Apply for all of the SIPA and external funding you can, and also carefully examine your own budget and spending habits to see if you can minimize student loan debt. Not all students need to borrow the maximum amount available. Consider the advice, “live like a student now so you don’t have to later.” You might find some useful information about budgeting and money management at the iGrad website, a tool Columbia makes available for student financial wellness.
NOTE: Legislation passed by Congress, followed by multiple subsequent Executive Orders, has temporarily set the interest rate for federally held student loans to zero percent from March 13, 2021 to January 31, 2022. This will reduce borrowers’ overall debt, since there will be no interest accumulating during that time. Those borrowers already in repayment will have all payments suspended during that time (although they may make payments if they choose to do so, and all such payments will be credited entirely towards principal). Even if a borrower makes no payments, those months will count as monthly payments towards Public Service Loan Forgiveness, if the borrower is in repayment and meets all other requirements for that program during that time. The Biden administration has indicated that the extension for the student loan repayment/interest moratorium to 1/31/22 will be the final extension.
Loans from private lenders, or lenders outside the US, are not impacted by this legislation, but some may be offering their own relief. If you have any such loans, you should contact your lender about available options.
How to Apply
US Citizen or Permanent Resident
- Complete the Free Application for Federal Student Aid, or FAFSA, for the appropriate academic year.
- Designate Columbia University: School of International and Public Affairs as a recipient by using our school code number: 002707.
- After the SIPA Financial Aid Office determines your eligibility, we will send you an email with a link to a portal, where you will be able to log in and view your complete financial aid and loan eligibility.
- The portal will provide next steps in the loan application process, including links to online forms you will need to complete. For the Unsubsidized Direct Student Loan and the Graduate PLUS loan, you will need to complete the Master Promissory Note and online Entrance Counseling for each loan. These are only required the first time you borrow each loan. If you are applying for the Graduate PLUS loan, you will need to complete the PLUS Loan Request Form to initiate each application (every time you apply). You will find the link to this form on the portal, on the Documents and Messages tab, under the heading "Graduate PLUS Application Instructions."
- About a week after completing the required forms, return to confirm our receipt as status updates require a few business days.
- If you are interested in loans from private lenders instead of those from the federal government, the FAFSA is not required. Columbia provides a sampling of private loans. Click here to learn about the differences between private loans and those from the federal government and what might better suit your needs.
- International students may borrow from lenders in the US, and most require borrowers to have a US citizen who can co-sign the loan for them. Visit "ELM select for International Students" to find a list of lenders from whom international students at Columbia University have successfully borrowed.
- Some of SIPA’s international students come from countries with student loan programs that can be used for study in the United States; if such loans are available, they may be preferable as they may not require a co-signer.
- International students should not complete a FAFSA, as it is only used to determine eligibility for aid available to US citizens and permanent residents.
Types of Federal Aid Available
SIPA students who are US citizens or permanent residents, and who are enrolled on at least a half-time basis (minimum of 6 credits per semester) may be eligible for one or more of the following aid programs:
- Federal Unsubsidized Direct Student Loans: annual maximum amount available is $20,500, and an origination fee of 1.057% is deducted at the time of disbursement. Interest is fixed at 5.28% for loans made first disbursed July 1, 2021 for the 2021/22 academic year (4.3% for loans disbursed prior to 7/1/21). Interest accumulates while in school (temporarily not accumulating through 1/31/22). Lifetime aggregate limits apply, which include amounts borrowed as an undergraduate.
- Federal Graduate PLUS Loans: a credit-based loan that can be borrowed up to the full cost of attendance (which includes tuition, fees, room and board, books and other miscellaneous expenses) minus all other forms of aid including scholarships, Work Study and other loans. An origination fee of 4.228% is deducted at the time of disbursement. Interest is fixed at 6.28% for loans made after July 1, 2021 for the 2021-22 academic year (5.3% for loans disbursed prior to 7/1/21). Interest accumulates while in school (temporarily not accumulating through 9/30/21). Information about the Graduate PLUS loan credit requirements can be found here.
- Federal Work Study: available on a limited basis to high-need students as determined by data on the FAFSA; annual earning limits typically start at $4,000. Students whose aid package includes Work Study will receive information about how to locate a job, which may be anywhere at Columbia (not necessarily at SIPA). Work Study pay is not credited towards students’ tuition. Like any salary from employment, Work Study earnings are potentially taxable income. For information on using your work study allocation for off-campus employment, refer to SIPA’s Office of Career Services. Please note students may work up to 20 hours per week during the academic year (including spring break) and 35 hours per week during eligible winter and summer breaks. Also note that Work Study eligibility is not a requirement for SIPA Assistantships, which are not paid using Work Study funds.
