About 3.5 million high school students are expected to graduate from high school this spring, and most will go to college. While this a proud moment for students and parents, many families are stressed about how to pay for school in the fall.
Before helping your child take out loans — or taking out loans in your own name — make sure you understand the benefits and drawbacks. Here are six things every parent should know about student loans.
1. There’s Still Time to Complete the FAFSA
For your children to get federal student aid such as loans, grants and work-study programs, they must complete the Free Application For Federal Student Aid (FAFSA) every year.
If your child hasn’t completed their FAFSA yet, there’s still time — but not much. Though the federal deadline is June 30, 2018, states and individual schools often have much earlier due dates.
Moreover, schools have limited funds when it comes to some loans and grants, so the earlier your child applies, the better. To make sure you get the necessary funds, submit the FAFSA as soon as possible. You can complete the application online in less than 30 minutes.
2. Take Advantage of Federal Loans First
You’ll find out what types of federal aid your child is eligible for after completing the FAFSA. If your children need to take out loans to pay for school, encourage them to start with federal student loans rather than private ones.
Federal loans typically have lower interest rates, more generous repayment terms and do not require a lengthy credit history or a co-signer. Plus, they come with benefits such as access to income-driven repayment plans and deferment or forbearance options if your child struggles to make payments after graduation.
Private student loans can have higher interest rates and typically require a co-signer. They also have fewer repayment options, which can make keeping up with payments more difficult on an entry-level salary. Private loans should be a last resort used to fill the gap if federal loans don’t cover the total cost of college attendance.
3. Learn How Parent PLUS Loans Work
If you want to help your child pay for school but don’t have enough money saved to pay outright, you may be eligible for a parent Direct PLUS Loan. This is a federal loan designed specifically for parents of dependent students.
To be eligible, you must be the biological or adoptive parent and your child must be enrolled at least half-time at a qualifying school. Both you and your child need to be U.S. citizens or eligible noncitizens. Unlike other forms of federal loans, parent PLUS Loans require a credit check.
To get a parent PLUS Loan, your child should complete the FAFSA. You will sign a PLUS Loan master promissory note. You can borrow as much as the cost of your child’s education, minus any other financial assistance you receive. The current interest rate for Parent PLUS Loans is 6.31%.
4. Think Twice Before Co-Signing
If your child needs a private loan to pay for school, the lender may require a co-signer before approving them. Before you agree to cosign, make sure you understand what it entails.
Becoming a co-signer means you’re the guarantor of the loan. If your child falls behind on the payments, you’re responsible for making them. If your child misses a payment and doesn’t tell you, your credit will be damaged. That consequence can make it more difficult for you to get approved for other forms of credit, such as a mortgage or car loan. (You can see how student and other loans impact your credit with a free credit snapshot on Credit.com.)
Co-signing is a huge responsibility, so make sure you’re comfortable with the potential fallout before putting your signature on a loan application.
5. Know Discharge Rules
While no one wants to think about themselves or their child dying or suffering a serious accident, it’s important to understand a loan’s rules about these events before taking on student debt.
If your child has federal loans and later dies, the government will discharge the debt. If you have a parent PLUS Loan and either you or your child passes away, the loans are also eliminated. If your child becomes permanently disabled and can no longer work, they can get their loans forgiven through Total and Permanent Disability Discharge.
Private loans are different. Some lenders discharge loans in the case of death or disability, but not every lender offers this. There have been horror stories about parents who have lost a child, yet are still responsible for the student loans. Make sure you understand the lender’s rules before taking out or co-signing a private loan.
6. Prioritize Yourself
Though supporting your children through school is a wonderful gift to offer, take a hard look at your finances first. If you have other forms of debt or your retirement savings are too small, prioritize your own finances.
Your children can get grants, scholarships and work part-time in school to pay for college. If they struggle to repay their federal student loans, there are a wealth of plans and programs to help them get back on track.
The same is not true when it comes to credit card debt, personal loans or retirement. If you fall behind on payments or don’t save enough before you stop working, there are few places you can turn for help. Ensure you are in a secure financial position before taking on more debt for your child.
Know Your Funding Options
Before signing loan paperwork, make sure you know exactly what you’re getting into. Student loans can be complicated, and if you’re not careful, you could be on the hook for thousands in debt. Work with your children to ensure you understand all your options and obligations as you prepare to send them off to college.