“Should I refinance my loans? Should I consolidate my loans? What is the difference between the two?”
These are some of the most common questions I get whenever I talk to somebody about their student loan debt. These terms are thrown around somewhat loosely, but they mean very specific things and it’s important to know the difference.
Refinancing is swapping out your current set of student loans with new, privately-held loans, often at a lower interest rate. If you are refinancing federal loans into private loans, you will save on interest but you will lose federal benefits along the way.
The process is similar to refinancing a mortgage. You have your existing loans (usually federal loans) at a certain average interest rate. Because these are federal loans, you have the whole suite of federal benefits including deferment, forbearance, income-driven repayment options, and possibly even public service loan forgiveness. By refinancing, you have a third party private company pay off your existing debt to the government, leaving you with a new debt owed to this third party, likely at a lower interest rate.
Unlike others in the student loan industry, I do not maintain any financial or business connections with any private refinancers. I never recommend one private refinance company over another to my clients. In fact, I rarely recommend private refinancing unless my client has a high risk tolerance and has a high-earning job that will allow them to pay off the loans on a short time horizon.
By contrast, consolidating your loans refers to the simplifying of all your federal loans into one or two consolidated federal loans. You will not save on interest but you will keep your federal benefits.
Consolidation is a term of art in the world of federal student loans. It refers to the process of simplifying all of your federal loans. Unless you have some very old variable-rate federal loans, you will not get a lower interest rate — your new consolidated loan will merely have the weighted interest rate of all your previous loans. But you will end up having to make only payments to a single servicer. If you have federal student loans scattered across many companies, this can make your monthly bill-paying much easier.
Consolidation is very useful for student borrowers. Sometimes borrowers have loans like Perkins loans that are not eligible for income-driven repayment plans. By consolidating a Perkins loans, you make the entire loan balance eligible for the repayment plan of your choice. Moreover, a consolidated loan is a Direct Loan, which means it is eligible for public service loan forgiveness. This also make consolidation appealing to borrowers who have non-PSLF-eligible FFEL loans.
The one thing to be careful about is consolidating a Parent PLUS loan. Always get advice from an expert before you consolidate a Parent PLUS loan with your other federal loans. Consolidated loans that repay a Parent PLUS loan have a variety of limitations and you could be losing benefits on all the loans in the pool.
To summarize: refinancing is creating a new loan with a private lender. You may save interest but you will lose federal benefits. Consolidating is just creating a new federal loan to simplify your old federal loans. You will not save on interest, but you can keep (and sometimes even get new) federal benefits.