different factors that affected our decision:
- Interest rates: Splash Financial offers the lowest interest rates. As of July 31, 2020, it has variable rates as low as 1.99%, and fixed rates as low as 2.88% (lowest rates includes 0.25% autopay discount).
- Repayment terms: Splash Finance has multiple repayment terms, so you can choose a loan length and monthly payment that works for your budget. Depending on your needs, you can choose a loan term of five, eight, 10, 12, 15, or 20 years.
- Cosigner releases: Typically, Splash borrowers can request a cosigner release after making 12 consecutive monthly payments on time.
Best Parent Student Loan: College Ave
As a parent, you want what's best for your child. And that may mean helping them pay for their education by taking out a parent student loan.
College Ave offers 11 different repayment terms for parent student loans, ranging from five to 15 years in length. That flexibility allows you to choose a loan term that works for your budget.
College Ave allows parents to borrow between $1,000 and the total cost of attendance. As an added perk, the lender allows you to get up to $2,500 of the loan delivered directly to you, so you can manage purchasing books, dorm supplies, or a new computer for your child.
The lender also has low interest rates, with variable rates as low as 1.24%, and fixed rates as low as 3.49% (lowest rates include an autopay discount). College Ave has three different repayment plans, so you can decide which is best for you:
- Interest-Only Payment: While your child is in school, pay only the interest charges each month.
- Interest Plus Payment: Pay the monthly interest charges and whatever extra money you decide each month while your child is in school.
- Full Principal and Interest Payment: Start repaying the full payment—including the principal and interest—after the loan is disbursed.
Learn more about College Ave student loans in our full review.
Best for International Students: MPOWER Financing
Unfortunately, international students often struggle to find private student loans to pay for school, especially if they don’t have access to a cosigner who is a U.S. citizen. For those students, MPOWER Financing is the best lender.
MPOWER Financing offers undergraduate and graduate student loans to international students as well as U.S. citizens, permanent residents, and Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) students.
MPOWER Financing doesn’t require applicants to have a cosigner, an established credit history, or collateral.
For international undergraduate students, you can borrow $2,001 to $25,000, with a $50,000 lifetime borrowing limit. The APR is 12.94%, but you can qualify for up to 1.5% in interest rate discounts, including:
- 0.50% automatic payment discount
- 0.50% on-time payment discount
- 0.50% graduation and employment discount
Both graduate and undergraduate loans require interest-only payments while you’re in school, and have 10-year repayment terms.
Learn more about MPOWER Financing in our full review.
Best for Students Without a Cosigner: Funding U
As a college student, you may not have an established credit history or income, and can struggle to qualify for a private student loan on your own. If you don't have a parent or relative to act as a cosigner, getting a loan can be difficult. If you don't have access to a cosigner, Funding U may be the best option for you.
Unlike some other lenders who offer non-cosigned loans, Funding U allows undergraduate students of all grade levels to qualify for loans. You must be a U.S. citizen or permanent resident over the age of 18, and you can borrow $3,000 to $10,000 per year. Your eligibility for a loan is based on your GPA, extracurricular activities, and work experience.
The interest rate on undergraduate student loans for the 2020-2021 school year is 7.99% to 14.49%, including a 0.5% autopay discount.
Unfortunately, Funding U only lends to residents of certain states. You must live in one of the following states to qualify for a loan: Arkansas, Arizona, California, Colorado, Connecticut, Florida, Georgia, Hawaii, Indiana, Kansas, Maryland, Massachusetts, Michigan, Nebraska, New Jersey, New Mexico, Missouri, New York, North Carolina, Ohio, Oregon, Pennsylvania, South Carolina, Tennessee, Vermont, Virginia, West Virginia, and Wisconsin.
How Can You Qualify for Student Loans?
Before considering private student loans, make sure you exhaust all of your federal student aid options. Fill out the Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA) as early as possible to ensure you get all the financial aid you're entitled to receive.
For undergraduate loans, federal student loans do not have minimum credit score or income requirements, making it an excellent choice if you don't have steady income or an established credit history.
If you use all of the available federal aid and still need help paying for school, you can shop around for the best private student loans. Each lender operates independently from one another, and they have their own credit and income requirements.
As a college student, you can improve your chances of qualifying for a loan—and getting a competitive interest rate—by adding a cosigner to your loan application. A cosigner is usually a friend or relative with good credit and reliable income who applies for the loan with you. If you can't keep up with the payments, the cosigner is responsible for them, instead.
