By Lisa Hay
Learn more about Lisa on NerdWallet’s Ask an Advisor
When it comes to the world of financial aid, we know how confusing it can be. Let’s take a look at the difference between Stafford Subsidized and Unsubsidized Loans.
What is a subsidized loan?
A subsidized loan is a federally guaranteed loan based on financial need. Interest does not accrue on this loan until you begin repaying it because the federal government subsidizes, or covers it, while you are in school and usually for a short time after you finish.
Here’s a quick overview of Direct Subsidized Loans:
- Direct Subsidized Loans are available to undergraduate students with financial need.
- Your school determines the amount you can borrow, and the amount may not exceed your financial need.
- The U.S. Department of Education pays the interest on a Direct Subsidized Loan.
- While you’re in school at least half-time,
- for the first six months after you leave school (referred to as a grace period*), and
- during a period of deferment (a postponement of loan payments).
*Note: If you receive a Direct Subsidized Loan that is first disbursed between July 1, 2012, and July 1, 2014, you will be responsible for paying any interest that accrues during your grace period. If you choose not to pay the interest that accrues during your grace period, the interest will be added to your principal balance.
What is an unsubsidized loan?
Stafford Unsubsidized Loans are likewise federally-guaranteed loans, but they are not based on financial need. Interest starts accruing on these loans once they hit your college’s account and will continue until the loan is paid in full.
Here’s a quick overview of Direct Unsubsidized Loans:
- Direct Unsubsidized Loans are available to undergraduate and graduate students; there is no requirement to demonstrate financial need.
- Your school determines the amount you can borrow based on your cost of attendance and other financial aid you receive.
- You are responsible for paying the interest on a Direct Unsubsidized Loan during all periods.
- If you choose not to pay the interest while you are in school and during grace periods and deferment or forbearance periods, your interest will accrue (accumulate) and be capitalized (that is, your interest will be added to the principal amount of your loan).
How much can I borrow?
Your school determines the loan type(s), if any, and the actual loan amount you are eligible to receive each academic year. However, there are limits on the amount in subsidized and unsubsidized loans that you may be eligible to receive each academic year (annual loan limits) and the total amounts that you may borrow for undergraduate and graduate study (aggregate loan limits). The actual loan amount you are eligible to receive each academic year may be less than the annual loan limit. These limits vary depending on
- what year you are in school and
- whether you are a dependent or independent student.
If you are a dependent student whose parents are ineligible for a Direct PLUS Loan, you may be able to receive additional Direct Unsubsidized Loan funds.
If the total loan amount you receive over the course of your education reaches the aggregate loan limit, you are not eligible to receive additional loans. However, if you repay some of your loans to bring your outstanding loan debt below the aggregate loan limit, you could then borrow again, up to the amount of your remaining eligibility under the aggregate loan limit.
The following chart shows the annual and aggregate limits for subsidized and unsubsidized loans.
- The aggregate loan limits include any Subsidized Federal Stafford Loans or Unsubsidized Federal Stafford Loans you may have previously received under the Federal Family Education Loan (FFEL) Program. As a result of legislation that took effect July 1, 2010, no further loans are being made under the FFEL Program.
- Effective for periods of enrollment beginning on or after July 1, 2012, graduate and professional students are no longer eligible to receive Direct Subsidized Loans. The $65,500 subsidized aggregate loan limit for graduate or professional students includes subsidized loans that a graduate or professional student may have received for periods of enrollment that began before July 1, 2012, or for prior undergraduate study.
Graduate and professional students enrolled in certain health profession programs may receive additional Direct Unsubsidized Loan amounts each academic year beyond those shown above. For these students, there is also a higher aggregate limit on Direct Unsubsidized Loans. If you are enrolled in a health profession program, talk to the financial aid office at your school for information about annual and aggregate limits.
What are the current interest rates?
Here are the interest rates for loans first disbursed between July 1, 2013, and June 30, 2014.