Refinance or Consolidate Student Loans: Is there a difference?

At some point you may want to change how you pay off your student loans, and two terms may pop up while exploring options: consolidation and refinancing. Although search results for one can surface when looking up one term of the other, there is a difference.

Consolidation vs Refinancing– super basic definition

Consolidating student loans means making one payment to one servicer.

The term consolidating is limited to federal student loans and can only be done through the Direct Loan Program or the Department of Education.

Refinancing refers to both private and student loans and can be done through a private lender. The similarity is that private lenders can provide the one-payment, one-lender experience. The difference is that they can be used for federal loans, private loans, and a combination of both.

Consolidation benefits now vs then

Consolidating federal loans may not save students the amount of money it used to.

Students who took out federal loans, such as the Federal Stafford and Plus loans before 2006, had variable-rate loans, and consolidating them through a federal program was a way to get a lower rate.

As explained by Connecticut’s Office of Legislative Research, rates for these federal student loans changed from variable to fixed as a result of the 2005 Deficit Reduction Act. This is why consolidation works out differently for new student loans as of 2006: consolidation doesn’t provide a way to capture a lower rate for these later loans, because their rates don’t fluctuate. Instead, the government programs establish the new rate by averaging the rates of the loans being combined.

In all cases, the consolidated student loan may have new terms, such as a lower monthly payment, but it may have a longer repayment period, which could mean paying more over the life of the consolidated loans.

Refinancing benefits

Refinancing student debt means applying for a loan through a private lender, like Laurel Road, who pays down your student loan(s) and replaces it with the refinanced loan, which includes new terms.

This new loan could combine several loans, including federal ones, offering the ease of one-lender, one-payment, as well as the possibility that it could save you money with a lower interest rate.

Refinanced loans, like consolidated ones, include new terms such as a new monthly payment and payment duration.

H2 Student Loans that can be consolidated

Not all federal student loans can be consolidated, and there are limitations.

  • Federal student loans—direct loans and Federal Family Education Loans – can be consolidated though the Federal Direct Loan Consolidation program.
  • Only federal loans can be consolidated. Private loans cannot be mixed in.
  • Consolidated loans have to be for the same borrower, so one loan cannot include student and Parent PLUS loans.
  • PLUS loans provided through the Federal Family Education Loan program (none have been issued since 2010) can be consolidated.
  • Parent PLUS Loans can be consolidated through a Direct Consolidation Loan. They cannot be combined with loans taken out in the student’s name.

The Department of Education has a list of loans that can be consolidated here.

Student loans that can be refinanced

  • Federal student loans
  • Private student loans
  • Parent PLUS loans

Additional considerations

Federal loans may have higher interest rates than private loans, but they include a variety of repayment plans. For example, students can apply to have their monthly payments be based on their income, change their repayment plans, and may be eligible for debt forgiveness. You lose those benefits if you refinance federal loans (which means going with a private lender) instead of consolidating them through the government.

Refinancing student loans can make sense if you are confident in your work prospects. The terms are not as flexible as those that come with federal loan consolidation – the amount you agree to pay every month does not change. It is the same until the balance is paid in full. (The amount may change if you decide to refinance your student loan again.)

Student Debt and Parent Plus Loans

Parents can refinance their PLUS loans and may get benefits, like lower interest rates, which can lower their costs over the life of the loan.

Refinancing parent loans can have an additional benefit – assuming the now-graduate is ready to take on the debt, the parent can refinance the loan in the graduate’s name—the student has to apply for the refinancing– as long as all parties  agree.

Refinancing Parent PLUS loans has the same implications as refinancing student loans – the new loan, which is from a private lender, has new terms and will not include repayment options, such as extended and graduated repayment, that came with the original loan.

You can consolidate and refinance

Something to note when considering these two options is that consolidating and refinancing student loans is not an either-or situation. You can consolidate some student loans and refinance others.

Some helpful tools to make your decision include resources like Laurel Road’s student loan calculator, and this loan consolidation calculator from the nonprofit Mapping Your Future.

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