Federal direct student loan consolidation isn’t easy to navigate. Determining whether or not consolidation should be done is a critical step in planning a repayment strategy.
Generally speaking, federal student loan consolidation is most helpful for borrowers trying to address eligibility issues. Some borrowers can use consolidation to qualify for student loan forgiveness or income-driven repayment plans.
Today I’ll cover the basics of federal direct consolidation and include a ton of tips on how to get the most out of consolidation.
What is Federal Student Loan Consolidation?
At the most basic level, a federal student loan consolidation combines multiple federal loans into a single loan.
However, to make sense of the multiple rules and fine print of student loan consolidation, it is easier to look at it from a different perspective.
Federal consolidation transforms an old federal loan into a new federal loan. Normally, the process involves combining multiple loans into a single new loan. However, borrowers have the option of consolidating an individual loan.
The emphasis on the “transformation” is there because the process can either be a good thing or a bad thing. Some borrowers make a mistake and transform a loan they might like into a lousy loan. Other borrowers use consolidation wisely and transform a flawed loan into a better federal loan.
What makes a good loan or a bad loan is all about perspective and circumstances. Perhaps the best way to explain how to utilize this transformation is to give a few examples of what to do and what not to do.
When Should Federal Student Loans be Consolidated?
The classic example of a smart use of federal direct consolidation is Federal Family Education Loan Program (FFELP) loans. Up until 2010, FFELP loans were from private lenders, but the federal government guaranteed them. These loans functioned mostly like federal student loans, but they had a few limitations.
Most notably, FFELP loans are not eligible for Public Service Loan Forgiveness. However, going through federal student loan consolidation transforms FFELP loans into a “federally held” student loan. As federally held loans, the new loans are eligible for more student loan forgiveness opportunities.
Another example of a potentially smart use of consolidation is to consolidate Parent PLUS loans. One of the significant issues with Parent PLUS loans is that they are not eligible for an income-driven repayment plan. Likewise, they do not qualify for Public Service Loan Forgiveness. However, by consolidating into a federal direct loan, the Parent PLUS loan can become eligible for the Income-Contingent Repayment Plan and Student Loan Forgiveness.
These two consolidations make sense for many borrowers because a loan with limited federal program eligibility has been transformed into a new loan with better eligibility.
However, this transformation is not always a smart idea.
When is Federal Student Loan Consolidation a Huge Mistake?
The classic example of Federal Student Loan consolidation being a huge mistake is when a borrower combines a Parent PLUS loan with other federal student loans. As noted in the previous section, a Parent PLUS loan can be consolidated to become eligible for the ICR repayment plan. However, the consolidated loan is not eligible for preferable repayment plans such as IBR, PAYE, and REPAYE.
If a borrower combines many federal loans into a consolidated loan and includes a Parent PLUS loan, the new combined loan is not eligible for IBR, PAYE, or REPAYE. This mistake could easily cost the borrower many thousands of dollars. It may be the biggest mistake someone can make with Parent PLUS loans.
Due to a potentially harmful outcome from consolidation, borrowers must consider program eligibility and progress before consolidating. In some cases, the consolidation will be an essential step; it would be a huge mistake in others.
How do I Consolidate Federal Student Loans?
The actual process of federal direct consolidation is very simple.
The Department of Education will process all of the paperwork electronically. They estimate that filling out the form takes about 30 minutes.
One potential headache that borrowers should avoid would be third-party student loan consolidation services. These “companies,” perhaps more accurately described as scams, advertise a special relationship with the Department of Education. They claim to help borrowers qualify for Income-Driven Repayment Plans and Student Loan Forgiveness. In reality, they function as a middle-man who gets paid and adds no value to the service. In many cases, they end up making errors and making the process even more difficult than necessary.
These companies have gotten so bad that at the top of the Department of Education’s Student Loan Consolidation information page, it displays the following:
As long as borrowers stick with the official Department of Education Student Loan Consolidation page and are careful only to consolidate when necessary, the process is relatively simple.
Other than deciding which loans to include in the consolidation, borrowers will also need to consider their repayment plan options. One of the options will allow borrowers to pick the plan with the lowest monthly payments. However, because multiple plans may have the same low monthly payment, borrowers should research their preferred repayment plan before consolidating. There are several repayment options that borrowers should consider.
Student Loan Consolidation vs. Refinancing
Student Loan consolidation and refinancing are terms that are often used interchangeably. Many lenders that refinance student loans call their service a consolidation.
