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    How Does Interest Work On a Student Loan?

    By Kayla Korzekwinski

    Kayla Korzekwinski is a Scholarships360 content writer. She earned her BA from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, where she studied Advertising/PR, Rhetorical Communication, and Anthropology. Kayla has worked on communications for non-profits and student organizations. She loves to write and come up with new ways to express ideas.

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    Edited by Maria Geiger

    Maria Geiger is Director of Content at Scholarships360. She is a former online educational technology instructor and adjunct writing instructor. In addition to education reform, Maria’s interests include viewpoint diversity, blended/flipped learning, digital communication, and integrating media/web tools into the curriculum to better facilitate student engagement. Maria earned both a B.A. and an M.A. in English Literature from Monmouth University, an M. Ed. in Education from Monmouth University, and a Virtual Online Teaching Certificate (VOLT) from the University of Pennsylvania.

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    Updated: April 4th, 2024
    How Does Interest Work On a Student Loan?

    Like most types of loans, student loans require repayment with interest. Most borrowers understand this, but can still be left wondering “how does interest work on a student loan?” Interest can work in a few different ways. Continue reading to learn more!

    What is interest?

    Interest is the cost of borrowing money. A loan’s interest rate takes the form of a percentage of the current loan balance. Interest adds up over time, and it is the first thing that monthly payments cover. In many cases, interest can end up making a borrower’s debt larger. That’s why it is important to understand how it works.

    Fixed vs. variable interest 

    There are two types of interest rates: fixed and variable.

    Fixed interest rates remain the same over the life of the loan. The percentage does not increase or decrease. Variable interest rates, on the other hand, fluctuate throughout the life of the loan. This means your interest can be higher or lower month-to-month. Variable interest rates are based on economic benchmarks that reflect the market such as the LIBOR.

    Subsidized loans vs. unsubsidized loans

    The US Department of Education disperses subsidized loans to students who show financial need. Subsidized loans do not accrue interest while the borrower is in school. They also do not accrue interest during the 6-month grace period and in periods of deferment. This is because the government takes on the responsibility of paying the interest.

    Unsubsidized loans can be disbursed by the Department of Education or by private lenders. Unsubsidized loans begin accruing interest immediately once you receive the funds. Borrowers will not need to pay the interest while they are still in school and during their grace period. The interest will be capitalized at the end of the grace period.

    Also see: All about subsidized vs unsubsidized student loans


    Capitalization occurs when accrued interest is added to the principal loan balance. When your loan is capitalized, it raises the total loan balance, which could result in borrowers paying more in interest over time. 

    Capitalization occurs on unsubsidized loans when payment begins. Interest can also be capitalized after periods of deferment or forbearance or when a borrower leaves the SAVE Plan or income-driven repayment plans.

    Federal student loan interest

    All federal student loans have fixed interest rates. Below is a chart displaying interest rates for Direct federal loans disbursed on or after July 1, 2023, and before July 1, 2024: 

    Loan TypeBorrower TypeInterest Rate
    Direct Subsidized and Direct Unsubsidized loansUndergraduate5.5%
    Direct Unsubsidized loansGraduate7.05%
    Direct PLUS loansParents and graduate/professional students 8.05%

    Federal loans are daily interest loans, meaning that interest accumulates every day. Borrowers can calculate how much interest accrued in a month by multiplying their current outstanding balance by the interest rate. Then, divide that number by the number of days since your last payment.

    Private student loan interest

    All private loans are unsubsidized, so they will accrue interest from the time that you take them out. Private loans may have fixed or variable interest rates, depending on the lender. You can find information about the interest in the promissory note for the loan.

    Keep track of your loans!

    When it comes time to start repaying your student loans, it’s essential to be aware of how interest works and how it will affect your payments. Be sure to keep track of the interest information, such as the rate and fixed or variable, for each of your student loans. This will help you strategize which loans to prioritize in repayment. Typically, private loans have higher interest rates and should be prioritized. If you pay off the loans with higher interest rates first, you’ll end up repaying less overall!

    Also see: Which student loans should I pay off first?

    Frequently asked questions about student loan interest

    Can you pay off student loans early to avoid interest?

    Federal and private student loans can almost always be paid in full at any time, even before the first payment is due. There is no penalty for paying off student loans in full.

    How can I figure out exactly how much my student loans will be and play around with different loan amounts?

    We have just the tool–check out our free student loan calculator so that you are better informed before you sign off on any loans!
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