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Educate Yourself: Student Loan Basics

Due to the confusing manner in which the U.S. Student loan system is designed, administered, and presented to the citizens, most people can't answer the most basic questions about them. This knowledge disadvantage is frustrating, and puts us at a huge disadvantage when dealing with lenders, guarantors, and collection companies who will not hesitate to use this against us (often while pretending to be trying to help). There are some concepts unique to student loans that you need to grasp so you can speak intelligently about your loans, and about the student loan system in general. 
This primer will help.  Take your time.  Go slow. 

There are two basic types of student loans: Federal, and Private.

Federal Loans(such as Stafford, PLUS, GradPlus, GSL, Perkins, NDSL, and Direct Loans) are guaranteed against default by the Federal Government. The interest rate is set by law for these loans, and typically varies between 2-9%. Importantly: Federal loans are usually taken out through private companies such as Sallie Mae, Nelnet, or Citibank.  Note: Even though these are federal loans, they are given out by private lenders!. Many people confused that private companies make federal loans.  
Direct Loans are similar to other federal loans, except that they are dispersed directly through the Department of Education, so there is no private lender involved, and no third party guarantor to deal with.  However, Sallie Mae and other familiar names are still servicing Direct Loans, which means they process payments for these loans under contract to the federal government. 
Private Loans are not guaranteed by the federal government, interest rates are usually higher than for federal loans, are usually advertised as “quick and easy”, and often require a cosignor. Private loans may be guaranteed by a third private guarantor, such as TERI, but not by the federal government. You may have a mix of federal and private loans, and they may have been given by the same private company, such as Sallie Mae, Citibank, Wells Fargo, etc.!! Make sure you understand this distinction, and that you understand what types of loans you have.

When a Federal loan defaults

When a federal loan defaults (not including Direct Loans), the original lender sells the loan to a middleman "guarantor", and is paid between 95-100% of the principal and interest of the loan at the time it defaulted. The guarantor is usually a state sponsored, non-profit organization, such as Edfund, Edsouth, or others. The guarantor will typically use a third party collection company, such as GRC, ACS, Premiere Credit, Pioneer Credit, Arrow Financial, or others. The guarantor and its collection company can and will take roughly 20 cents out of every dollar that you repay- off the top- before applying anything to interest and principal on the defaulted loan. Moreover, it is often the case that the collection company used will be owned by the original lender- a clear conflict of interest, but this is the reality.
Ultimately, your loan may be transfered to the Department of Education for collection. Federal law permits the guarantors, collection companies, and the Department of Education vast powers for the collection of defaulted federal student loans. This includes wage and tax return garnishment, Social Security and Disability income garnishment (without a court order), termination from public employment, suspension of professional licenses, denial of security clearances, and others. Moreover, federal loans have no statute of limitations associated with them, are exempt from truth in lending laws, and guarantors are typically exempt from Fair Debt Collection practice regulations (this does not apply to third party collection companies, however).
Importantly,  Federal loans are largely impossible to discharge through bankruptcy*, have no statute of limitations, are exempt from Truth in Lending requirements, state usury laws, and even Fair Debt Collection Practices are not applicable to the state and public agencies that guarantor these loans.  There are various repayment programs and deferment options for these loans, but these are fraught with risk, and can potentially be very harmful to borrowers.  Do not enter into any repayment plans without knowing the risks.  See Finaid.Org for more, here. 
When a Private loan defaults:
Private loans are not guaranteed by the federal government (notwithstanding recently announed bailout programs for the student loan industry). Really, they are equivalent to a credit card, a bank line of credit, or any other type of loan between private parties...with one MAJOR difference (explained below). There are a myriad of procedures used for delinquent private loans.
Sometimes there is even a third party guarantor, as with federal loans (TERI, for instance is a private loan guarantor). Check with your lender to find out more about collection procedures, interest rate variability, fees (which can be horrendous), etc for your loans.
As of October, 2005, private loans were made equivalent to federal loans with regards to bankruptcy discharge. That this was even attempted by the student loan industry was unthinkable...after all, why should a non-federally guaranteed loan of any kind be specifically exempted from bankruptcy protections? This is akin to taking bankruptcy protections away from credit cards! The answer is that there really is no good answer*. However, standard consumer protections, such as truth in lending requirements, statutes of limitations, etc. do apply to private loans, so the borrower does have at least some consumer protections for private loans. Forebearances, and deferments, however, are typically more difficult to get for private loans. Some companies, such as Sallie Mae are even requiring that students begin loan repayments for private loans while still in school!
You should now be able to tell the difference between private, and federal loans. Are yours Federal? Are they private? Or do you have both types? Find this out at a minimum, before attempting to negotiate with your lender.
This is the most basic, rudimentary information that you need to know first before you can even speak about the subject. The next step is to understand the clear problems with the student loan system that this group aims to solve.  Beyond this,  read the Book, The Student Loan Scam We strongly recommend that you read the various media stories that have been written about this subject in the past 4 years. Also, we recommend using Finaid.org as a resource for a wide range of questions about student loans.  Be warned that this website is funded largely by the student loan industry and its beneficiaries, but by and large, we believe this site provides the most accurate and unbiased information about student loans available.

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*Think this is unfair? Then join us in fighting to restore standard consumer protections that were taken away... But finish reading this page first!