Consolidating Student Loans


It seemed like Monopoly money to her. Emily, a New York University senior who prefers not to use her last name, took on thousands of dollars of student-loan debt without giving it much thought--until now. Just weeks from graduation, she is applying for paralegal jobs in a tough market and suddenly coming face-to-face with the fact that in six months, she'll have to start making monthly payments of around $250 on her $20,000 debt.

"All I had to do was sign on to the Sallie Mae Web site, check off a few boxes and wait for the money to be disbursed," she says. "The thought of repaying it never really hits you until graduation is near."

If only the task of repaying student loans was as easy as taking them out. Instead, it's a complex process with which millions of college grads must grapple. Two out of every three undergraduates walk off the graduation stage with some form of student debt, according to a 2008 College Board study. The average: $22,700 per graduate--and that doesn't count the student-loan debt incurred by the half of entering college students who never earn a degree.

With three federal loans and seven private ones, Emily is in a situation familiar to college seniors and recent graduates across the nation. Like her, many consider consolidating their loans as a way to lower their monthly payments and simplify their finances. The theory is that, either by stretching out repayment of the loans or refinancing them at lower interest rates, the borrower can reduce monthly payments. Unfortunately, it's not a strategy that works for everyone.

One problem for people like Emily is that federal loans cannot be consolidated with private ones. Another is that beginning in July 2006, all federal student loans began carrying fixed interest rates. Before then, federal loans were issued with variable rates; by consolidating them, borrowers could often lock in a rate that was lower than what they were paying on each loan separately.

Now, "there is no financial benefit to consolidating federal loans, other than having a single monthly payment and access to alternative repayment plans," says Mark Kantrowitz, publisher of FinAid, a Web site that tracks the college financial aid industry. If you can afford to make the payments on your loans, Kantrowitz says, consolidation isn't going to help you. If, on the other hand, you are having trouble making your monthly payments or think that you will in the future, consolidation can present several alternatives.

Remember, though, that while practically all repayment plans lower the monthly payments, they also add on several thousand dollars in interest costs by stretching out the life of the loan. If, for example, you stretch out a standard 10-year student loan to 20 years, you can cut monthly payments by 34%, but you will end up paying double the amount of interest over that time, Kantrowitz says.

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