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Does It Ever Pay to Refinance Federal Student Loans?

By Maurie Backman – Feb 29, 2020 at 6:00AM

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Refinancing often works out well for private loans -- but what about federal loans?

Millions of Americans today are drowning in student debt. If you're still in the process of paying yours off, you may be tempted to refinance -- even if you have a federal loan.

Student loan refinancing involves swapping one loan for another. The biggest reason for refinancing your student loan is to achieve a lower interest rate. And typically, that comes into play with private student loans more often than with federal loans. In fact, refinancing is a fairly common -- and even encouraged -- practice when you're dealing with private loans. 

A female college student studying at a library desk next to large windows.

Image source: Getty Images

But what if you’re considering a refi on a federal loan? 

If you refinance a federal loan, you’ll have to do your refi through a private lender. And that can have some serious consequences. Here are some of the biggest reasons why it may not pay to refinance your federal student loans.

1. You may not get a better rate

Private student loans aren't government regulated, so lenders can charge as much interest as they want. By contrast, federal student loan interest rates are capped at preset amounts that are often much lower than what private lenders charge. Federal loans also don't take your credit score into account; you qualify for them by filling out the FAFSA. And even if you don’t have the best credit score when you apply for a federal loan, you’re still privy to the same competitive rates as borrowers with higher scores. 

So if you try refinancing your federal loans, you may find that it’s hard to snag a rate lower than what you’re already paying -- even if your credit is pretty good. 

2. You’ll lose the option to get on an income-driven repayment plan

When you refinance federal student loans, you give up the benefits that come with them. One such benefit is the option to get in on an income-driven repayment plan. You can use one of these plans if your hours are cut at work or if your current salary just isn’t enough to support the monthly loan payments you’re stuck with. 

Under these plans, your monthly loan payments are calculated as a small percentage of your income. So they can be instrumental in helping you keep up with your debt. But if you refinance, that all goes away.

3. You’ll lose the option to defer your loans

Deferment is another option that’s on the table when you take out federal student loans. It effectively allows you to hit “pause” on your payments for a limited period of time, during which interest may or may not accrue on your loan balance. That depends on the type of federal loan you have. 

If you refinance your federal student debt, you’ll lose this protection as well. This means that if you encounter a financial hardship that renders you unable to pay your debt at all, you may be out of luck. 

4. You'll lose protections like debt forgiveness or cancellation

When you take out federal loans, in some cases you can qualify to have that debt wiped out. Certain fields of employment -- such as public service or education -- can render you eligible to have your loans forgiven. And if you're permanently disabled, you can qualify to have your federal loans discharged. The same holds true if you pass away. 

With private loans, you can't have your debt forgiven or even canceled upon your passing -- often, your lender will come after your estate for the balance it’s owed. As such, giving up these protections could hurt you or your loved ones financially. 

Does it ever pay to refinance federal student loans?

When you refinance federal student loans, you give up valuable benefits like the ones mentioned above. So unless you truly stand to lower your interest rate a lot by refinancing, you may be better off hanging onto your federal loans and paying them off as quickly and efficiently as you can.

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