3 Factors That Affect Student Loan Interest Rates And When To Refinance

Date October 18, 2016

This post originally appeared on the SoFi blog.

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Lately, there’s a lot of talk about student loan interest rates in the news: reports on Hillary Clinton’s student loan refinancing proposal, stories regarding recent changes in federal interest rates, and speculation about when to refinance student loans, given the likelihood that rates will continue to edge higher.

While you may not have paid much attention to interest rates when you first took out your loans, now’s a good time to take a closer look and consider refinancing. In order to lock in the best rate possible when refinancing, it’s important to know whether student loan interest rates are going up or down.

Interest rates change on a regular basis and depend on certain factors. That’s why you probably graduated with student loans taken out in different years and/or from various lenders—each with a different interest rate. By refinancing, you can consolidate all of those student loans into one loan with a lower interest rate, which will save you money over time.

So what are the factors that impact student loan interest rates, and how can they help you decide when to refinance? Here’s what you need to know:

Factor #1: Legislation

Legislation mainly impacts federal student loan interest rates, which are set by Congress.

Before the 2013 passage of the Student Loan Certainty Act, federal student loan interest rates for grad students were flat for a period of seven years, while most other loan interest rates dropped to rock bottom. That’s why a lot of people with graduate or professional degrees are now refinancing student loans; they’re eager to do what they can to save money on interest.

Once the act was passed however, all Direct Loan rates became fixed for the life of the loan and tied to financial markets. New rates are set every year on July 1, and are applied to loans disbursed from July 1 through June 30 of the following year. In other words, as prevailing interest rates change from year to year, so too should rates on newly disbursed Direct Loans (more on that in a minute).

How does this impact when to refinance?

Right now, you can only refi federal loans with a private lender, which can mean losing certain benefits and protections, such as special repayment plans and potential loan forgiveness. Some politicians have called for legislation that would allow borrowers to refinance federal loans with the government, which would ideally let you keep those benefits and lower your rate. However, there’s no telling when or even if federal refinancing legislation will ever pass.

If you don’t want to wait around for something that might not happen, take a look at the benefits and protections that may be attached to your federal loans. If they apply to you, you might want to keep waiting; if they don’t, or if saving money is your top priority, you might consider refinancing now.

Factor #2: A Financial Metric

Some student loan interest rates are tied to a financial index or other metric, which means that the rise or fall of the metric number dictates whether a loan’s rate goes up or down. Whether or not fluctuations affect new or previously disbursed loans depends on the type of loan.

For example, as noted above, interest rates for new Direct Loans change annually. Here’s how that works: Each year, fixed interest rates for loans disbursed July 1 through June 30 of the following year are determined based on the May 10-year Treasury note, plus a set margin for each type of loan (e.g., Undergraduate Stafford at +2.05% vs. Graduate PLUS at +4.6%). Previously disbursed Direct Loans are unaffected by these annual changes; the rate applied when you took out the loan is the rate you’ll have until the day you pay it off—unless you refinance.

Related: 5 Tips for Getting the Lowest Rate When Refinancing Student Loans

Variable rate student loans are also impacted by a financial metric, as they are often tied to an index, such as the Prime Rate or the London Interbank Offered Rate (LIBOR). That means that the rate will change periodically as the index changes. Unlike fixed loans, if the rate on your previously disbursed variable loan changes, so will the size of your interest payment.

Federal student loans haven’t offered a variable rate option since 2006, so this mostly affects loans from private lenders.

How does this impact when to refinance?

Some private lenders will offer the choice of a variable or fixed loan when you’re refinancing, so it’s important to understand the pros and cons of each option. A variable rate loan usually offers a lower initial interest rate than a fixed rate student loan, but because the rate can fluctuate over time, it also presents a greater risk. If interest rates go up, so do your interest payments.

In a nutshell, if you plan to pay off loans relatively quickly, a variable rate loan can be a cost-saving option. But if you’re concerned about interest rates going up, a fixed rate loan might give you more peace of mind.

Factor #3: You

This final factor depends on whether you have a federal or private loan. Believe it or not, the only factor that affects federal student loan interest rates is the type of loan (e.g., a subsidized undergraduate loan vs. Grad PLUS loan). The government doesn’t take your financial data into account when assigning rates—every borrower gets the same rate for the same type of loan.

Private lenders, on the other hand, do care about your ability to repay, so they’ll look at certain financial criteria and your history of managing debt to evaluate how risky it would be to offer you a loan. Generally speaking, the less risk you present as a borrower, the lower your interest rate will be. This rule of thumb applies whether it’s a new loan or a refinanced loan.

How does this impact when to refinance?

For first-time borrowers, federal loans can be the way to go—after all, most undergrads haven’t had time to build up a history of responsibly (or irresponsibly) using credit. But for graduate and professional school borrowers with clear financial pictures, that one-size-fits-all approach is kind of frustrating. That’s when refinancing comes into play.

So how do you know if you have the financial chops to refinance at a lower rate? In general, a lower debt-to-income ratio and a track record of paying your bills on time should help. Lenders may use different criteria to evaluate your application, so check company websites or call customer service if you’re unsure.

From the micro to macro level, there are several factors that can make student loan interest rates go up and down on a regular basis. If you’re considering refinancing, understanding these factors and keeping tabs on the state of student loan rates are important pieces of the puzzle to help you decide if, and when, the time is right.

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