Best Student Loans of 2019

Matt is a Certified Financial Planner® and investment advisor based in Columbia, South Carolina. He writes personal finance and investment advice, and in 2017 he received the SABEW Best in Business Award.

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We've vetted dozens of student loans providers to bring you the select few that we think are leaders in their categories. Check out our top picks by category, some of which are from our partners, to find the provider to suit your needs.

Here are The Ascent's Picks for Best Student Loan Providers

Ratings Methodology
Provider Rates & Terms Great For Get Started
Rates & Terms:

Fixed Rates: 3.49 - 8.36%

Variable Rates: 2.06 - 8.93%

Terms: 5, 7, 10, 15 & 20 years

Great For:
  • Low rates
  • No fees
  • Flexible term options
Get Started: Check Rate
  • Checking rates won't impact your credit score
Rates & Terms:

Fixed Rates: 3.46 - 5.98%

Variable Rates: 1.81 - 5.98%

Terms: 5, 7, 10, 15 and 20 years

Great For:
  • Low rates
  • Flexible term options
  • Discounts
Get Started: Check Rate
  • Checking rates won't impact your credit score
Rates & Terms:

Fixed Rates: 3.39 - 9.99%

Variable Rates: 2.8 - 9.72%

Terms: 5, 7, 8, 10, 15, and 20 years

Great For:
  • Best rate guarantee
Get Started: Check Rate
  • Checking rates won't impact your credit score
Rates & Terms:

Fixed Rates: 5.29 - 9.83%

Variable Rates: 3.95 - 9.81%

Terms: 5, 10, 15 years

Great For:
  • Low rates
  • Cosigner release after 24 months
  • Forbearance option
Get Started: Check Rate
  • Checking rates won't impact your credit score
Rates & Terms:

Fixed Rates: 3.5 - 7.89%

Variable Rates: 2.49 - 7.23%

Terms: 5-20 years

Great For:
  • Low rates
  • Discounts
  • Flexible loan terms
Get Started: Check Rate
  • Checking rates won't impact your credit score
Rates & Terms:

Fixed Rates: 3.5 - 7.02%

Variable Rates: 3.23 - 6.65%

Terms: 5, 7, 10, 15, 20 years

Great For:
  • Low rates
  • Term choices
  • Forbearance option
Get Started: Check Rate
  • Checking rates won't impact your credit score
Rates & Terms:

Fixed Rates: 5.29 - 12.78%

Variable Rates: 4.2 - 11.44%

Terms: 5, 8, 10, 15 years

Great For:
  • Graduate and career loans
  • Flexible term options
  • Graduation reward
Get Started: Check Rate
  • Checking rates won't impact your credit score
Rates & Terms:

Fixed Rates: 5.49 - 11.85%

Variable Rates: 4.37 - 11.47%

Terms: 5,15 years

Great For:
  • Specialized loan programs
  • Free FICO® Score
  • Repayment flexibility
Get Started: Check Rate
  • Get 4 months of free homework support with Chegg's Study Starter when you apply
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Lendkey Student Loan Refinancing

When credit unions and community banks compete for your business, you’re bound to get an excellent APR. That’s why we love LendKey’s platform so much for both new student loans as well as refinancing. See our full refinancing review here.

  • Fixed Rates: 3.49 - 8.36%
  • Variable Rates: 2.06 - 8.93%
  • Loan amounts: $5,000-$125,000 for undergraduate; Up to $175,000 for graduate; Up to $300,000 for medical, dental, and veterinary
  • Soft inquiry: Yes
  • Funding: Undergraduate and Graduate
  • Autopay discount: Yes
  • Graduation discount: No
  • Loyalty discount: No
  • Fees: $0 origination
  • Deferred interest: No
  • Forbearance: Yes
  • Cosigner: Yes, after 12 months


SoFi Student Loan Refinancing

SoFi offers some pretty unique loan terms, such as five different term lengths, in-school deferment options, and forbearance if you lose your job. Plus, the application process and online platform is extremely user-friendly. See our full refinancing review here.

