How to Get a Student Loan

Illustration of a woman standing on school books and stowing money in a graduation cap
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Paying for education is never easy. Some families and employers cover the costs, but not everyone is so fortunate. If you need to come up with more money, you’ll need to know how to get a student loan.

Try Not to Borrow

Before getting into the logistics of how to get student loans, there’s something that you should hear at least once: Try not to borrow anything. It’s easy to get money now, but it won’t be easy to pay it off later. Yes, education is an investment, and it’s often well worth it to borrow money to fund your studies. However, you can thank yourself later if you minimize your debt burden by:

  • Working part-time (even if it means taking an extra semester or two)
  • Finding employers that pay for education
  • Going to school at a less-expensive institution
  • Hunting for grants and scholarships

Know Your Options

When borrowing for education, you have several options. Make sure to consider all of them, and choose the one that fits you the best. Be sure to consider:

  • Loans offered under government programs (generally your best option)
  • Private student loans (typically used after you've borrowed the maximum from government programs)

In addition to loans designed specifically for education funding, you might use:

These options are listed more or less in order of affordability.

Start With Government Loans

Student loans from government sources are probably your best bet. These loans will generally have lower interest rates, and some of the interest may be paid (subsidized) on your behalf while you’re in school. There are some benefits to government-backed loans—they're easier to qualify for and have flexible repayment structures, for example.

The main drawback of government programs is that they might not cover all of your expenses. There are limits to how much you can borrow, and if you need more you’ll have to find it elsewhere.

How to Get Federal Student Loans

To get a student loan as part of a government program, visit your school’s financial aid office. Let them know that you’d like to borrow, and they’ll tell you what steps to take. You’ll have to fill out a FAFSA form, which will determine what type of aid you’re eligible for. To complete the FAFSA, you'll need to provide details about your finances, such as your assets in bank and investment accounts, income levels, and Social Security numbers (for both you and your parents).

After your FAFSA is processed, you'll get a financial aid offer from your school. You can accept the offer or pass if you've decided to take another route. If you decide to accept the funds, you'll need to complete entrance counseling (a relatively brief training on how your student debt works) and sign a loan agreement.

FASFA qualification calculations take into account a two-year lookback period for your tax returns.

Start With the End in Mind

As you apply for loans, remember that you’ll have to repay them someday. Run some numbers to understand what you’d be getting yourself into—before you pull the trigger on getting a loan. Plug your loan details into a loan amortization calculator, and see how much you’d have to pay each month, and how much you’d pay in interest over the life of your loan.

Before you take any student loans, consider your prospective career field and your likely ability to repay quickly. Your education should be an investment that will pay off, not a financial burden you'll carry for decades.

If You Don’t Qualify

You should be able to qualify for certain government loan programs regardless of your income or credit score. However, if you need more money, you’ll have to qualify for loans with private lenders. That means you’ll need debt-to-income ratios and credit scores that are high enough to borrow more—and students frequently don’t meet those criteria, because they're generally young and just starting in the workforce, and they haven't yet built a credit history.

If you can’t get a loan on your own, you may need the help of a co-signer. Another person can apply for the loan with you, promising to repay it if you fail to do so. Co-signing is risky, so only ask someone who can afford to take the risk and who understands what they’d be getting into. Ultimately, it's better to slow down getting your degree than strain a relationship over debt that you can't pay.