The best student loans can help you earn a college degree that will lead to higher earnings later in life. They also come with low interest rates and reasonable fees (or no fees), which will make it easier to keep costs down while you’re in school and once you’re in repayment mode.
For most people, federal student loans are the best deal. With federal student loans, you can qualify for low fixed interest rates and federal protections like deferment, forbearance, and income-driven repayment plans. To find out how much you can borrow with federal student loans, you should fill out a FAFSA form. Doing so can also help you determine if you qualify for any additional student aid, and if so, how much.
While federal student loans are usually the best deal for borrowers, many students need to turn to private student loans at some point during their college careers. This is often the case when federal student loan limits have been exhausted, or when federal student loans are no longer an option due to other circumstances. We’re providing the top 8 options, at least according to us, as well as a guide to help you get the best rate.
Most Important Factors When Applying for Student Loans
- Start with a federal loan. Fill out a FAFSA form prior to applying for a private loan to make sure you’re getting all the benefits you can.
- Compare loans across multiple lenders. Consider using a comparison company like Credible to do so.
- Always read the fine print. Fees aren’t always boasted on the front of a lender’s website, so take time to learn about what you’re getting into.
- Start paying as soon as you can to avoid getting crushed by compound interest.
Best Private Student Loans of 2021
Fortunately, there are many private student loan options that come with low interest rates and fair terms. The best student loans of 2021 come from the following private lenders and loan comparison companies:
- Best for Flexibility
- Best Loan Comparison
- Best for Low Rates and Fees
- Best for No Fees
- Best Student Loans from a Major Bank
- Best Student Loans with No Cosigner Required
- Best for Fair Credit
- Best for Comprehensive Comparisons
#1: College Ave — Best for Flexibility
College Ave offers private student loans for undergraduate and graduate students as well as parents who want to take out loans to help their kids get through college. Variable APRs as low as 3.70% are available for undergraduate students, but you can also opt for a fixed rate as low as 4.72% if you have excellent credit. College Ave offers some of the most flexible repayment options available today, letting you choose from interest-only payments, flat payments, and deferred payments depending on your needs. College Ave even lets you fill out your entire student loan application online, and they offer an array of helpful tools that can help you figure out how much you can afford to borrow, what your monthly payment will be, and more.
#2: Credible — Best Loan Comparison
Credible doesn’t offer its own student loans; instead, it serves as a loan aggregator and comparison site. This means that, when you check out student loans on Credible, you have the benefit of comparing multiple loan options in one place. Not only is this convenient, but comparing rates and terms is the best way to ensure you get a good deal. Credible even lets you get prequalified without a hard inquiry on your credit report, and you can see loan offers from up to nine student lenders at a time. Fixed interest rates start as low as 4.40% for borrowers with excellent credit, and variable rates start at 3.17% APR with autopay.
#3: Sallie Mae — Best for Low Rates and Fees
Sallie Mae offers its own selection of private student loans for undergraduate students, graduate students, and parents. Interest rates offered can be surprisingly low, starting at 2.87% APR for variable rate loans and 4.74% for fixed-rate loans. Sallie Mae student loans also come without an origination fee or prepayment fees, as well as rate reductions for students who set up autopay. You can choose to start repaying your student loans while you’re in school or wait until you graduate as well. Overall, Sallie Mae offers some of the best “deals” for private student loans, and you can even complete the entire loan process online.
#4: Discover — Best for No Fees
While Discover is well known for their excellent rewards credit cards and personal loan offerings, they also offer high-quality student loans with low rates and fees. Not only do Discover student loans come with low variable rates that start at 3.75%, but you won’t pay an application fee, an origination fee, or late fees. Discover student loans are available for undergraduate students, graduate students, professional students, and other lifelong learners. You can even earn rewards for having a 3.0 GPA or better when you apply for your loan, and Discover offers access to U.S. based student loan specialists who can answer all your questions before you apply.
#5: Citizens Bank — Best Student Loans from a Major Bank
Citizens Bank offers their own flexible student loans for undergraduate students, graduate students, and parent borrowers. Students can borrow with or without a cosigner and multi-year approval is available. With multi-year approval you can apply for student funding one time and secure several years of college funding at once. This saves you from additional paperwork and subsequent hard inquiries on your credit report. Citizens Bank student loans come with variable rates as low as 2.83% APR for students with excellent credit, and you can make full payments or interest-only payments while you’re in school or wait until you graduate to begin repaying your loan. Also keep in mind that, like others on this list, Citizens Bank lets you apply for their student loans online and from the comfort of your home.
#6: Ascent — Best Student Loans with No Cosigner Required
Ascent is another popular lender that offers private student loans to undergraduate and graduate students. Variable interest rates start at 3.31% whether you have a cosigner or not, and there are no application fees required to apply for a student loan either way. Terms are available for 5 to 15 years, and Ascent even offers cash rewards for student borrowers who graduate and meet certain terms. Also note that Ascent lets you earn money for each friend you refer who takes out a new student loan or refinances an existing loan.
#7: Earnest — Best for Fair Credit
Earnest is another online lender that offers reasonable student loans for undergraduate and graduate students who need to borrow money for school. They also offer a free application process, a 9-month grace period after graduation, no origination fees or prepayment fees, and a .25% rate discount when you set up autopay. Earnest even lets you skip a payment once per year without a penalty, and there are no late payment fees. Variable rates start as low as 3.35%, and you may be able to qualify for a loan from Earnest with only “fair” credit. For their student loan refinancing products, for example, you need a minimum credit score of 650 to apply.