SIPA Satisfactory Academic Progress
- All recipients of federal financial aid must be meeting SIPA's standards for satisfactory academic progress.
- A cumulative grade point average of at least 3.0, satisfactory completion of a minimum of 2/3 of all credits attempted, and completion of the degree in no more than 150 percent of the published time frame normally required (for example, no more than 3 years for a 2 year program) is required for all federal loan borrowers and Work Study employees.
Following the spring 2020 semester of mandated pass/fail grading in which a grade of "pass" has no bearing on a cumulative GPA, all students with a prior cumulative GPA of at least 2.9 plus all passing grades in the spring will be considered to be making satisfactory academic progress. Students who first enrolled in spring 2020 must have a cumulative GPA of at least 2.9 by the end of the fall 2020 term. This change was made on a temporary basis due to the temporary change in spring 2020 to pass/fail grades, and this information is provided for historical context only; as of the conclusion of the spring 2021 semester, SIPA has returned to the requirement of a cumulative 3.0 grade point average.
Academic progress is reviewed on an annual basis. Students found not to be meeting these standards will be notified by the Office of Financial Aid, and may be able to appeal their status.
How to Calculate the Amount to Borrow
- The Unsubsidized Direct Loan and the Graduate PLUS Loan both have fees deducted at the time of disbursement. These fees are subject to annual adjustment by Congress due to Sequestration.
- See above for annual maximum limits for each of these two loans.
- Review and apply for all available resources, including your own income and savings, assistance from your family, employer tuition benefits, and external fellowships and only borrow what you need.
Student Loan Repayment
- Most student loans come due six months after you graduate or cease enrollment on at least a half-time (6 credits per semester) basis. For almost all loans available to graduate students, interest accumulates while you are in school.
- Unsubsidized Direct Student Loan and the Graduate PLUS loan, both from the federal government, outsource loan servicing and collections. You will be repaying one of about ten contracted servicers, to which your loan/s will be assigned randomly. To find who is going to be servicing your loan, log in to the US Department of Education's student loan borrower site using your FAFSA ID. This site will provide details of all your federal student loans (including anything you borrowed at schools prior to attending SIPA), your servicer and their contact information.
- Do not wait until it’s time to start making your student loan payments to familiarize yourself with the terms of your loans, anticipated monthly payments and the various repayment options. Most people shop for car loans with a monthly payment amount in mind, you wouldn’t borrow a mortgage without that information either; approach student loans the same way. Be aware that there are a number of different repayment plans available for federal student loans designed to meet your needs and make your student loan debt manageable. We created a handout for our SIPA Student Loan Repayment Info sessions. You may also find information from the Consumer Finance Protection Bureau and The Institute of Student Loan Advisors to be helpful.
- Some borrowers choose to refinance their student loans at a lower interest rate, and this can be beneficial for some depending on the amount you have borrowed and your interest rate. However, refinancing is not available from the US Department of Education (the lender), only from private companies. Loans that are refinanced do not qualify for benefits offered by the federal government, such as Public Service Loan Forgiveness.
Terms such as interest rates and maximum length of repayment will vary depending on lender policies, borrower credit rating, amount borrowed and other factors. Repayment terms of up to 20 years and 9 month grace periods before repayment after graduation are not uncommon. Your lender can provide you with specific information about options available to you. You can learn more about repaying loans from private lenders here.
Calculating Your Monthly Payments
Online calculators are available to help you estimate your monthly payments, but first you should familiarize yourself with the different repayment plans:
- Standard Repayment, loan amount is paid in full in 10 years, with equal monthly payment amounts;
- Graduated Repayment, requires full repayment in 10 years, but with monthly payments that increase over time (regardless of your income or financial circumstances);
- Extended Repayment, gives up to 25 years to repay with smaller monthly payments;
- Income Driven Repayment, monthly payment amounts will change with your income, and you may not qualify for some if your debt is too low in relation to your income. These plans allow 20 to 25 years for repayment, and must be used by borrowers seeking Public Service Loan Forgiveness:
- Income-Based Repayment Plan;
- Income-Contingent Payment Plan;
- Pay As You Earn Plan;
- Revised Pay As You Earn Plan
In all plans, as is the case with any interest-bearing debt, the longer you take to repay your loan, the more interest will accumulate, and the more expensive it will be. Faster repayment always saves money, and there are no penalties for pre-payment.
You do not have to decide which repayment plan you wish to use until it comes time to enter repayment, and you can change plans if your needs change. Review the US Department of Education's repayment estimator using different repayment plans to compare the differences in monthly payments. Another good calculator is available from finaid.org, and also offers information about accrued interest, factoring in salary increases, etc.
