Subsidized vs. Unsubsidized Loans

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The federal direct loan program offers subsidized and unsubsidized loans to college students. A federal direct subsidized loan is a loan where the government pays the interest while the student is in school. A federal direct unsubsidized loan is one in which the student is responsible for paying all interest, receiving no additional federal aid.

What Is the Difference Between Subsidized and Unsubsidized Student Loans?

The main differences between federal direct subsidized and unsubsidized loans are the qualification criteria, the maximum limits and how the loan interest works.

A chart displaying the differences between subsidized and unsubsidized student loans.

Loan Qualifications

Subsidized: To qualify for a subsidized loan, you must be an undergraduate student who can demonstrate financial need based on the information you submit through the Free Application for Federal Student Aid (“FAFSA”).

Unsubsidized: Unsubsidized loans are available to both undergraduate and graduate students, and there is no requirement to demonstrate financial need.

Maximum Loan Limits

Subsidized: Your school will determine exactly how much you can borrow each year, but there are federal limits. These limits are based on what year of school you are in and whether you file as a dependent or an independent. Subsidized loan limits tend to be lower than unsubsidized limits. The aggregate limit for an independent student with subsidized loans is $23,000.

Unsubsidized: Unsubsidized loan limits tend to be higher than subsidized loan limits. The aggregate limit for an independent student with unsubsidized loans is $34,500.

How Interest Accrues

Subsidized: The U.S. Department of Education pays the interest for subsidized loans as long as the student is enrolled in school at least half-time. They will also pay the interest during your grace period—defined as the first six months after leaving school—and any period of deferment. This means that the amount of the loan will not grow once the student graduates, since the government has been paying the interest.

Unsubsidized: Whether you’re an undergraduate or a graduate student, you’re responsible for paying all of the interest during the entire life of your unsubsidized loan.

What Are the Similarities Between Subsidized and Unsubsidized Student Loans?

When it comes to interest rates, fees and the “maximum eligibility period”—the amount of time you’re able to take out loans—subsidized and unsubsidized loans are virtually the same.

Fees

On top of interest, you can expect to pay a small fee for both types of loans. This is approximately 1.06 percent of your total loan amount, and it is deducted from each loan disbursement. 

Both subsidized and unsubsidized student loans have a fee of 1.06% of the total loan amount.

Undergraduate Interest Rates

The interest rates for both subsidized and unsubsidized loans for undergraduate students are the same. Currently, the rate is at 2.75 percent for loans first disbursed from July 1st, 2020, to June 31st, 2021. The one exception is for direct unsubsidized loans for graduate students, which have an interest rate of 4.30 percent. 

Maximum Eligibility Period

For both loan types, the time in which you’re eligible for your loans is equal to 150 percent of the time of your program. For undergraduates pursuing a four-year bachelor’s degree, this means they will be eligible for their loans for six years. Those pursuing a two-year associate’s degree will be eligible for three years. This ensures that students can still receive loans even if they’re unable or choose not to graduate within the program’s time frame. 

How to Apply for Subsidized and Unsubsidized Loans

Once you’re ready to apply for a federal direct loan, fill out the FAFSA. Your school will send you a detailed report of what student aid you’re eligible for. Any grants or scholarships are free money, so make sure to accept them. They’ll also decide which loans you’re eligible for, the amount you can borrow each year and what loan type you can get—subsidized or unsubsidized. 

No matter what type of student loan you go for, it’s important to understand how they affect your credit so that you can set yourself up for financial success after graduation. With responsible, on-time payments, you’ll be well on your way to healthy credit for life.


Reviewed by Cynthia Thaxton, Lexington Law Firm Attorney. Written by Lexington Law.

Cynthia Thaxton has been with Lexington Law Firm since 2014. She attended The College of William and Mary in Williamsburg, Virginia where she graduated summa cum laude with a degree in International Relations and a minor in Arabic. Cynthia then attended law school at George Mason University School of Law, where she served as Senior Articles Editor of the George Mason Law Review and graduated cum laude. Cynthia is licensed to practice law in Utah and North Carolina.

Note: Articles have only been reviewed by the indicated attorney, not written by them. The information provided on this website does not, and is not intended to, act as legal, financial or credit advice; instead, it is for general informational purposes only. Use of, and access to, this website or any of the links or resources contained within the site do not create an attorney-client or fiduciary relationship between the reader, user, or browser and website owner, authors, reviewers, contributors, contributing firms, or their respective agents or employers.