How Student Loan Interest Works

#1 Student loan lawyer

Updated on July 1, 2023

Ever wondered, ‘how does student loan interest work?’ It’s a big question when you’re dealing with student loans. Not knowing can lead to expensive mistakes, a lot of stress, and trouble keeping up with repayments.

But picture this: you get how interest works, and you set up a solid plan to pay back your loans. Suddenly, you’re the one in charge, ready to kick your student loan debt to the curb.

In this article, we’re going to make student loan interest simple. We’ll show you how it’s calculated, what’s different about federal and private loans, what ‘capitalization’ means, and how you can pay less interest.

With this info, you’ll be all set to take down your debt and start moving towards financial freedom.

Basics of student loan interest

In simple terms, interest is the cost you pay for borrowing money to fund your education. It’s calculated as a percentage of the outstanding principal balance, which is the amount you initially borrowed plus any accrued interest.

Interest accrues on student loans from the moment the disbursement date, but the specifics depend on the type of loan you have.

Related: When Does Student Loan Interest Start?

For example, Direct Subsidized Loans don’t accrue interest while you’re in school or during your grace period, as the government covers it. But interest on Direct Unsubsidized Loans and private student loans accrues immediately.

Another key concept is the difference between fixed and variable interest rates.

Fixed rates remain the same throughout the loan’s life, while variable rates can change based on market conditions. Federal student loans typically have fixed interest rates, while private loans can have fixed or variable rates.

Grasping these basic concepts is the first step towards taking control of your student debt and making informed decisions about your repayment strategy.

Why interest is charged on student loans

Interest on student loans helps offset the costs of lending money, accounts for inflation, and reduces the risk of lending due to potential borrower defaults. The federal government doesn’t charge interest to make a significant profit but aims to sustainably provide financial help to students in need.

The U.S. Department of Education charges all student loan borrowers the same interest rate, regardless of their financial needs or credit score. But parents and graduate students pay a higher interest rate.

Here are the current federal student loan interest rates:

  • Undergraduate students pay 4.99% for both Direct Subsidized and Unsubsidized Loans.

  • Graduate and professional students pay 6.54% for Direct Unsubsidized Loans.

  • Parents and graduate or professional students pay 7.54% for Direct PLUS Loans.

Federal student loan interest rates adjust each spring. The new rate is tied to the yield on 10-year Treasury notes, providing a more responsive and fair system for borrowers.

This method of setting interest rates is relatively recent.

Previously, Congress set rates that rarely synced with the economy. The current approach offers a more reliable and dynamic system for student loan interest rates.

How interest is calculated on student loans

Interest on federal student loans is calculated daily using a simple daily interest formula. This means that interest accrues every day, as opposed to being compounded monthly or yearly.

To calculate daily interest on your student loan, you’ll use simple interest, which is based on your principal balance, interest rate, and the number of days since your last payment.

Related: Does Student Loan Interest Compound?

Here’s an example:

  • If you have a $10,000 loan with a 4% interest rate, you would first divide the interest rate by 365 (4% ÷ 365 = 0.0109589%).

  • Then, multiply that by your principal balance ($10,000 × 0.0109589% = $1.09589).

  • This means you’ll accrue about $1.09589 in interest per day.

Private student loans may have different interest calculation methods and compound interest differently.

Always refer to your promissory note or loan agreement for specific details about your private student loan.

Types of Student Loans and Interest Accrual

Understanding the differences between federal and private student loans is crucial for managing your debt effectively. Both loan types have different interest rates, terms, and accrual methods.

Federal student loans

These include all types of Direct Loans: Subsidized Loans, Unsubsidized Loans, and Grad and Parent PLUS Loans.

Interest rates for federal student loans are fixed and set annually by the federal government.

The accrual of interest varies depending on the loan type and the borrower’s situation.

  • Direct Subsidized Loans do not accrue interest while in school, during the six-month grace period, or during deferment.

  • Direct Unsubsidized and PLUS Loans accrue interest during all periods, including in-school, grace, deferment, and forbearance.

Private student loans

Banks, credit unions, and other financial institutions offer private loans and use a risk-based pricing model, meaning the interest rate you receive depends on your creditworthiness.

Credit scores and co-signers play a crucial role in private student loans.

Those with a strong credit history and good income get lower interest rates than those missing either.

Interest accrual on private student loans depends on the specific terms set by the lender.

Generally, interest begins to accrue as soon as the loan is disbursed. But some private lenders may offer interest-only payments or deferment options while you’re in school, which can affect interest accrual.