  • Fixed Rates: 3.46 - 5.98%
  • Variable Rates: 1.81 - 5.98%
  • Loan amounts: None
  • Soft inquiry: Yes
  • Funding: Undergraduate and Graduate
  • Autopay discount: 0.25%
  • Graduation discount: None
  • Loyalty discount: 0.125%
  • Fees: None
  • Deferred interest: None
  • Forbearance: No
  • Cosigner: Yes


Earnest Student Loan Refinancing

Earnest offers a staggering amount of repayment flexibility, with 180 different possible repayment term lengths. With fixed APRs starting under 4%, it’s no reason this lender is one of our top choices for refinancing. View our full review here.

  • Fixed Rates: 3.5 - 7.89%
  • Variable Rates: 2.49 - 7.23%
  • Loan amounts: $5,000 - $500,000
  • Soft inquiry: Yes
  • Funding: Undergraduate and Graduate
  • Autopay discount: 0.25%
  • Graduation discount: None
  • Loyalty discount: None
  • Fees: None
  • Deferred interest: None
  • Forbearance: Unemployment
  • Cosigner: Yes


Laurel Road Student Loan Refinancing

Laurel Road claims their average refinancing borrower saves $20,000 in interest over the life of their loan. With flexible repayment options and some of the lowest APRs in the industry, it’s one of our top choices for student loan borrowers looking to refinance. Read our full review here.

  • Fixed Rates: 3.5 - 7.02%
  • Variable Rates: 3.23 - 6.65%
  • Loan amounts: No maximum refinancing loan size
  • Soft inquiry: Yes
  • Funding: Undergraduate and Graduate
  • Autopay discount: 0.25%
  • Graduation discount: None
  • Loyalty discount: None
  • Fees: None
  • Deferred interest: None
  • Forbearance: Yes, up to 12 months over life of the loan
  • Cosigner: Yes


Credible Student Loan Refinancing

Credible’s platform allows lenders to compete for you. You can get as many as eight different lenders’ refinancing offers to compare side-by-side with just a single credit pull, and Credible is so confident that it will pay you $200 if you find a better offer elsewhere. Learn more in our full review.

  • Fixed Rates: 3.39 - 9.99%
  • Variable Rates: 2.8 - 9.72%
  • Loan amounts: Varies by lender
  • Soft inquiry: Yes
  • Funding: Undergraduate and Graduate
  • Autopay discount: Yes, varies by lender
  • Graduation discount: Yes, varies by lender
  • Loyalty discount: Yes, varies by lender
  • Fees: $0 origination, varies by lender
  • Deferred interest: Yes, varies by lender
  • Forbearance: Yes, varies by lender
  • Cosigner: Yes, varies by lender


CommonBond Student Loans

CommonBond offers borrowers the option to postpone their payments for as long as 24 months if they fall on hard times, plus they offer one of the easiest cosigner-release programs in the private student loan industry. Read our full review of CommonBond student loans now.

  • Fixed Rates: 5.29 - 9.83%
  • Variable Rates: 3.95 - 9.81%
  • Loan amounts: Up to 100% of the cost of school attendance
  • Soft inquiry: Yes
  • Funding: Undergraduate and Graduate
  • Autopay discount: 0.25%
  • Graduation discount: None
  • Loyalty discount: None
  • Fees: 2% origination fee (included in APR)
  • Deferred interest: None
  • Forbearance: Yes, up to 24 months over life of the loan
  • Cosigner: Yes


College Ave Student Loans

With low APRs, flexible repayment, and no half-time enrollment requirement, College Ave is our top pick for graduate students looking for private student loans. Read our full review here.

  • Fixed Rates: 5.29 - 12.78%
  • Variable Rates: 4.2 - 11.44%
  • Loan amounts: 100% of their school’s cost of attendance.
  • Soft inquiry: Yes
  • Funding: Undergraduate and Graduate
  • Autopay discount: 0.25%
  • Graduation discount: $150 as statement credit
  • Loyalty discount: None
  • Fees: None
  • Deferred interest: None
  • Forbearance: No
  • Cosigner: Yes


Sallie Mae Student Loans

Sallie Mae offers a wide variety of specialized student loan products, and has tons of flexibility when it comes to repayment options. Plus, borrowers get some unique and valuable perks like free access to their FICO® credit scores. See our full review here.

