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The Honolulu Advertiser
Posted on: Thursday, June 1, 2006

Listen up, college grads: It's crunch time for student loans

By Michelle Singletary

WASHINGTON Right about this time every year, many college graduates begin to face reality.

They realize they now have to start paying back their student loans. For many, it's the first time they've really paid attention to how much they've borrowed and their options for paying back OPM (other people's money).

For example, here's a query I received during a recent online discussion: "My girlfriend will finish graduate school soon with almost $80,000 of debt. Mostly it's federal loans. Do federal loans have to be paid off in 10 years? Given that her field doesn't pay very much for starting positions, what advice would you have?"

What a nice boyfriend this guy is to be so worried about his honey. And he asked because his girlfriend doesn't know.

But how do you borrow $80,000 and not know your payment period?

Never mind.

To find out your loan terms, go to the source your lender. You can also find details of your student loans, including current balances, by going to the National Student Loan Data System, which is the U.S. Department of Education's central database for student aid. The Web site is www.nslds.ed.gov.

To access the information, you will be asked for some personal information, including your Social Security number. You will also need to enter the PIN you received from the Department of Education. If you don't have a PIN or you've forgotten it, there is information on the site to help you get it.

Typically the repayment term for a federal student loan is 10 years. Privately issued student loans can have various payback periods typically up to 20 years. Since the federal student loan program limits the yearly amount a student can borrow, many students have to turn to private loans if no other aid is available.

Right now, however, the biggest question many graduates need to answer for themselves is whether to consolidate their loans. If I were that boyfriend, I would help the girlfriend research consolidation.

If you're a student you've probably already been bombarded with mail about consolidation, which simply allows you to lock in a rate and stretch your repayment period from the standard 10 years to as long as 30 years, depending on your debt amount.

I hate to tell you, but you don't have much time to make a decision about this. You have to act now to consolidate by June 30, because interest rates on federal student loans change each year on July 1. And as predicted, the rates will significantly swing upward this summer. This year's hike is one of the largest in the history of the federally guaranteed student loan program, according to Sallie Mae, one of the country's largest student loan consolidators.

The rate for Stafford loans for students in school, in a grace period or in deferment will increase to 6.54 percent for existing variable rate loans, up from the current 4.75 percent. The rate for Stafford loans in repayment will jump to 7.14 percent, up from 5.375 percent. The new consolidation rate on PLUS loans will rise to 7.94 percent, up from 6.1 percent.

When you consolidate, you lock in the weighted average of all your student loans, rounded up to the nearest eighth of a percentage point.

The big plus of consolidating now is the ability to reduce your monthly payment by stretching out your loan and, of course, taking advantage of the lower rates. The drawback: When you stretch your loan you are also increasing the total cost of the loan.

The hard part of consolidating is figuring out which lender to use. For federal loans, all lenders use the same interest-rate formula. So choose based on the loan features. For instance, does the lender offer a rate reduction for on-time payments? Is there a cash rebate for on-time payments?

The competition for your consolidation business is so fierce there's no reason to go with a lender that isn't offering a range of borrower benefits. Still, comparing the offers can be a headache. But maybe your head won't hurt so much if you use a new online tool.

SimpleTuition Inc., which is not a lender, has a Web site that can help: www.ConsolidationComparison.com. This is like the many travel sites out there that help you compare rates and features on airfare and hotel stays. Only in this case, you're comparing federal student loan consolidation options.