Unlike mortgages and cars loans, the options for refinancing student debt have always been few and far between. Now, a handful of innovative lending startups are helping borrowers trim away at the $1 trillion in outstanding student loan debt owed by college graduates. It's a big market. Two-thirds of students at four-year private schools and more than half of all students at public ones take out loans, according to federal data.
SoFi, a San Francisco company, says it saves borrowers who refinance their loans an average of $9,400 over 10 years by offering low fixed-rate and variable interest loans, as well as career coaching. An anonymous reviewer on CreditKarma rated SoFi five stars, saying the firm helped him save $900 per month in interest and slashed more than 60% off of his original interest rate. Not too shabby.
No, it's not too good to be true. But there is a catch.
SoFi's loans are limited to "highly qualified" graduates hailing from an exclusive list of colleges and universities. If your school is on the list, however, SoFi will tap into your alumni network, connecting you to investors from the same alma mater. It's sort of like banking meets LinkedIn. SoFi makes borrowing personal, which comes with a slew of added benefits — opportunities for career advising, networking, and entrepreneurial support. In fact, SoFi claims its novel alumni lending scheme has helped 60 members find new jobs and more than 20 entrepreneurs start new businesses. "I'll admit it," said Jennifer Beall, a Northwestern graduate whose SoFi story is trumpeted on the firm's webpage. "I'm obsessed with SoFi. I discovered SoFi and began the process of refinancing my loans, which led to over $5,000 in savings on interest."
Upstart, another new, low-cost lender, considers things like your academic performance and work history when calculating your rate. Shedding student debt is a whole new game when your rate is based on Upstart's predictive modeling algorithm, which measures your potential future income — not just what you're currently earning. Folks with advanced degrees and good jobs — or at least a solid job offer — will get the best rates from Upstart. Co-founder Paul Gu describes the algorithm as imperfect, opening the door to many borrowers who might get shut out by traditional lending banks, while unintentionally excluding others. Gu admits that he himself doesn't even qualify for a loan through his own company. The algorithm, he says, is a work in progress.
CommonBond, another non-bank lender, has so far handed out more than $200 million in loans to more than 2,000 borrowers with MBA, law, medical, and engineering graduate degrees. Like SoFi and Upstart, not every student with debt will qualify for refinancing. What sets CommonBond apart from other alternative lenders is that it allows student loan debtors to consolidate undergrad and graduate loans into a variety of fixed rate, adjustable rate, and hybrid loans. The company claims its borrowers save, on average, $10,000 over the life of the loan. There are no application fees, no origination fees, no prepayment penalties.
Let's recap. With private lenders like SoFi, Upstart, and CommonBond, you can slash your interest debt by refinancing. That is, if you qualify. These firms adhere to nontraditional eligibility requirements, which can be great — so long as you earned the right degree or attended the right college or landed the right job. These new, lower-cost lenders are mostly going after students they consider sure bets. And who could blame them? About 10% of the 4.7 million students who graduated with federal loan debt in 2011 had defaulted by 2012, the government reports, which means they didn't make any payments for at least nine months.
The bottom line: you can save a ton by refinancing your student loans with one of these new-age private lenders — so long as you fit the profile of what these firms classify as a "safe bet."
How are you paying off your student loan(s)? Have you considered consolidating with one of these lenders?