For Student Loans, Time for Payback

By Michelle Singletary
Thursday, June 1, 2006

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 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 .

(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 other payback periods, typically up to 20 years. Because 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 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 swing upward significantly 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.

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