Interest capitalization and its impact

Interest capitalization is a concept that can significantly affect your student loan balance. In simple terms, interest capitalization is when unpaid interest is added to the principal balance of your loan.

Understanding when interest capitalization occurs and how it affects your loan balance and interest payments is essential to effectively managing your student loan debt.

When interest capitalization occurs

Student loan interest capitalization typically occurs in specific situations, such as the end of a grace period for unsubsidized loans, entering repayment after deferment or forbearance, switching repayment plans, or consolidating loans.

To learn more about interest capitalization and when it occurs, refer to our in-depth article on [Interest Capitalization Student Loans](Link to the article).

How capitalization affects loan balance and interest payments

When interest capitalization happens, it increases your loan balance, and future interest is calculated on this new, higher balance. This process can substantially affect the total interest you pay over the life of your loan. For more information on how interest capitalization impacts your student loans, read our article on [When Student Loan Interest Compounds](Link to the article).

Strategies to reduce the impact of capitalization

As part of President Biden’s efforts to ease the burden on borrowers, the current student loan payment pause and 0% interest rate freeze until December 31, 2022, is in effect due to the 2020 CARES Act.

This temporary measure helps prevent interest capitalization for the time being and provides relief to borrowers struggling financially.

But it’s essential to plan for the eventual resumption of interest accrual and make informed decisions about managing your student loans.

Related: What Increases Your Student Loan Balance?

Student loan repayment plans

Understanding your repayment options is essential for managing your student loan debt effectively.

There are several federal student loan repayment plans available, each with its own set of rules and timelines, which can affect your interest payments:

  1. Standard Repayment Plan. This plan involves fixed monthly payments over a 10-year term. The payments are typically higher than other repayment plans, but you’ll pay off your loan faster and pay less interest over time.

  2. Graduated Repayment Plan. With this plan, your monthly payments start low and gradually increase, usually every two years. The loan term can be 10 to 30 years, depending on the loan amount. Although you’ll pay more interest than under the Standard Plan, it may be a more manageable option for those with a lower initial income.

  3. Extended Repayment Plan. This plan lets you extend your repayment term up to 25 years, resulting in lower monthly payments. However, you’ll pay more interest over the life of the loan compared to the Standard or Graduated plans.

  4. Income-Driven Repayment Plans. These plans base your monthly payments on a percentage of your discretionary income and family size. Payments are typically lower than under the other plans, but the repayment period is more extended (usually 20-25 years), resulting in more interest charges over time.

The repayment plan you choose will determine how your interest payments and principal payments are distributed.

For example, under the Standard Repayment Plan, your monthly payments will be higher, and you’ll pay off both interest and principal more quickly.

With IDR Plans, your initial payments may only cover the interest portion, causing the principal balance to decrease more slowly or, worse, lead to negative amortization when your daily interest is more than your monthly payment.

New repayment plan to eliminate interest

Biden’s approach to student loans includes a proposal for a new income-based repayment plan, capping monthly payments at 5% of discretionary income for borrowers making less than $25,000 per year.

Once released this summer, this plan could provide more options for managing student loan interest and debt.

How to minimize interest on student loans

Cutting down on interest costs for your student loans can save you a lot of money in the long run. Here are some simple strategies to minimize interest:

  • Pay during in-school and grace periods – Even if payments aren’t required, paying off interest as it accrues can stop it from capitalizing. This keeps your overall loan balance more manageable.

  • Make extra payments – Right after your regular monthly payment is applied, your accrued interest is $0. This is the perfect time to make an extra payment. Check with your loan servicer on how to ensure the money is applied toward the principal balance and not any outstanding interest.

  • Choose the right repayment plan – Evaluate your financial situation and pick a repayment plan. Aim for a balance between manageable monthly payments and reducing interest costs over the loan’s life.

  • Refinance your student loans – If you’ve got good credit and a stable income, refinancing with a private lender could lower your interest rate. This reduces the total amount of interest you pay. Keep in mind that refinancing federal loans means losing access to benefits like flexible repayment plans and student loan forgiveness programs.

Note: Consolidation typically won’t change your interest rate, as your new rate is based on the weighted average of the loans in your consolidation application.

To better understand how these strategies affect your loan, using a student loan interest calculator can be super helpful. Also, you can use the Loan Simulator on the Federal Student Aid website,, to see your payment amount under different plans.

Bottom Line

Understanding how student loan interest works and the different ways it accrues can help you make informed decisions about managing your student loan debt.

By exploring various repayment plans, making strategic payments, and using tools like a student loan interest calculator, you can minimize interest costs and work towards becoming debt-free.

UP NEXT: How to Check Your Student Loan Balance

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