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by Peter Wilkniss | March 10, 2009

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The cost of a college or graduate school education just keeps going up. So much so that the average college student graduates with over $20,000 in student loans and many business, law and med school grads end up carrying around $100,000 or more of student loan debt. Pretty intimidating as you start your career - kind of like having a mortgage, but without the house.

Here's the good news: your student loans are some of the cheapest and most flexible debt you will ever have. And, there are tools available to help you fit your student loan payments into your lifestyle and career goals, rather than the other way around.

One popular student loan debt management tool that you may have heard something about is student loan consolidation.

There are two very different types of student loan consolidation programs: one for federal student loans and one for private student loans (sometimes also called alternative student loans). While these two programs do differ in many ways, they share the goal of helping you reduce your monthly student loan payments, particularly in the early years as you begin your career.

  • To learn more about federal student loan consolidation click here.
  • To learn more about private student loan consolidation read on.

Your goal with private student loan consolidation is to reduce your monthly payments by getting as low an interest rate and as long a repayment period as possible (keeping in mind that stretching out payments means you will pay more interest over time and that you should make extra payments whenever possible to pay off the loan faster).

When you consolidate your private student loans, a private consolidation lender will pay off your current private student loans and replace them with one new loan. It is important to note that, unlike federal student loans which are guaranteed by the government, private student loans have nothing to do with the government; they are, in fact, just another form of consumer loan (like credit cards or a car loan).

Because private student loans lack a government guarantee, eligibility for a private consolidation loan is based on your credit (or that of a co-signer). The better your credit, the lower the interest rate and the origination fees (if any) and the longer the repayment term.

Your creditworthiness is assessed based on your credit score. The power that this three-digit number has on your life shouldn't be underestimated. In addition to determining your eligibility for a private consolidation loan (and other loans like mortgages), your credit score can determine whether or not you will get a particular job (many employers

now check credit scores as part of the hiring process). Credit scores are calculated on a scale from 300 to 850. Nationwide, the average score is 677. Anything over 700 is generally considered "good". To make matters more opaque, you actually have three scores. Each of the three credit bureaus: Experian (www.experian.com), Trans Union (www.tuc.com), and Equifax (www.equifax.com), calculates a separate score for you based on information the credit bureau keeps on file about you. Read more about credit scores.

Each private consolidation lender is different, but a credit score of 700+ should qualify you for a loan with pretty good terms. If your score is lower than 700, consider using a co-signer with better credit; most lenders will base their decision on your co-signer's credit.

Unlike federal consolidation, almost all private consolidation loans carry variable interest rates. That is, your rate will go up or down over time depending on movements in market interest rates. Your lender will base your rate on a "benchmark" interest rate (generally, the Prime Rate), plus an additional 0%-7% or so (also called a "margin") depending on your credit; the better your credit, the lower the margin. The Prime Rate is currently 7.5%, so with good credit you can expect a current interest rate somewhere between 8.5%-10%. Origination fees can range anywhere from 0% to 9% and repayment periods can be anywhere from 10 to 30 years, again depending on your credit.

Because each lender will evaluate your credit differently, it pays to shop around and negotiate (just like you would with your credit card company). You can generally get pre-approved over the phone or online in about 10 minutes and you'll usually get a quote on the terms of the loan at the same time.

One word of caution: it is almost never a good idea to consolidate your federal loans together with your private loans. By doing so, you will forfeit many of the benefits the government provides to you on your federal student loans.

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Filed Under: Education

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