As college graduation season comes to a close, the newly anointed degree holders finally have to face a new reality - life with hefty education debt.
There is plenty to be done before the debt starts to come due - in about six months for most - but graduates will need to act fast and think through their choices.
One is consolidating their federally backed loans. This decision should be made before July 1. That's when the federal government will recalculate the interest rate on variable student loans. Although Congress changed the law so that Stafford loans made after July 1, 2006, are fixed at 6.8 percent, there still are plenty of loans out there with variable rates.
The variable interest rate on most federally guaranteed student loans is readjusted annually. The new rate takes effect July 1, and it could increase from the current 6.54 percent.
Under the federal consolidation program, student and parent borrowers can bundle all of their loans into one fixed-rate loan and stretch out the payments from the standard 10 years to 30 years, depending on the debt amount.
You can consolidate your federal loans only once, unless you have new loans that were not included in the original consolidation. You can no longer consolidate while you still are in school. And when you do consolidate, you lock in the weighted average of all your student loans, rounded up to the nearest eighth of a percentage point.
If you decide to consolidate, you'll have to get your application in by June 30. And you really don't want to wait until then. Another reason to act fast: Graduates who consolidate their Stafford federal student loans during their grace period - the six months after graduation - are eligible for a 0.6 percent interest rate reduction.
So here's a to-do list for college graduates with debt:
¢ Write down every student loan you have, including the amount and the name and contact information for the lender. If you aren't sure about this information, visit the National Student Loan Data System's Web site, www.nslds.ed.gov.
¢ Don't consolidate until you've done some research. Despite what you may hear from lenders, there's a lot to consider about this choice, such as the fact that extending your loan increases the total amount you owe. Start with the Department of Education's Web site at www.loanconsolidation.ed.gov. Click on the link for "Borrower Services." Another excellent resource is www.finaid.org.
¢ Now go to the Web site for the Project on Student Debt at www.projectonstudentdebt.org and click on the link for "resources." This nonprofit has compiled a very helpful guide explaining the discount offers for consolidation loans. Lenders vie for your business by offering various discounts.
¢ Next, compile a list of lenders to comparison shop various offers. Considering all the controversy about conflicts of interest in the student loan industry, don't just rely on the preferred lender list from your school. There's one important change you may not know about. You now can consolidate with any lender, even if all of your loans are with a single lender. One source for comparison shopping is SimpleTuition Inc. (www.simpletuition.com).
¢ Once you have narrowed down your lender choices, use the www.finaid.org loan discount analyzer, which breaks down the discount rates in real dollars. When you see the calculator it looks a bit daunting. But don't be intimidated. Take the time to fill out the calculator carefully so you get a clear idea of what each lender's discount is worth long term.