The best way for borrowers to keep track of things is to look at it this way:
Student Loan Consolidation is only done by the federal government and transforms various federal loans into a federal direct loan. Student loan consolidation does not lower or raise interest rates. The Department of Education takes the weighted average of the loans and rounds it to the nearest 1/8th percent. The one exception is that some borrowers with FFEL Consolidation Loans may have their interest rate increase if they receive a premium interest rate discount from their lender.
Student Loan Refinancing is a process provided by private lenders. They pay off old loans, and in return, the borrower agrees to repay the new loan with the new lender’s terms. Usually, this is done to get a lower interest rate. Both federal government loans and private loans are eligible to be refinanced. Many different companies provide refinancing services, so borrowers need to research their options and understand the consequences of private student loan refinancing.
Important Details to Know Before Starting Federal Direct Consolidation
Consolidation may result in two loans instead of one – Federal consolidation typically is presented as a way for borrowers to combine all of their federal student loans into a single loan. Many borrowers will end up with two separate loans if they consolidate. This is because the Department of Education keeps the subsidized loans separate from the unsubsidized.
Consolidation is one of the rare opportunities to switch federal servicers – During the student loan consolidation process, borrowers have the option of selecting their preferred loan servicer.
The credit score impact is minimal – When consolidating borrowers may see their credit score move slightly. For some borrowers, it goes up because the old loans show as being paid in full and it is usually better to have one large debt than many small debts. Others see their score drop because their student loans were the oldest item on their credit score and average credit age is a factor. Generally speaking, consolidation really doesn’t move the credit score needle much. The money saved is a much bigger factor.
Hold off on Consolidation if you are about to buy a house – A ton of major changes on a credit report can cause some concern with mortgage companies. Borrowers who are about to buy a house should discuss consolidation with their mortgage company before starting the process.
The consolidation process can take months – Filling out the form may only take 30 minutes, but the actual process may take months. To consolidate, all of the old loans must be paid off in full, and doing this math takes the Department of Education some time. Don’t be surprised if there are some minor issues with this process.
After the math has been done, the borrower should receive a letter giving them one last chance to opt out of the consolidation. Though no action is required from the borrower during this time, the consolidation process is a bit time-consuming.
Consolidation can be used as a way out of default – Borrowers who have fallen way behind on their student loans can use consolidation as a quick fix to get out of default. However, borrowers also have the option to rehabilitate their loans before consolidation. There are several factors borrowers should consider when deciding between rehabilitating and consolidating their defaulted loans.
Private loans cannot be included in a federal consolidation – Being able to transform a private student loan into a federal government loan would be great, but it is not an option.
There is no minimum credit score or income requirement – Unlike refinancing with a private company, all federal borrowers are allowed to consolidate their federal loans. There is no credit check.
21 thoughts on “The Complete Guide to Federal Direct Student Loan Consolidation”
I have a Parent Plus loan with Navient and during the course of this loan they have steered me in the wrong direction with forbearance 2 times w/o realizing the extra cost of this and I am now owing 71,200 and it seems to never do down. Can I consolidate into a Federal Consolidation Loan and apply for loan forgiveness because it was for my daughter and she is a teacher in qualifying schools for over 15 years?
Hi Mary. Unfortuantely for PSLF, the important detail is the occupation of the borrower, not the person the loan was borrowed for.
I have FFEL loan with Navient, and I didn’t realize the loan was not eligible for interest freezes or other benefits announced for federal loans. Is it a good idea to consolidate FFEL to a federal direct loan so I can benefit from the $10,000 loan forgiveness announced by Biden on 8/24/22?
We are still waiting on the full details of the forgiveness, but that sounds like a good plan. At the very least, you can benefit from the 0% interest and no payments until 2023.
I work for a non-profit. I’m a recent hire and it’s my first non-profit job post-graduation. I have FFEL loans and have made about 7 years worth of IRB payments toward the 25-yr forgiveness. What happens to those 7 years of payments if I choose to consolidate to a Direct Consolidation Loan? Maybe I’ll work for the non-profit for 10 years and be eligible for public service forgiveness. But I don’t know what the future holds. Does Direct Consolidation erase my progress toward IRB forgiveness?
Normally it would restart the clock, however, right now, it won’t due to temporary programs. The limited waiver on PSLF allows borrowers to consolidate their FFEL loans without losing credit for previous payments. The IDR count update should also mean that your progress towards 25 years doesn’t restart either.
I have a $29k, PPL for my daughter that loan payments started in 2013 or 2014. Is there a Federal Student Loan program available that she can apply for which allows her to convert the PPL to her name and then eventually take advantage of Loan Forgiveness?
