5 steps to getting student loans for an associate’s degree

Planning on a two-year degree program? These student loan options can help cover the costs. (iStock)

Getting an associate’s degree can be a good way to get a leg up career-wise, while also reducing your overall educational costs. In fact, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, an associate’s degree equals about $132 more per week in earnings when compared with those with only a high school diploma. Unemployment rates are lower, too.

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Still, earning that degree doesn’t come for free. And while the costs of associate’s programs may be lower than four-year bachelor’s options, many students still need financial aid to foot the bill.

If you’re looking for help covering the costs of your associate’s degree program, it all starts with the FAFSA.

Step 1: Fill out your FAFSA

The Free Application for Federal Student Aid is the first step toward getting a student loan — at least a federal one. There are two types of loans you might be eligible for: subsidized and unsubsidized. Subsidized loans are distributed based on financial need, while unsubsidized ones are not need-based.

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To fill out your FAFSA, go to StudentAid.gov. You’ll need the following information on hand:

  • Your Social Security Number and those of your parents
  • Your driver’s license number
  • Your household’s tax returns and W-2s
  • Statements for any banking and investment accounts
  • Details on any stocks, bonds, or assets you hold

The FAFSA is also how you apply for work-study programs and federal grants which, unlike student loans, do not need to be repaid.

Step 2: Max out your federal options

Once your FAFSA is reviewed, you’ll receive your award letter, which will detail the grants and loans you’re eligible for. Turn to these options before considering a private loan, as federal loans are often more affordable in the long run (they have lower interest rates).

Federal aid also comes with a slew of benefits, including income-based payment plans, deferment, and other options if you find yourself unable to repay.

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Step 3: Consider private loans

Only once you’ve maxed out your federal aid options should you seek out private options. These require a cosigner, and your terms and interest rate will be based on credit score, so make sure you choose someone with a good credit history.

Keep in mind that cosigning your loan also puts them on the hook for the balance. If you fail to make your payments as agreed, they could be held liable for them. It could also hurt your cosigner’s credit score or lead to financial difficulties.

Step 4: Shop around to save money

Because not all private lenders offer loans for associate’s degrees or community college programs, you’ll need to shop around if going this route. Additionally, rates and terms vary by lender. Shopping around could save you serious money in the long run.

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To shop around, you’ll need to compare:

  • Interest rates: The higher the interest rate, the more you’ll pay for the loan over time.
  • Eligibility requirements: What credit score do you need to qualify? What about income requirements? Get a breakdown of how each lender gauges eligibility.
  • Discounts: Many banks and lenders offer discounts on interest rates if you set up autopay or setting up a bank account.
  • Fees: Every lender charges different fees — for applying, for originating the loan, and many other expenses. Make sure you compare these fees line by line to get an accurate idea of the loan’s total costs.
  • Payment plans: You should also look into a lender’s payment plans. When do you need to start making payments? Is there a grace period or option for deferment if you run into financial trouble?

You should also take reviews and ratings into account. You want a lender who has a record of good service and satisfied customers.

Step 5: Take out only what you need

Once you’ve found the best deal, fill out the lender’s application and move forward with your loan.

Try to resist the urge to take out too large a balance right off the bat. Borrowing too much will mean paying more in interest — especially if you’re using private loans. Only take out what you need, and borrow more later on if your situation calls for it.