What's the Difference Between Student Loan Forbearance and Deferment?

When you get a deferment or forbearance of student loans, you stop making payments for a period of time. With deferment, interest does not accrue; with forbearance it does.

If money is tight and your federal student loan payments are higher than you can afford, you might be able to get assistance through a federal program called deferment or forbearance.

Read on to learn what deferment and forbearance mean, why deferment is better than forbearance, and what requirements you must meet to qualify for one of these programs.

Which Student Loans Are Eligible for Deferment and Forbearance?

Deferment and forbearance are available for federal student loans, but are usually not available for private student loans. If you're not sure what kind of loans you have, go to the National Student Loan Data System to track down your loan type.

Also, deferment and forbearance are not available if you're in default on your federal student loans. (If you're in default, see How to Get Out of Default on Your Federal Student Loans, as well as What Happens If You Default on Your Student Loans.)

Deferment of Student Loan Payments

Under deferment, your loan payments are postponed and no interest accrues on subsidized loans (subsidized loans include Federal Perkins Loans, Direct Subsidized Loans, Subsidized Federal Stafford Loans, the subsidized portion of Direct Consolidation Loans, and the subsidized portion of FFEL Consolidation Loans).

Deferment is available under several different circumstances:

  • you're enrolled at least half time in a postsecondary school (if you received a Direct PLUS Loan or a FFEL PLUS Loan as a graduate or professional student, you may get a deferment for an additional six months after you stop being enrolled at least half-time)
  • you're a parent who received a Direct PLUS Loan or a FFEL PLUS Loan (you may get a deferment while the student for whom you obtained the loan is enrolled at least half-time at an eligible college or career school, and for an additional six months after the student stops being enrolled at least half-time)
  • you're enrolled in an approved graduate fellowship program (your school can tell you if it is an approved program for deferment)
  • you're disabled and enrolled in an approved rehabilitation training program
  • you're unemployed or unable to find full time employment (this deferment is limited to three years)
  • you're experiencing economic hardship or serving in the Peace Corps (this deferment is limited to three years)
  • you're on active duty with the military, or have been on active duty within the past 13 months, in connection with a war, military operation, or national emergency, or
  • you're receiving treatment for cancer. (You may also receive a deferment for six months after treatment ends).

You must apply to your loan servicer to receive a deferment. Your loan servicer is the company that communicates with you about loan payments. If you don’t know how to contact your servicer, see Who Is My Student Loan Holder or Servicer?

Forbearance of Student Loan Payments

Under forbearance, your loan payments are postponed (or reduced) but interest continues to accrue during the period of forbearance. If you don’t pay the interest during that period, the interest may be “capitalized,” which means it is added to your principal balance.

For example, say you owe $10,000 at a 5% interest rate, receive forbearance requiring no payments for a year, and don’t pay interest during that time. At the end of the forbearance period you will owe $10,500. Interest will then be calculated on this larger principal amount.

Even though the terms for forbearance are not as favorable as deferment, forbearance is definitely a better option than default if you're in financial distress.

Qualifying for Forbearance

Your loan servicer determines if you are eligible for forbearance.

When the servicer may grant forbearance. In some cases, the loan servicer has discretion to grant forbearance or not. A loan servicer may grant what's called a "general forbearance" if you are experiencing:

  • financial problems
  • medical expenses
  • a change in your employment, or
  • some other reason your servicer finds acceptable.

General forbearances are available for Direct Loans, FFEL Program loans, and Perkins Loans, but for no more than 12 months at a time. There's no fixed cumulative limit on general forbearance for Direct Loans and FFEL Program loans, but your loan servicer might limit the maximum period of time you can get a general forbearance.

When the servicer must grant forbearance. In other cases, a loan servicer is required to offer what's called a "mandatory forbearance." Forbearance is mandatory if:

  • you are enrolled in a medical or dental internship or residency, and you meet certain requirements
  • your monthly student loan payment is 20% or more of your monthly gross income (and you meet other conditions)
  • you are serving in a national service position, such as Americorps, or
  • you are eligible for teacher loan forgiveness, the Department of Defense’s loan repayment program, or you are in the National Guard.

Ask your loan servicer for specific details on qualifying for mandatory forbearance.

Other Options for Dealing With Student Loan Debt

If you're experiencing financial hardship, you should also consider the different repayment plans offered by the Department of Education for federal student loans. For more information, see Student Loan Repayment Plans and How to Choose a Student Loan Repayment Plan.

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