Federal rules are consistently changing, but as of right now, no such option exists.
I thought I had everything for the Teacher Student Loan Forgiveness – qualifying teacher, qualifying school, 5 years, etc. I just found out I was denied because they said I had an outstanding balance in 1998 before I consolidated my loans.
I have a two private loans with Navient. I have paid the majority of my loans off over the years. Since these are private loans I understand that I am not eligible to qualify for Public Service Loan Forgiveness.
I have worked in Public Service for 20 years.
I thought refinancing with Sofi was going to get me a Direct Consolidation loan but I was mistaken. Still private loan.
Is it possible to to move my private loan to a Direct Consolidation loan so that I can eventually qualify for PSLF? If that’s the case what company/organization/bank does that? I’m so frustrated with the confusing information and lack of help from my private loan company. I’d appreciate your assistance. Thanks!
That is a great question. Unfortunately, the options to convert private loans to federal loans are extremely limited.
Based upon what you are describing, I don’t really see a path to PSLF under the current rules. I’m sorry I don’t have any better news for you.
Should I consolidate my Navient (FFEL) loan individually into a Direct Consolidation Loan OR consolidate my Navient loan AND my Direct Unsub Consolidation Student Loan together into one Direct Consolidation Loan?
What would be the best thing for me to do to qualify for the TPSLF program and to possibly receive a refund for my Direct Unsub Consolidation Loan payments?
I have made payments on the Navient loan since 2004 and I have made payments on my Direct Unsub Consolidation Loan since 2017.
With the changes announced last month, I think consolidating your FFEL loan is probably a good idea.
I’d also note that TEPSLF isn’t necessarily your only option for forgiveness. The limited waiver announced last year could be the best option, assuming you are woking in public service.
Are you available to do a fee based consulting for my wife’s student loans?
The FFEL loans are serviced by Navient and my wife teaches public high school (TCLI).
I’m want to defer the payments till May and then hopefully have them forgiven. However, Navient keeps giving conflicting information and I simply don’t have the time to navigate this maze. Happy to pay $250hr to get me aimed in the right direction.
I appreciate the offer, but I’m not available to take on individual clients. However, based upon your description of your situation, I’d encourage you to investigate the limited waiver on Public Service Loan Forgiveness. Additionally, if you consolidate your FFEL loans into a federal direct loan, the loans should qualify for the interest and payment freeze that will last until May, and could get extended long.
I’ve been paying on my student loan for over 14 years and still have a balance that I’m hoping can be considered for forgiveness. My confusion is that the loan is with AES. I know that to be considered for the public service loan forgiveness I need to consolidate that loan with a direct loan servicer, which I’m not 100 percent sure ‘who’ is considered direct vs private. My main question, however, the Biden Admin forgiveness must be with a federal student loan servicer, so if I would consolidate to the direct loan servicer will both the public service forgiveness and Biden forgiveness be okay for consideration? Also, can you give me an idea of federal direct loan servicers?
If you follow the link to federal direct consolidation, you can fill out an application with the Department of education. As part of your application, you can pick your next servicer. I’d suggest picking MOHELA because they handle all of the PSLF people.
So I have an FFEL loan I’ve been paying on well over 10 yrs and my employer qualifies for PSLF.
My kid recently graduated college and I have about $12K PLUS Loan which I have not started paying on yet due to the President’s payment waivers (so far).
My question; Should I consolidate my PLUS Loan with FFEL and then apply for PSLF? Will I be eligible? I ask because I have not made any payments on the Plus loan so would the clock start over?
Or do I just concentrate on consolidating FFEL?
If I consolodate just the FFEL now would I be able to consolodate the PLUS loan(s) at a later time?
Consolidating the FFEL Loan with the PLUS loan is probably a mistake. If you include a Parent PLUS loan in a direct consolidation, it limits the repayment options. Additionally, Parent PLUS loans are not included in the limited waiver that will help your FFEL loans get forgiven, potentially as soon as you consolidate.
However, you may eventually want to consolidate your PLUS loans in order to get them eligible for PSLF.
In order to take advantage of the new waiver, is it better to consolidate just the FFEL loans or to consolidate them with my direct loans that were already eligible for pslf?
It might be better to consolidate your FFEL loans with your existing direct loans. If the loans have different payment counts, the consolidated loan will get credited as having the higher payment count.
However, I’d encourage you to work with your servicer to make sure that there are not any other issues with your strategy.