Best Deals on College Student Loans

Decide how much debt is reasonable, and stick with the federal loan programs.

Your first step in keeping college costs under control is to make some hard decisions about the type of school your family can afford. If you and your children are going to rely on loans to pay part of the cost, your next step is to decide how much debt is reasonable.

Set a limit that's realistic. As a benchmark, the average student-loan debt among graduating seniors is just over $19,000. One financial-aid officer says it's reasonable if a student graduates owing less than $25,000. That's roughly the cost of one year's tuition at this official's private college.

At the lower end, more than half of all full-time students enrolled in public four-year colleges pay in-state tuition and fees between $3,000 and $6,000 a year. So a student splitting the total cost with his or her parents might reasonably borrow $12,000 or less.

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Once you've decided on a limit, stick with the federal loan programs: Perkins and Stafford loans for students. At 5%, Perkins loans are the cheapest, but they're available only to students with the greatest financial need. For most students, Stafford loans are the best deal around. Any student can borrow at a fixed rate of 6.8%. Next September's incoming freshmen may borrow up to $3,500 for their first year, and a total of $23,000 for their undergraduate education.

Interest accrues while your child is a student, but he or she doesn't have to begin repaying the loans until six months after graduation. If your family qualifies for a subsidized Stafford loan on the basis of financial need, the government will pay the interest while your child is in school.

Despite the advantages, many students don't exhaust all the Stafford loan money to which they're entitled. Some families are apparently put off by having to fill out the Free Application for Federal Student Aid (opens in new tab) (FAFSA), a prerequisite for getting a Stafford loan.

Don't fear the FAFSA. In addition to a low interest rate, Stafford loans come with attractive benefits when it's time to repay. For example, borrowers can defer repayment if they attend graduate school, or renegotiate loan terms to stretch out or lower their payments.

Get a list of lenders from your child's school, or from FinAid (www.finaid.com (opens in new tab)) or the Education Finance Council (www.efc.org (opens in new tab)), which lists state-run programs. Rates and loan terms are fairly standard. Some lenders do offer attractive discounts, such as a waiver of the loan-origination fee when the loan is disbursed. Immediate discounts are better than future benefits tied to a certain number of on-time payments, a requirement that's tough to meet.

See Janet's college-financing series:

Janet Bodnar
Editor-at-Large, Kiplinger's Personal Finance
Janet Bodnar is editor-at-large of Kiplinger's Personal Finance, a position she assumed after retiring as editor of the magazine after eight years at the helm. While editor, Bodnar was honored by Folio as one of its Top Women in Media. She is a nationally recognized expert on the subjects of women and money, children's and family finances, and financial literacy. She is the author of two books, Money Smart Women and Raising Money Smart Kids. As editor-at-large, she writes two popular columns for Kiplinger, "Money Smart Women" and "Living in Retirement." Bodnar is a graduate of St. Bonaventure University and is a member of its Board of Trustees. She received her master's degree from Columbia University, where she was also a Knight-Bagehot Fellow in Business and Economics Journalism.