Meeting your student loan obligations will require careful financial planning and budgeting. It is beneficial to familiarize yourself with the different repayment plan options and also to work out monthly budgets to make your student loan payments manageable. You may find resources available from sites such as iGrad and Mapping Your Future to be helpful tools.
Terms such as interest rates and maximum length of repayment will vary depending on lender policies, borrower credit rating, amount borrowed and other factors. The different income-driven and extended repayment plans available on federal loans are not typically available for private loans. Your lender can provide you with information about your monthly payment amount and options.
Public Service Loan Forgiveness
In 2007, Congress passed legislation that introduced the Public Service Loan Forgiveness Program. This program was designed to encourage students to pursue careers in the public or non-profit sectors by forgiving a portion of their student loan debt. This program could mean considerable savings on loan repayment for many SIPA students.
- Borrowers who pursue full-time careers in the non-profit or public service sectors can have their outstanding student loan balance forgiven after 120 months of repayment (payments need not be consecutive, but must be made on time) while employed in a qualified position.
- This program applies to Federal Direct Loans, Graduate PLUS loans, and Federal Direct Consolidation Loans only.
- Borrowers with other federal loans such as Perkins Loans (pre-2016) or Federal Family Education Loans (pre-2010) may incorporate those loans into a Federal Direct Consolidation Loan so that they qualify for this program. Loans from private lenders do not qualify for PSLF and cannot be changed to Federal Direct Consolidations Loans.
- Student loan borrowers who want to qualify for Public Service Loan Forgiveness must enroll in an income driven repayment plan when they are in repayment.
useful online resources
Non-profit or public sector QUALIFIED employment may include any of the following:
- A Federal, State, county, local, or Tribal government organization, agency, or entity;
- A public child or family service agency;
- Volunteering full-time in the Peace Corps or AmeriCorps;
- A tax exempt 501(c)(3) organization;
- A Tribal college or university;
A private non-profit organization that provides any of the following public services:
- Emergency management
- Military service
- Public safety or law enforcement
- Public interest law services
- Early childhood education
- Public service for individuals with disabilities and the elderly
- Public health
- Public education or other school-based services
- Public or school library services
In most cases, the exact nature of the work does not matter, but it cannot include religious instruction, worship, or proselytizing. Working for a labor union or partisan political organization also does not count as public service for purposes of this program, even if they are tax-exempt. Recent legal interpretations have also determined that work at a 501(c)(6), which may include professional trade associations or chambers of commerce, or a 501(c)(19), which are veterans organizations, do not meet the qualifications for Public Service Loan Forgiveness.
More PSLF information that you may find useful, including a PSLF Help Tool and Employer Database, is available here.
Other Loan Forgiveness Programs
- Federal Student Aid: summarizes existing full or partial loan cancellation and forgiveness programs for all federal student loans. These provisions include service in the Peace Corps or AmeriCorps*VISTA program, the military, as a nurse or medical technician, law enforcement or corrections (including public defenders and prosecutors), a Head Start worker, a teacher in certain areas or subjects, child/family services or a provider of early intervention services. Not all forgiveness/cancellation provisions apply to all loans, so review this site for more information if your career goals may entitle you to any student loan relief.
- Office of Personal Management: agencies of the federal government may elect to assist employees in the repayment of their student loans, including possibly paying them off for the employee in full. However, this is not guaranteed, it is at the discretion of the employing office/division and is subject to availability of funds.
Another repayment option for federal student loans is to borrow a Direct Consolidation Loan. This option, as the name implies, consolidates existing loans and gives the borrower who may have several different types of loans and multiple servicers or lenders the convenience of one monthly payment to one servicer. You may choose to consolidate all or some of your federal loans through this program. Loans from private lenders do not apply to this program.
Loan Consolidation typically does not save money, and in some cases, some repayment benefits can be forfeited. But in other cases, there are benefits available for Consolidation Loans not available for loans that can be consolidated; it can be advantageous, for instance, to consolidate Perkins Loans if you may qualify for Public Service Loan Forgiveness, which is otherwise not available for Perkins Loan debt.
Deferring Previous Student Loans while You are Studying at SIPA
Most borrowers are eligible for deferment of payment on Stafford/Direct loans, Perkins loans or other educational debt while enrolled for at least a half-time (six credits) course load in a degree-granting program. At Columbia, the University Registrar’s Office submits enrollment records for all students to the National Student Clearinghouse, which is then accessed by all student loan lenders, who will then place your loan into deferment as long as you remain enrolled. Loan deferments do not begin until your first semester classes begin. Plan to make payments until your lender notifies you that your loan is officially deferred, typically the month after your enrollment begins.