  • Fixed Rates: 5.49 - 11.85%
  • Variable Rates: 4.37 - 11.47%
  • Loan amounts: 100% of their school’s total cost of attendance
  • Soft inquiry: No
  • Funding: Undergraduate and Graduate
  • Autopay discount: 0.25%
  • Graduation discount: None
  • Loyalty discount: None
  • Fees: None
  • Deferred interest: None
  • Forbearance: No
  • Cosigner: Yes
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How we picked the winners

While evaluating private student lenders, we looked at several factors, including but not limited to:

  • Interest rates/APR
  • Discounts (Autopay, etc.)
  • Ability to defer or postpone payment
  • Do they offer new student loans or just refinancing?
  • Do they loan to undergraduate and graduate students?
  • How flexible are the loan terms offered?
  • Can borrowers check their interest rates without affecting their credit score?
  • Do student borrowers need a cosigner?
  • Are any fees transparent?

How private student loans work

A private student loan is similar in principle to obtaining a personal loan from a financial institution. Qualification is generally determined by the borrower’s (or cosigner’s) credit history, existing debts, income, employment situation, and other factors.

The key differentiator from personal loans is that private student loans are only designed to fund educational expenses, or to refinance existing loans that were obtained for that purpose. In most cases, student loan proceeds are disbursed directly to your college or university, or to an existing lender in the case of refinancing -- you typically don’t receive the money directly. Because a college education is statistically correlated with a higher income (and therefore a better ability to repay), student loans generally come with lower interest rates than comparable personal loans.

Aside from that, the process is quite similar to applying for a personal loan. Compare the interest rates, fees, loan terms, and other factors from several lenders, decide which option is best for you, and then apply. If you're looking to refinance a private student loan, you can find out more about refinancing options here.

What to look for in a private student loan

There are a few things to consider when shopping around for a private student lender. Interest rate, or APR, is an obvious consideration.

Beyond that, one important factor is flexibility. Does the lender offer a few set loan terms, or can you choose from many different repayment lengths? Can you choose to defer your payments for a set amount of time if you run into financial hardship? Do you need to start paying interest while in school, or can you choose from a few different arrangements?

It’s also important to take any fees a lender charges into consideration. Many private student lenders don’t charge origination fees, for example, but some do.

Finally, it’s important to make sure a lender meets your needs. Do they lend to undergraduates and graduate students, or just one? Do they require a cosigner?

Federal vs. private student loans

There are two general categories of student loans: federal and private. Federal student loans (also known as Direct Loans, FFEL, and Perkins Loans) are applied for, originated through, and guaranteed by the federal government.

On the other hand, private student loans are made by private lenders, such as the companies that appear towards the top of this page.

There are a few key differences between the two that prospective borrowers should be aware of:

Because federal student loans are guaranteed by the government, they have much easier qualification standards than private student loans. For example, an 18-year-old college freshman with no credit history could qualify for a Direct Loan under his or her own name, but would likely need a cosigner to be considered for a private student loan.

Federal loans also have one interest rate for borrowers of all credit histories. For example, a graduate student who obtains a Federal Direct Student Loan would get the same interest rate whether they have poor credit or a near-perfect credit score. Private student loans base their interest rates on the borrowers’ qualifications. Borrowers with strong credit can often get lower interest rates through private student loans, while borrowers with so-so credit can generally do better with a federal loan.

Federal loans have a big advantage is when it comes to loan forgiveness programs. In order to qualify for Public Service Loan Forgiveness (PSLF) or teacher loan forgiveness, a borrower must have federal student loans.

Federal loans also tend to have more flexible repayment options. To be fair, some private lenders are actually quite flexible when it comes to repayment these days. However, if you want to use an income-based repayment plan, such as Pay As You Earn (PAYE) or Income-Based Repayment (IBR), these are only available to federal loan borrowers. It’s generally easier to defer repayment on a federal loan if you run into financial hardship after graduating or leaving school.

Furthermore, federal student loans can be subsidized in many cases. A subsidized federal student loan means that the federal government pays the interest on your loan while it’s on a deferment, such as while you’re in school. This can translate to big cost savings.