How Can You Apply for Student Loans?
If you need to apply for student loans, the process you’ll follow is dependent on the loan type.
Federal Student Loans
- Fill out the FAFSA: First, complete the FAFSA. While the federal deadline isn't until June, state and school deadlines can be much earlier. To give yourself the best chance of getting financial aid, submit the FAFSA as early as possible in the year.
- Complete the CSS Profile: Some schools use the CSS profile to determine who receives non-federal aid, such as institutional scholarships or grants. Complete the CSS profile early on in the year to increase your chances of winning an award.
- Review your offer letter: When colleges send you an acceptance letter, they will contain financial aid information, including federal student loans. The letter will include details on how to accept the offered financial aid.
Private Student Loans
With private student loans, the process is more straightforward. You can shop around with multiple lenders. Many companies will allow you to get a rate quote with just a soft credit inquiry, which has no impact on your credit score.
Once you find a lender and rate that works for you, you can submit your application. The lender will ask for details like:
- Your name
- Social Security number
- School name
- Employment information
- Rent or mortgage payments
If you have insufficient income or too low of a credit score, you can also add a cosigner to your application.
Once you submit the application, the lender will review your application and decide whether or not to issue you a loan. In most cases, you'll receive a decision within a couple of business days.
How Do Student Loan Interest Rates Work?
Unfortunately, how much you originally borrow in student loans is not how much you'll repay. Thanks to interest charges, your loan balance can grow over time. Interest can cause you to pay thousands more than you originally borrowed, so it's important that you understand exactly how much interest you should be paying per month.
For federal subsidized loans, the government covers the cost of interest that accrues while you're in school and during the six-month period after you graduate. After that, you're responsible for all interest charges.
For federal unsubsidized and private student loans, interest starts accruing on your debt as soon as the loan is disbursed. Interest will continue to grow while you're in school and during your loan grace period—the time before you start having to make payments.
Making payments while you're still in school and during your grace period can reduce the total you'll repay over the length of your loan, helping you save money.
While there are repayment plans—such as income-driven repayment plans—that allow you to extend your repayment term, doing so can cause you to pay back more money in interest. Alternatively, you can also consolidate your loan to lessen your monthly payments, though the longer life of the loan could result in you having to pay thousands of dollars more in accrued interest.
How Can You Choose the Best Student Loan for You?
When it comes to paying for college, it makes sense to start with federal student loans. They tend to offer lower interest rates and more generous repayment terms than private student loans, making them a more affordable option.
However, federal loans aren't always enough to cover the full cost of your education, especially if the cost of housing is factored in. If that's the case for you, private student loans can play an important role in helping you complete your degree. If you decide that a private loan is right for you, research different lenders to find the best loan for you.
Research for this article encompassed private student loan lenders of undergraduate private student loans (as well as companies that refinance student loans) narrowed down from national banks, credit unions, and lenders. The criteria for measuring each lender included all available APR ranges for these loans, fees charged, repayment plans and hardship options offered, and the inclusion of additional features such as cosigner release, the availability of a parent loan, and the ability to refinance.
Ultimately, the "best of" awarded the highest status to the lenders that are available nationwide that offered the lowest fixed APRs, the most comprehensive hardship programs, and the lowest number of fees.
The College Board. "College Costs: FAQs." Accessed July 15, 2020.
Credible. "Find the Best Private Student Loans." Accessed July 15, 2020.
Rhode Island Student Loan Authority. "RISLA Student Loan FAQ." Accessed July 15, 2020.
Rhode Island Student Loan Authority. "Undergraduate Student Loans." Accessed July 15, 2020.
Rhode Island Student Loan Authority. "Income-Based Repayment." July 1, 2020.
RISLA. "Nursing Reward Program." Accessed July 15, 2020.
Rhode Island Student Loan Authority. "Rewards for College Interns." July 15, 2020.
Rhode Island Student Loan Authority. "Forbearance Application Checklist," Page 1. Accessed July 15, 2020.
RISLA. "Multi-Year Peace of Mind." Accessed July 15, 2020.
College Ave. "Undergraduate Student Loans." Accessed July 15, 2020.
Splash Financial. "Refinance Student Loans." Accessed July 15, 2020.
College Ave Student Loans. "Parent Loan Possibilities." Accessed September 9, 2020.
MPower Financing. "Get a Loan." July 15, 2020.
Funding U. "FAQs." Accessed July 15, 2020.
Funding U. "FAQs." Accessed July 15, 2020.