After legislative changes in 2007 made lending less profitable and credit markets constricted sharply in 2008, major banks began to exit the student loan market in droves, leaving relatively few participants in the Federal Family Education Loan Program and even fewer options for private student loans. In addition to federal aid and alternative programs like peer-to-peer lending, another source of funding has been on the rise in the wake of the credit crunch: credit union student loans.
Credit unions are not-for-profit financial cooperatives that are financed and owned by their members. Membership is usually based on a common industry, location, or employer and often eligibility extends out to the families of members. Students who belong to a credit union have already been able in many cases to select their credit union as a lender for a federal Stafford loan through the FFEL program. But now you may also be able to borrow a private loan from a credit union to pay for school.
Since credit unions for the most part didn’t participate in the risky lending practices that got banks into trouble in the last couple years, they’ve remained relatively stable and able to lend money. Seeing the major banks exiting student loan programs en masse, credit unions have begun to step in and offer loans to students, as well, seizing the opportunity to gain new members through offering an increasingly hard-to-find service. New websites have also come into existence to help connect students with credit unions that offer college loans.
Two of the most prominent organizations connecting credit unions with student borrowers are Credit Union Student Choice and Fynanz, which runs CUStudentLoans.org. Credit Union Student Choice allows students to find credit unions they are eligible to join that offer student loans. Fynanz also connects students with area credit unions and offers a central student loan application for the credit unions on its site. Other credit unions not listed on these two sites also may offer loans for student members.
In addition to increased availability compared to bank-based private student loans, credit union student loans often carry lower interest rates or more favorable repayment terms. Since the credit unions aren’t specifically in business to make a profit and since borrowers must be members of the credit unions, borrowers may find they have a better relationship with the credit union than they would with a large national bank. However, credit union student loans may not be the most attractive option for everyone. National banks have a broader reach than credit unions and students may have an easier time finding national student loans than finding credit union loans. Bank-based loans also don’t require students to set up an account with the bank and may still carry lower rates and fees, especially for borrowers with the best credit.
It’s a good idea to weigh your options carefully when considering a private loan. Be sure to exhaust all your options for federal financial aid and scholarships before you apply. Private student loans can carry high interest rates and can’t be discharged in bankruptcy in most cases, so it’s wise to only borrow what you need and to avoid borrowing to the greatest extent possible.