By now, the hats are tossed, tears are wiped away and the celebratory cake is gone for recent graduates, and now they are beginning their new lives in the real world. Like many of their predecessors in previous years, this year’s graduating class faces a wretched job market where there may be as many as five candidates for every job. Consequently, one of the most daunting tasks becomes the challenge of not falling behind on student loans. While challenging times can build moral fiber, you don’t want to build character by getting involved in the debt trap. Here are common questions I am frequently asked, as well as tips on how to keep student loan healthy:
Q. First of all, what are some of the consequences that graduates face by getting behind on student loans?
Ellie: As a mom of kids in college as well as a recent graduate, I know personally, how difficult the job market is and what a challenge these graduates face. First of all there will be interest charged for late payments as well as fees that will inflate the amount they owe—and chances are good that they owe too much as it is! If you default, the government could garnish your wages and withhold your tax refund. Not to mention a huge hit on your FICO score, when you’re just starting out and trying to build a good score that will help get lower interest rates on a car or a house. It is also becoming more common for employers to check your credit history when considering which candidate to hire.
Q. But you say there is good news and that these dire consequences are avoidable, as least as far as federal student loans are concerned. The key is to understand your options and take action before you fall behind on payments. The first tip you list is to understand your grace period, when do students have to start paying back these loans and how do grace periods vary?
ELLIE: Borrowers typically have a few months after graduation before they are required to start repaying their federal student loans. For most federal student loans, the grace period is only six months. Most loans have up to ten years to repay. It’s important that you contact your loan provider and find out when the statements begin—especially if you haven’t received notification yet.
Q. What if the graduate has trouble finding work or they find an entry level job that typically doesn’t offer much in the way of compensation? Is there recourse for the amount they are required to pay for their loans?
ELLIE: That’s an excellent point and it brings us to our second tip, they need to find out whether they qualify for the income-based repayment program. Under this program, your loan payment could be reduced, based on the amount of discretionary income you have available. In most cases your loan payments won’t exceed 10% of your total income. After 25 years, anything you still owe on the loan will be forgiven.
Q. Is this income based repayment program an automatic enrollment or does the graduate need to apply for it?
ELLIE: You definitely need to apply for it by contacting the company that is servicing your student loan. If you’ve moved a time or two and your loan papers have not been forwarded to you and you are not sure who services your student loan, then you can go to the database of the National Student Loan Data System.
Q. Is there some paperwork you need to compile before you apply for the income based repayment program?
ELLIE: Yes, it’s important to have this paperwork on hand in order to streamline the process because you do want to get this filed as soon as possible—especially if you’re in danger of being late on loans and you have a genuine financial hardship due to your current income levels. You’ll need to authorize the IRS to provide last year’s tax return to the Department of Education. If you feel that your tax return doesn’t reflect your current situation, there’s a form you can use to show how your situation has changed. Get info on these forms and criteria, as well as links to major student loan servicers at the Project on Student Debt.
Q. We’ve looked at income based repayment, but what about those who need a quick, temporary fix? Maybe they have to take an unpaid internment at first or they may have a job that will become available in six months. Are there options such as deferment or forbearance available to this class of graduates?
ELLIE: If you are unemployed, still in school or experiencing economic hardship, you can apply to have payments on your federal student loans deferred for up to three years. If you have subsidized Stafford loans, which are provided to students who demonstrate financial need, the government will pay the interest on the loans during deferment. Interest on unsubsidized Stafford loans will accrue during deferment. If you don’t qualify for deferment, then you still might be eligible for forbearance, which allows you to put off payments for up to three years. It’s harder to qualify for deferment than it is for forbearance because in forbearance you will still have to pay interest that accrues.
Q. Does it take a long time for the paperwork to go through for these kinds of programs we’ve discussed: income based repayment, deferment and forbearance? Couldn’t a graduate find themselves in default by the time the paperwork is processed?
ELLIE: It’s important that you continue to make full payments until you’re notified otherwise. It takes longer for income based repayments and doesn’t take as long for deferment and forbearance because the latter two are temporary relief from loan payments. Whereas income based repayments could be longer term, depending upon how long you are in that job, making that salary. It’s important to look at forbearance and deferment as short term fixes and not long term—that’s why it’s really important to file for these right away, while you’re looking for a job. But if it looks like your payment problems will last longer than a few months, you definitely need to look at income-based repayment.
Q. Some graduates have huge student loans, in some cases, they have more than $30,000 in principal and interest. It is especially difficult for these grads to face this mountain of student loan debt. Can they extend the payment term in order to get through the first few years?
ELLIE: If you are a borrower who owes more than 30K , most lenders will allow you to extend the term beyond the standard 10 years, thus reducing monthly payments. The amount of interest you pay will increase, though, particularly if you extend payment over the maximum term of 25 years. And who wants to spend the next 30 years paying off a student loan? So I would only recommend this option as a last resort. Try to pay it within the standard 10 year term so that you can avoid thousands of more dollars in interest.
Q. Finally, we’ve discussed federal student loans, but a lot of viewers may hold private student loans that they have to repay. What are their options?
ELLIE: Well, the outlook is not as sunny for those who have private loans. They have fewer options. Private education lenders don’t participate in the income-based repayment program and they’re not required to allow you to defer payments, even if you’re out of work. If you’re having trouble with your private loans, read your loan agreement. It may require that the lender grant you forbearance under certain conditions. Even if your contract doesn’t include an economic hardship provision, your lender may be willing to provide relief. Some lenders have become more flexible in this post-great recession environment. You could ask for interest only payments or even to change the terms of the loan. For more information, go to Student Loan Borrower Assistance
America’s Family Financial Expert (R)