Private college loans: 7 things you need to know

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(MoneyWatch) If you have to borrow for college, the best college loans are the ones available through the federal government, which provide the same student loan rates and terms for everyone.

If you are interested in pursuing private college loans, you need to proceed carefully. Here are seven things you need to know when shopping for private loans.

1. Turn to credit unions.

Credit unions, which are newer players in the private student loan world, almost always provide better interest rates. Ironically most people stick with the well-known lenders even though their rates are typically higher. You can look for college loans at credit unions through cuStudentLoans.

2. Check for schools that have their own credit unions.

If your school is affiliated with a credit union, check its rates. Here are institutions that have a credit union:

Harvard University

University of Chicago

Amherst College

Hampshire College

Mount Holyoke College

Smith College

University of Massachusetts

University of Wyoming

MIT

University of Kentucky

Princeton University

California State University system

Eastern Iowa Community Colleges

Canada College

3. Apply for multiple loans.

At AllTuition, a private college loan comparison site, parents research many loans, but rarely apply for more than one. Unfortunately, borrowers won't know what rate they qualify for unless they apply. It's well worth the effort.

"A family taking out a $12,000 private loan is paying $5,000 more in interest because the parents aren't taking 30 minutes to shop and they only complete one application," says Sue Kim, Alltuition's CEO.

4. Don't assume you'll get the lowest rate.

The teaser rate on private loans can look much more attractive than federal college loans. For instance, the interest rate for the federal PLUS Loan for Parents is 7.9 percent vs. some advertised rates of 3.5 percent or 4 percent. Mark Kantrowitz, the publisher of FinAid, however, estimates that fewer than 5 percent of borrowers capture the best rate.The difference between the lowest rate and the highest rate at an individual lender can be huge.

5. Use loan search engines.

Here are three online tools to find private student loans:

Alltuition

CertifiedPrivateLoans.com

eStudentLoan

6. Ask the right questions.

Before committing to a private loan, ask these questions:

1. What is the interest rate?

2. Is the rate fixed or variable?

3. Is there an interest-rate cap?

4. What is the total cost of the loan?

5. Does the loan have borrower rewards?

6. What are the student loan deferment options both during and after school and are there any hardship waivers?

7. Are there any additional fees?

8. How difficult is it to consolidate loans and cut interest rates after graduation?

9. Does the loan offer penalty-free pre-payments?

10. How long is the grace period?

11. What are the borrowing limits?

7. Borrow responsibly.

Don't borrow too much. Sure, college is a great investment, but you don't want to hamstring yourself by graduating with too much debt. It's much easier to borrow too much through private loans because they have higher borrowing limits.

Use the student loan calculator at Mapping Your Future to estimate how much your repayments will be. 

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