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The rising cost of a college degree has more students than ever borrowing to cover their expenses. While some students opt for loans from private lenders, as of March 2021, an estimated 42.9 million borrowers have Federal Direct Loans.

Subsidized vs. Unsubsidized

Federal Direct Loans may be subsidized or unsubsidized. Both types offer numerous benefits, including flexible repayment options, low-interest rates, the option to consolidate loans, and forbearance and deferment programs.

So how do subsidized and unsubsidized loans compare? Read on.

Key Takeaways

  • Federal student loans can be either subsidized or unsubsidized.
  • A student’s eligibility for subsidized loans is based on financial need.
  • Both types of loans have to be paid back with interest, but the government makes some of the interest payments on subsidized loans.
  • Due to the pandemic, the U.S. Department of Education offered students a final extension of the student loan payment pause until Jan. 31, 2022.
  • Loan limits are different for undergraduate versus graduate students.

Who Qualifies for Federal Direct Loans?

For both federal subsidized and unsubsidized loans, borrowers must meet the following requirements:

  • Enrollment at least half-time at a school that participates in the Federal Direct Loan program.
  • A U.S. citizen or eligible non-citizen.
  • Possession of a valid Social Security number.
  • Satisfactory academic progress.
  • Possession of a high school diploma or the equivalent.
  • No default on any existing federal loans.
  • Registration with the Selective Service System (for males ages 18 to 25).

Direct subsidized loans are only available to undergraduates who have a demonstrated financial need. Both undergraduates and graduate students can apply for direct unsubsidized loans, and there’s no financial need requirement.

If you qualify for a subsidized loan, the government will pay your loan interest while you’re in school at least half-time and continue to pay it during a six-month grace period after you leave school. The government will also pay your loan during a period of deferment.

To apply for either type of loan, you will need to fill out the Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA). This form asks for information about your income and assets and those of your parents. Your school uses your FAFSA to determine which types of loans you qualify for and how much you’re eligible to borrow.

Note that interest on student loans from federal agencies was suspended during the coronavirus crisis by former President Trump on March 13, 2020, and federally-held student loan forbearance was extended until January 31, 2022. As of March 30, 2021, this also includes all loans in the Federal Family Education Loan (FFEL) Program.

How Much Can You Borrow?

The Federal Direct Loan program has maximum limits for how much you can borrow annually through a subsidized or unsubsidized loan. There’s also an aggregate borrowing limit.

Undergraduate Students

First-year undergraduate students can borrow a combined $5,500 in subsidized and unsubsidized loans if they’re still financially dependent on their parents. Of that amount, only $3,500 may be subsidized loans. Independent students—and dependent students whose parents don’t qualify for Direct PLUS loans—can borrow up to $9,500 for their first year of undergraduate study. Again, subsidized loans are limited to $3,500 of that amount.

The borrowing limit increases for each subsequent year of enrollment. The total aggregate subsidized loan limit is $23,000 for dependent students, with another $8,000 allowed in unsubsidized loans. For independent students, the aggregate limit is raised to $57,500, with the same $23,000 cap on subsidized loans.

Graduate Students

Including their undergraduate borrowing, graduate and professional students have an aggregate limit of $138,500 in direct loans, $65,500 of which can be subsidized. Since 2012, however, graduate and professional students have been eligible only for unsubsidized loans.

First-Time Borrowers

If you’re a first-time borrower after July 1, 2013, there’s a limit on the number of academic years that you can receive direct subsidized loans. The maximum eligibility period is 150% of the published length of your program. In other words, if you’re enrolling in a four-year degree program, the longest you could receive direct subsidized loans is six years. No such limit applies to direct unsubsidized loans.

Interest on Subsidized and Unsubsidized Loans

Federal loans are known for having some of the lowest interest rates available, especially compared to private lenders that may charge borrowers a double-digit APR. Loans disbursed on or after July 1, 2021, and before the July 1, 2022 school year, direct subsidized and unsubsidized loans carry a 3.73% APR for undergraduate students.

