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You can take out student loans to help you cover the cost of college — but there’s a limit to how much you can take out. So, exploring your other options like federal PLUS Loans and private student loans can help you fill that gap.
The only borrowing limit on federal PLUS Loans is your cost of attendance (minus other financial aid you’ve received). Private student loan limits can depend on your ability to repay, but many private lenders will cover up to the full cost of attendance. Here’s what you need to know about your student loan limits and where to turn if you’re maxed out.
If you decide on a private student loan, you can compare rates from multiple lenders with Credible. It takes minutes and won’t affect your credit.
Federal loan limits
Federal loan limits depend on whether your parents are supporting you or not, and how far along you are in school. When you’re an undergraduate, your family’s finances will also determine whether you can qualify for subsidized loans, which don’t rack up interest while you’re in school.
Federal borrowing limits for dependent undergraduates
If you depend on your parents for support, you’re considered a dependent student. Dependent undergraduate students can take out $5,500 to $7,500 in federal student loans each year in they’re in school, up to a total limit of $31,000. If your family qualifies, up to $23,000 of your total borrowing can be in subsidized loans.
If you hit your annual or total borrowing limit and your parents can’t qualify for a PLUS loan, the higher loan limits for independent undergraduates apply.
Federal borrowing limits for independent undergraduates
If you’re married, over the age of 24, a military veteran, or supporting yourself, you’re considered an independent student. If you’re independent of your parents, you can borrow a little more — up to $12,500 a year, and $57,500 in total. But you can’t take out more than $23,000 in subsidized loans as an undergraduate.
Federal borrowing limits for graduate students
Your federal borrowing limits are higher if you’re working on a master’s or doctorate program, including an M.A., MBA, M.D., J.D., or Ph.D.
The annual borrowing limit for grad students is $20,500 a year, and you can borrow up to $138,500 in total, including the loans you took out as an undergraduate. Since July 1, 2012, grad students aren’t eligible to take out subsidized loans anymore. But it’s possible for grad students who took them out before then to have up to $65,500 in subsidized loans.
Medical school students can take out up to $224,000 in federal loans before turning to grad PLUS or private student loans. For most medical school students, the annual borrowing limit on the more affordable federal student loans is $40,500.
PLUS loan limits
Students and families who have hit their limits on the more affordable federal student loans often turn to PLUS loans. PLUS loans are available to both parents of undergraduates (parent PLUS loans) and to graduate students (grad PLUS loans).
You can take PLUS loan right up to your school-certified cost of attendance, minus other financial aid you’ve received. The cost of attendance includes not just your tuition and fees, but room and board, books, supplies, and transportation.
There’s no evaluation of your ability to repay a PLUS loan — you just have to pass a basic credit check. So it can be easy to borrow more than you’ll be able to comfortably repay.
Private loan limits
Limits on private student loans depend on your ability to repay a loan. Lenders look at how much of your monthly income would be required to repay your loan, and all your other existing obligations (your debt-to-income ratio). Because students usually don’t have a history of credit and earnings, most private student loans to undergraduates are cosigned by a parent, or another relative or friend.
In addition to looking at your ability to repay, most private student lenders will have a maximum loan limit. Regardless of how much you or your cosigner earns, private lenders won’t lend more than your cost of attendance, minus other aid you’ve received.
What to do if you hit your federal loan limits
If you’ve hit your annual or total federal loan limits, you can consider federal PLUS or private student loans. But first, it might be a good idea to:
Talk to your school’s financial aid office: Some schools offer emergency grants to help students in need. You might also be offered the option to make monthly payments on your tuition and fees for the semester.
Apply for work-study or a side gig: Many colleges offer work-study programs based on financial need. Or look for part-time work off-campus to help you pay for living expenses and books.
Cut your class load: While cutting your class load might save a little money in the short run, it could cost you more in the long run. If it takes longer than four years to graduate, you might end up taking out more loans for the extra semester or two spent finishing your degree.
Switch schools: If you can’t afford to pay for the school you’re enrolled in, consider transferring to a public university where you can qualify for in-state tuition, or to a local community college.
If you decide to take out a private student loan, be sure to consider as many lenders as possible to find the right loan for you. Credible makes this easy — you can compare your rates from multiple lenders in two minutes. You can use Credible’s student loan calculator to see how much you’ll owe over the life of your federal or private student loans.
How much should you borrow?
The low borrowing limits and interest rates on the most affordable federal loans for undergrads mean that most borrowers who finish their degrees can repay them.
But if you go on to grad school, it’s easier to take on the level of student loan debt that’s more difficult to repay. The higher limits on PLUS loans can saddle you with six-figure loan debt.
You can use the Department of Education’s College Scorecard to get an idea of how much debt it’s reasonable to take on with the degree you are pursuing.
Tip: A good rule of thumb is not to borrow more than what you expect your annual earnings to be after graduation.
About the author: Matt Carter is an expert on student loans. Analysis pieces he’s contributed to have been featured by CNBC, CNN Money, USA Today, The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal and The Washington Post.