Along with holiday cards from friends and family members, recent college graduates will probably receive notices from their student loan servicers in the mail in coming weeks.
Most student loans have “grace periods” — spans of time after graduation before repayment must begin — of six months. So for students who graduated in the spring, it is time to start repaying the debt.
Nationally, student debt totaled $1.34 trillion at midyear, according to the Federal Reserve Bank of New York. The average debt per borrower in 2016 ranged from a low of $20,000 in Utah to more than $36,000 in New Hampshire, according to the nonprofit Project on Student Debt.
Spring graduates typically get notices from a loan servicer — the company that processes payments and manages a student’s loans — the following November, with payments beginning in December. (Happy Holidays!)
The letter from the servicer should include details like the payment amount, the due date and where to send the check or make payments online.
If you have not received any sort of notice by now, it is best to contact your loan servicer, said Diane Cheng, associate research director at the Institute for College Access and Success, a nonprofit organization. It is up to you to keep your servicer apprised of your whereabouts, she said. Even if you have not received an official notice, you are still responsible for repaying the loan.
If you don’t know who your servicer is, you can check the National Student Loan Data System to find out which company handles the loans you borrowed from the federal government. (You probably already have a Federal Student Aid ID, but if not, you will need to create one to log on and check your loans.)
Loans from banks or other private lenders, rather than the federal government, are not tracked in the federal database. You may be able to find them by checking your credit report. Or you can contact the financial aid office at your alma mater, said Persis Yu, director of the Student Loan Borrower Assistance Project at the National Consumer Law Center.
Unless you tell your servicer otherwise, you will be enrolled in a standard, 10-year repayment plan. If you are worried that you cannot afford the payments, the federal government has programs offering more affordable monthly payments. Details are available from the Department of Education and the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau.
The Department of Education’s tool for estimating repayment can help you compare what your payments would be under the different options. Users should contact their loan servicer directly, however, to confirm eligibility for the various options, Ms. Cheng said.
Recently, questions have been raised about the federal government’s Public Service Loan Forgiveness program, which is intended to allow people working in teaching, nonprofit, social services or other government jobs to have their loans canceled after 10 years. Some borrowers, particularly those who joined the program soon after it was enacted a decade ago, are finding that loans they thought would be forgiven might not be, because the complex requirements.
But the program remains an option for current borrowers, as long as they have the correct type of jobs, loans and payment plans to qualify. “Certainly there are reasons to be cautious,” said Adam Minsky, a lawyer specializing in student loans, “but the program is still very much in existence.”
Ms. Cheng advises borrowers to submit a certification form, provided by the Department of Education, to document that they are employed at a qualified job and that their payments are being properly credited, so that they remain on track to have their debt forgiven.
Here are some questions and answers about repaying student loans:
■ Are grace periods the same for all loans?
One type of federal loan, known as a Perkins loan, has a nine-month grace period. And some loans, like federal PLUS loans made to parents, have no grace period. Repayment typically starts as soon as funds are distributed.
Grace periods for private loans may vary, but six-month grace periods are typical, said Martha Holler, a spokeswoman for private student loan lender Sallie Mae. The company’s website offers suggestions for organizing your loan documents to help ensure that you keep up with payments. One recommendation: Create a spreadsheet listing your loans and contact information for your servicers.
■ What if I have a complaint about my student loan servicer?
■ Are there any discounts available for my loan payments?
Typically, you can knock a quarter of a percentage point — .25 percent — off your monthly payment, for both federal and private loans, if you agree to have the money automatically debited from your bank account.