The APR on unsubsidized loans for graduate and professional students is 5.28%. And unlike some private student loans, those rates are fixed, meaning they don’t change over the life of the loan.

One other thing to note about the interest: while the federal government pays the interest on direct subsidized loans for the first six months after you leave school and during deferment periods, you’re responsible for the interest if you defer an unsubsidized loan or if you put either type of loan into forbearance.

Income-driven repayment plans can mean lower monthly payments, but you might still be making them 25 years from now.

Repaying Subsidized and Unsubsidized Loans

When it’s time to start repaying your loans, you’ll have several options. Unless you ask your lender for a different option, you’ll automatically be enrolled in the Standard Repayment Plan. This plan sets your repayment term at up to 10 years, with equal payments each month.

Graduated Repayment Plan

The Graduated Repayment Plan, by comparison, starts your payments off lower, then raises them incrementally. This plan also has a term of up to 10 years, but you’ll pay more than you would with the Standard option because of how payments are structured. There are also several income-driven repayment plans for students who need flexibility in how much they pay each month.

Income-Based Repayment

Income-based repayment (IBR), for instance, sets your payments at 10% to 15% of your monthly discretionary income and allows you to stretch repayment out for 20 or 25 years. The advantage of income-driven plans is that they can lower your monthly payment. But there’s a catch: The longer it takes you to pay off the loans, the more you will pay in total interest. And if your plan allows some of your loan balance to be forgiven, you may have to report that as taxable income.

The upside is that paid student loan interest is tax-deductible. As of 2021, you can deduct up to $2,500 in interest paid on a qualified student loan, and you don’t have to itemize to get this deduction.

Deductions reduce your taxable income for the year, which may lower your tax bill or add to the size of your refund. If you paid $600 or more in student loan interest for the year, you’d receive Form 1098-E from your loan servicer to use for tax filing.


  • The government pays the accruing interest on subsidized loans while a borrower is in school and during the loan’s six-month grace period.

  • Subsidized loans have lower interest rates than unsubsidized loans.

  • Unsubsidized loans can be used for graduate school.

  • Borrowers do not have to demonstrate financial need to take out an unsubsidized loan.


  • Subsidized loans can only be used for undergraduate studies.

  • You must qualify by showing financial need to take out a subsidized loan.

  • The government does not pay any interest accrued on an unsubsidized loan.

  • Unsubsidized loans have a higher interest rate than subsidized loans.

Subsidized vs. Unsubsidized Student Loans FAQs

What Is the Difference Between Federal Direct Subsidized and Unsubsidized Loans?

Both types of loans are offered by the federal government and must be paid back with interest. However, the government will make some of the interest payments on subsidized loans.

Are Unsubsidized Loans Bad?

Unsubsidized loans have many benefits. These loans, unlike subsidized loans, can be used for undergraduate and graduate school, and students do not need to show financial need to qualify. The interest does begin accruing as soon as you take out the loan, but you don’t have to pay the loans back until after you graduate, and there are no credit checks when you apply, unlike private loans.

Are Subsidized Loans Better Than Unsubsidized?

Subsidized loans offer many benefits if you qualify for them. While these loans are not “better” than subsidized loans, they offer borrowers a lower interest rate than unsubsidized loans. The government pays the interest on them while a student is in school and during the six-month grace period repayment after you graduate. However, subsidized loans are only available to students who demonstrate financial need, and you can use them for undergraduate studies.

How Do You Pay Back Subsidized Loans?

You can pay back your subsidized loan anytime. Still, most students begin paying their loans back after they graduate, and the loan payment is required six months after graduation, known as the “grace period” when the government continues to pay the interest due on the loans.

When your loan enters its repayment phase, your loan servicer will place you on the Standard Repayment Plan, but you can request a different payment plan at any time. Borrowers can make their loan payments online via their loan servicer’s website in most cases.

The Bottom Line

Both direct subsidized and unsubsidized loans can help pay for college. Just remember that either type of loan eventually must be repaid and with interest. So think carefully about how much you’ll need to borrow and which repayment option is likely to work best for your budget.