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How to Get a Federal Student Loan

Federal student loans provide financial support to students enrolled at a college participating in the federal aid program. These schools are considered Title IV colleges. Federal student loans generally cover school expenses, including tuition and fees, room and board, books and school supplies, as well as any transportation. Loans can also help pay for technology needs (i.e., a computer) and for necessary dependent care.

You get federal student loans by first filling out the FAFSA accepting grants and other aid, and then applying for a federal loan, generally the Stafford loan, for the remainder of your expenses. While the Stafford loan is a common federal loan, there is also the Parent Plus, the Federal Perkins loan and other federal loans. The overview here will introduce you to the four most familiar federal loans. If you have additional questions visit the Federal Loans Forum or sign up for the Financial Aid Newsletter to stay updated on scholarships and financial aid news.

Overview of Federal Financial Loan Programs

The federal government provides 75% of all student aid, making the government, according to the College Board, the largest provider of financial aid. Learn as much as possible about federal financial aid programs and apply for federal aid before seeking out loans and other financial aid sources.

There are a variety of federal student loan programs, first check with your college to see which federal loan programs they participate in — we list this information on each HowToGetIn school's general information page. The four largest and most familiar federal loan programs are:

  • Federal Stafford Loans
  • Federal Parent Loan for Undergraduate Students (PLUS) Loans
  • Federal Perkins Loans
  • Federal Graduate PLUS Loan

Stafford Loan

Stafford Loans are federal student loans made directly available to college and university students and are used to supplement personal and family resources, scholarships, grants, and work-study. They may be subsidized by the U.S. Government or may be unsubsidized depending on the student's financial need. The interest rates for the 2014-2015 academic year are 4.66% for subsidized loans and 4.66% for unsubsidized loans. Please see this chart with Stafford Loan interest rates through 2013 for more information.

Both subsidized and unsubsidized loans are guaranteed by the Department of Education either directly or through guarantee agencies. Nearly all students are eligible to receive a Stafford Loan regardless of credit score or other financial issues. Both types offer a grace period of six-months, which means that no payments are due until six-months after graduation or three months after the borrower becomes a less-than-full-time student without graduating. Both types have a fairly modest annual limit. The limit for the academic year is based on dependency.

Parent PLUS Loan

The Parent PLUS Loan is available to parents of students enrolled at least part-time in a program included within a formal list of participating post-secondary institutions. PLUS loans differ from other federal student loans like the Stafford and Perkins loans in that it can cover a larger amount of the cost of education, has a higher interest rate and the commitment is undertaken by the parent, rather than the student. PLUS Loans are also available for graduate and professional students. Learn more about the Parent PLUS Loan at

Perkins Loan

The Perkins Loan is a low-interest federal student loan for undergraduate and graduate students. In the case of Perkins Loans, the college acts as the lender, drawing funds from a small pool of money provided by the federal government. Perkins Loans are awarded based on exceptional financial need.

Graduate PLUS Loan

The Graduate PLUS Loan is similar to the Parent PLUS Loan in the way it is an unsubsidized, federally guaranteed loan, up to the cost of education. This loan is taken out in the graduate student's name, on their own signature and credit rating. Federal loan deferment and forbearance options are the same as the Stafford Loan so graduate and professional students can postpone repayment while enrolled at least half-time in a degree or certificate program.