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Drowning in Educational Loan Debt: Will Loan Consolidation Save You?

It’s the first of the month and you’ve received a fistful of bills for the many different student loans that helped pay for your education: Perkins, subsidized and unsubsidized FFEL or Direct Stafford, and PLUS. Your salary hasn’t reached the six figure income you had hoped for yet. Each month you watch as your hard earned cash evaporates in educational loan payments while you live in a cramped studio apartment and drive a car older than you are.

You’ve heard about loan consolidation and the idea of making a smaller payment to one lender sounds like a dream compared to your current nightmare of feeding a seemingly endless stream of money to a number of different lenders. No contest–where do you sign up?

Rein yourself in for a moment. Consolidation may be the perfect solution to your financial woes and then again it may not be. So before you jump on the consolidation bandwagon, here are a few things you might want to consider.

Are Lenders Axing Consolidation Loans?

In an effort to remedy some inequities in the federal student aid programs, Congress recently enacted the College Cost Reduction and Access Act of 2007, which among other provisions, cuts lender subsidies that have historically been in place to encourage lenders to participate in the federal education loan programs. This legislation, in concert with the recent subprime mortgage credit crisis, has lenders taking a closer look at whether education loans continue to be profitable for them.

Higher education leaders anticipate that lenders may cut back on the Stafford and PLUS loan incentives and discounts previously offered to attract borrowers–and eliminate them altogether for consolidation loans. Consolidation loans, with the tightest profit margin of all education loans, may even be on the chopping block for some lenders while others may increase the minimum balance that qualifies a borrower for a consolidation loan.

Even if lenders back out of the consolidation loan business, consolidation is still available through the federal Direct Consolidation Loan program, but the government doesn’t offer the incentives and discounts that lenders have long been using to attract borrowers.

Are Interest Rates Coming Down?

Stafford Loan and PLUS variable interest rates, which are based on a formula that includes the interest rate of the most recent 91-day T bill, change every July 1; rates are expected to drop significantly on July 1, 2008. This decrease should make the educational loan variable interest rates very attractive. Because the interest rate for a consolidation loan is calculated using a weighted average of all interest rates for all of the loans you would include in consolidation, you may want to wait until after July 1 to make a more informed decision.

Consolidation: Thumbs Up or Down?

To consolidate or not to consolidate: that is the question. But there’s no easy answer.

Consolidation may be a good idea if:

o������������ Standard – fixed monthly payments.

o������������ Graduated – start out with low payments and increase every 2 years.

o������������ Extended – for amounts greater than $30,000, either a fixed or graduated option.

o������������ Income contingent – based on annual income and total loan debt, with a payment adjustment every year as income changes. The FFEL program offers income sensitive repayment, which bases monthly payments on a percentage of income

Although the Stafford Loan programs offer flexible repayment options, the Perkins Loan program currently does not. Note: An income-based repayment option will become available for FFEL and Direct Stafford, Perkins, Grad PLUS, and Federal Consolidation (less undergrad PLUS) loan borrowers on July 1, 2009.

Consolidation may not be a good idea if:

o������������ The Perkins Loan program, for example, has a cancellation option if you teach in certain public school service professions or subject areas or in certain designated low income schools.

o������������ Portions of a Stafford Loan may be eligible for cancellation if you teach full time for five consecutive years in a low income school. (Under certain circumstances, this option may also be available for consolidation loans.)

Research and Conquer

Unfortunately the answer to whether or not consolidation is right for you is���”it depends.” To find out, collect information about what federal loans you have (Perkins, FFEL, PLUS, and Direct Loan programs) by accessing the National Student Loan Data System (nslds.ed.gov). Collect information about any private educational loans you have directly from your lender(s). Take the loan information and find an online consolidation loan calculator to help you determine how your loan repayments may change through consolidation.

Then ask yourself the following questions:

You can see that the decision whether or not to consolidate is not black and white. It is an individual decision–it may work for some and not for others. Because there are long term implications to consolidation, do your research and weigh the pros and cons carefully. When all of the evidence is in, you should be able to decide whether or not a consolidation loan is the answer for you.

Publish date: June 12, 2008