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Credit Scores

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Your credit score is a measure of the likelihood that you will pay your debt as agreed. The lower your credit score, the more likely you are to default on your debt. Borrowers with higher credit scores represent a lower risk to the lender.

Most lenders rely on your credit score to determine eligibility for private student loans. Your credit score can also affect the cost of your debt, with lower interest rates and fees reserved for borrowers with better credit scores. This is in contrast to federal education loans, which generally do not depend on your credit score.

What is a Credit Score?

A credit score is an objective measure of credit risk. It summarizes the information from your credit history into a single number. This forms a basis for comparing borrowers. The most popular credit score is the FICO score developed by Fair Isaac Corporation. (The name 'FICO' is derived from the initials of the company name.)

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FICO scores range from 300 to 850, with 850 being the best possible FICO score. Some credit reporting agencies are experimenting with a broader range of scores. A credit score less than 650 is considered "subprime".

Generally, the FICO score depends on the following factors:

Score ComponentWeight
Payment History35%
Amounts Owed30%
Length of Credit History15%
New Credit10%
Types of Credit Used10%

The recency, frequency and severity of credit activity also have an impact.

How do Federal Student Loans use Credit Scores?

The Stafford, Perkins and PLUS loans do not depend on your credit score. The Stafford and Perkins loans are available entirely without regard to your credit history. The PLUS loan, however, requires that the borrower not have an adverse credit history.

An adverse credit history is defined as being more than 90 days late on any debt or having any Title IV debt within the past five years subjected to default determination, bankruptcy discharge, foreclosure, repossession, tax lien, wage garnishment, or write-off.

How do Private Student Loans use Credit Scores?

Education lenders generally use the FICO score in combination with other factors to determine eligibility for private student loans. The other criteria typically involve binary (yes/no) decisions, such as debt-to-income ratio and recent bankruptcies.

Most education lenders break their interest rates and fees into five tiers, based on the borrower's credit score. About 20% of the borrowers get the best rate, followed by 35%, 20%, 10% and 15%. Each tier has an interest rate that is 1% or 2% higher than the previous tier. This means that borrowers with the worst credit scores can have interest rates that are 5% to 6% higher than the interest rates charged to borrowers with excellent credit. The fees are also higher by as much as 9%, although some lenders roll higher fees into the interest rates.

This means that borrowers with bad credit scores may have monthly payments that are 20% to 40% higher and pay two-thirds to 100% more interest over the lifetime of the loan as borrowers with excellent credit scores. That's as much as double the interest!

If you have a bad credit score, a cosigner with a good credit score can make you eligible for a private student loan. Even if you have a good credit score, a cosigner with a better credit score can potentially reduce the interest rate and fees you'll have to pay on the loan. This is because most lenders use the better of the two credit scores to determine eligibility and the cost of credit.

Another method of getting a better interest rate is to agree to make payments on the loan while you are in school. Many lenders give better rates for borrowers to begin repayment immediately or make interest-only payments during the in-school period.

If you are denied a private student loan, ask the lender about their appeals process. Sometimes they will make an exception if an unusual circumstance lead to the denial, especially if the negative event is not likely to occur again. Appeals will also be accepted if the denial was the result of inaccurate information on your credit report that was subsequently corrected.

How do Loan Applications affect Credit Scores?

Every loan application or "inquiry" has the potential to reduce your credit score. According to Fair Isaacs, the company that produces the FICO score used by most education lenders, one "inquiry" will generally result in a 5 point reduction in the FICO score. However, since people with six or more inquiries are eight times more likely to declare bankruptcy than people with no inquiries, it is best to keep the number of inquiries small. Also, if your credit history is short or involves very few accounts, an inquiry is likely to have a bigger impact.

On the other hand, the credit reporting agencies do account for "shopping around" behavior for auto loans and mortgages, but not for education loans. When you apply for a mortgage or auto loan, they ignore any current inquiries within the 30 day period prior to scoring and treat any past inquiries within a short period of time (e.g., 14 or 45 days, depending on the version of the FICO score) as a single inquiry.

This compensates for the impact of shopping around. They do not say whether applying for different types of loans (e.g., credit card, mortgage, student loan) counts as separate inquiries even if they are within the shopping around window, but that is likely the case. So the best advice is to apply for all your mortgages and auto loans within a short time period (e.g., a week or two) and to not apply for too many loans.

Free Credit Reports

You are entitled to a free copy of your credit report from each of the three major credit reporting agencies once a year. You can obtain these free credit reports from www.annualcreditreport.com. FinAid recommends spacing out the free credit reports throughout the year, getting a report from just one of the credit reporting agencies each time, so that you're getting one report every four months.

Beware of sites with similar names that may charge you a fee for your credit reports or additional services. Also, the free credit reports do not necessarily include your credit score.

If you want to buy a copy of your credit reports, including your credit score, you can get it from each credit reporting agency directly. The major credit reporting agencies are:

You can also buy copies of your credit reports and FICO scores from Fair Isaacs at myFICO.com.

There will be slight variations in your FICO score at each credit reporting agency because your credit history at each agency is slightly different. Learn more on How to Improve Your Credit Score.

 

 
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