So far it may seem like federal student loans have a big advantage. However, one major downside to federal student loans, especially during the first few years of college, is the loan limits. A federal loan is often not enough to cover a borrower’s full financial need. For example, a first-year college student who is considered a dependent can borrow just $5,500 in Federal Direct Loans. Even at a public four-year university, that’s not likely to come close to covering the student’s total cost. Here’s a quick guide to the current federal loan annual maximums:

Year in School Dependent Student Independent Student
First-Year Undergraduate $5,500 ($3,500 subsidized) $9,500 ($3,500 subsidized)
Second-Year Undergraduate $6,500 ($4,500 subsidized) $10,500 ($4,500 subsidized)
Third-Year and Beyond Undergraduate $7,500 ($5,500 subsidized) $12,500 ($5,500 subsidized)
Graduate or Professional N/A $20,500 (all unsubsidized)
Aggregate Loan Limit $31,000 ($23,000 subsidized) Undergraduates -- $57,500 ($23,000 subsidized)
Graduate/Professional -- $138,500 ($65,500 subsidized), including undergraduate loans.

Data source: studentaid.ed.gov.

Most private lenders will allow borrowers to obtain student loans all the way up to the school’s published cost of attendance.

It’s also worth pointing out that if a federal student loan doesn’t meet your full funding need, it’s not uncommon for students to use both types. In other words, you could obtain a federal loan to take advantage of the forgiveness programs, in-school interest subsidies, and other benefits, and then use a private student loan for any additional funding needs.

How to get the best rates from private lenders

There are two main things you need to do in order to get the best interest rate from a private student lender: Build up an excellent credit history and check your rates with several different lenders.

I won’t get into a huge discussion of what an excellent credit score is (you can read a great discussion here), but here’s the quick version. Your FICO® Score is the scoring model lenders check most often, and yours is a number between 300 and 850, with higher scores being better. Generally speaking, a score in the upper 700s or better will qualify you for a lender’s best rates, although it’s important to realize that most lenders also consider other factors such as your income, other debts, and employment history when determining your loan’s interest rate.

There are five specific categories of information that make up your FICO® Score:

  • Payment history (35% of your score) -- Do you pay your bills on time every month?
  • Amounts owed (30%) -- Do you have a high level of debt relative to your available credit?
  • Length of credit history (15%) -- How long have you been using your credit, and how long have your credit accounts been open?
  • New credit (10%) -- Have you been applying for new loans and credit cards recently, and have you opened any new accounts as a result of these applications?
  • Credit mix (10%) -- Does your credit report contain just one type of credit account, such as credit cards, or do you have a mix of mortgage, auto loans, student loans, credit cards, etc.?

If you don’t personally have excellent credit, you can likely get a better interest rate and improve your chances of approval by having a creditworthy cosigner agree to fill out a loan application with you. Some private student lenders require borrowers who are in school to have a cosigner, regardless of their personal credit history.

Another must-do in order to get the best private student loan interest rate is to apply with a few different lenders. Many lenders allow you to check your interest rate without affecting your credit score (especially with refinancing), and even if a lender does a hard credit pull, it’s unlikely to impact your score by more than a few points. This can be well worth it if doing so results in hundreds or even thousands in savings over the life of the loan.

When you should refinance your student loans

There are some excellent reasons to refinance your student loans. Combining several student loans into one makes your repayment simpler. For example, if you have obtained a separate student loan for each of eight semesters of college, the payments can be overwhelming to keep track of, especially if some were obtained through different lenders.

Refinancing can also allow you to potentially lower your interest rate and/or your monthly payment. While this isn’t true in all cases, there are private lenders with extremely low APRs available for borrowers with excellent credit.

Finally, another good reason to refinance is if you have a cosigner on your existing student loans and want to get their name off. Many private lenders have a way to remove a cosigner, but refinancing could be another way to accomplish this.

Is a private student loan right for you?

There’s no one-size-fits-all answer to this question, but the general idea is that a private student loan is a good choice if federal loans don’t meet your educational funding needs all by themselves. Subsidized student loans, when available, are the best choice in virtually all cases, but even unsubsidized federal student loans have several big advantages over private loans.

The biggest advantage of private student loans is that they are only capped (in most cases) by your school’s total cost of attendance. For instance, if you are a freshman in college and are considered to be a dependent, you can only take out $5,500 in federal student loans. If your school’s total published cost of attendance is $20,000 per year, you may be able to obtain a private student loan to make up the difference.

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