#8: LendKey — Best for Comprehensive Comparisons
LendKey is an online lending marketplace that lets you compare student loan options across a broad range of loan providers, including credit unions. LendKey loans come with no application fees and variable APRs as low as 4.05%. They also have excellent reviews on Trustpilot and an easy application process that makes applying for a student loan online a breeze. You can apply for a loan from LendKey as an individual, but it’s possible you’ll get better rates with a cosigner on board. Either way, LendKey lets you see and compare a wide range of loan offers in one place and with only one application submitted.
How to Get the Best Student Loans
The lenders above offer some of the best student loans available today, but there’s more to getting a good loan than just choosing the right student loan company. The following tips can ensure you save money on your education and escape college with the smallest student loan burden possible.
Consider Federal Student Loans First
Like we mentioned already, federal student loans are almost always the best deal for borrowers who can qualify. Not only do federal loans come with low fixed interest rates, but they come with borrower protections like deferment and forbearance. Federal student loans also let you qualify for income-driven repayment plans like Pay As You Earn (PAYE) and Income Based Repayment (IBR) as well as Public Service Loan Forgiveness (PSLF).
Compare Multiple Lenders
If you have exhausted federal student loans and need to take out a private student loan, the best step you can take is comparing loans across multiple lenders. Some may be able to offer you a lower interest rate based on your credit score or available cosigner, and some lenders may offer payment plans that meet your needs better. If you only want to fill out a loan application once, it can make sense to compare multiple loan offers with a service like Credible.
Improve Your Credit Score
Private student loans are notoriously difficult to qualify for when your credit score is less than stellar or you don’t have a cosigner. With that in mind, you may want to spend some time improving your credit score before you apply. Since your payment history and the amounts you owe in relation to your credit limits are the two most important factors that make up your FICO score, make sure you’re paying all your bills early or on time and try to pay down debt to improve your credit utilization. Most experts say a utilization rate of 30% or less will help you achieve the highest credit score possible with other factors considered.
Get a Quality Cosigner
If your credit score isn’t at least “very good,” or 740 or higher, you may want to see about getting a cosigner for your private student loan. A parent, family member, or close family friend who has excellent credit can help you qualify for a student loan with the best rates and terms available today. Just remember that your cosigner will be liable for your loan just as you are, meaning they will have to repay your loan if you default. With that in mind, you should only lean on a cosigner’s help if you plan to repay your loan amount in full.
Consider Variable and Fixed Interest Rates
While private student loans offer insanely low rates for borrowers with good credit, their variable rates tend to be lower. This is why you should always take the time to compare variable and fixed rates across multiple lenders to find the best deal. If you believe you can pay your student loans off in a few short years, a variable interest rate may help you save money. If you need a decade or longer to pay your student loans off, on the other hand, a low fixed interest rate may provide you with more peace of mind.
Check for Discounts
As you compare student loan providers, make sure to check for discounts that might apply to your situation. Many private student loan companies offer discounts if you set your loan up on automatic payments, for example. Some also offer discounts or rewards for good grades or for referring friends. It’s possible you could qualify for other discounts as well depending on the provider, but you’ll never know unless you check.
Beware of Fees
While the interest rate on your student loan plays a huge role in your long-term loan costs, don’t forget to check for additional fees. Some student loan companies charge application fees or prepayment penalties if you pay your loan off early, for example. Others charge origination fees that tack on a few additional percentage points to your loan amount right off the bat. If you can find a student loan with a low interest rate and no additional fees, you’ll be much better off. Since loan fees may not be prominently advertised on student loan provider websites, however, keep in mind that you may need to dig into their fine print to find them.
Make Payments While You’re in School
Finally, no matter which loan you end up with, it makes a lot of sense to make payments while you’re still in school if you’re earning any kind of income. Even if you make interest-only payments while you attend college part-time or full-time, you can save yourself from paying thousands of dollars in additional interest payments later in life. Remember that compound interest can be a blessing or a curse. If you can keep interest at bay by making payments while you’re in school, you can squash compound interest and keep your loan balances from growing. If you let compound interest run its course, on the other hand, you may wind up owing more than you borrowed in the first place by the time you graduate school and start repayment.
What to Watch Out For
A private student loan may be exactly what you need in order to finish your degree and move up to the working world, but there are plenty of “gotchas” to be aware of. Consider all these factors as you apply for a new private student loan or refinance existing loans you have with a private lender.
- Interest that accrues while you’re in school: Remember that subsidized loans may not accrue interest until you graduate from college and enter repayment mode, but that unsubsidized loans typically start accruing interest right away. Since private student loans are unsubsidized, you’ll need to be especially careful about ballooning interest and long-term loan costs.
- Getting a cosigner: Make sure you only apply for a private student loan with a cosigner if you’re entirely sure you can repay your loan over the long haul. If you fail to keep up with your end of the bargain, you could destroy trust with that person and their credit score in one fell swoop.
- You’ll lose out on some protections: Also remember that private student loans come with fewer protections than federal student loans. You won’t have the option for income-driven repayment plans with private loans, nor will you be able to qualify for federal deferment or forbearance. For this reason, private student loans are best for students who are confident in their ability to repay their loans on their chosen timeline.
In Summary: The Best Student Loans
|College Ave||Best for Flexibility|
|Credible||Best for Loan Comparison|
|Sallie Mae||Best for Low Rates and Fees|
|Discover||Best for No Fees|
|Citizens Bank||Best Student Loans from a Major Bank|
|Ascent||Best Student Loans with No Cosigner Required|
|Earnest||Best for Fair Credit|
|LendKey||Best for Comprehensive Comparisons|