Student loan counselors: Who they are & how they can help

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Let’s get one thing straight: There are all sorts of reasons why you shouldn’t hire a student loan counselor, at least not right away. For one thing, you don’t need to pay someone for what you could accomplish on your own.

With that said, however, consider what counselors offer before you write them off.

5 ways you can expect a counselor to help

Although they treat clients as individuals facing unique repayment challenges, counselors typically use the same formula. I know because I’m a student loan counselor myself.

Unlike your federal student loan entrance or exit counselor, a student loan counselor is typically a certified individual working for themselves or at a nonprofit or private company. They don’t need to be expensive though — by looking around, you can usually avoid exorbitant fees for financial professionals like counselors unless you prefer spiffy concierge service.

Aside from the cost, here’s what to expect if you decide to sit down with a counselor for a consultation on your repayment.

1. Determine the status of your loan repayment

Your counselor will aim to build a rapport with you, but they’ll simultaneously be looking to learn about your debt situation. You should expect a barrage of questions about your loans, income, employment and tax-filing status. This information is necessary to develop an action plan for your repayment.

You might not have all this information off the top of your head, or even know how to find it. Although a counselor has no special, private portals to access, they know where to get your info quickly and easily.

To start, they’ll help you use the National Student Loan Data System (NSLDS) to catch up on your federal loans, as well as checking up on your private loans via your credit report.

Counselors will also need to know the following:

  • Loan program: Direct Loan, Perkins Loan or Federal Family Education Loan
  • Loan status: Grace period, active repayment, delinquency or in default
  • Borrower type: Student or parent
  • Disbursement date: When you borrowed your loans

Each of these data points — plus basics like your servicer relationship, monthly payments and remaining balance — could affect your eligibility for repayment strategies, such as switching repayment plans.

2. Examine your repayment challenges and goals

During this second stage of the loan counseling process, a counselor might prove their worth as an objective party that’s able to take a hard look at your repayment problems. You might not feel up to the task yourself, or that your lender or loan servicer has neither the time or interest to mull over your situation.

A counselor would help you identify why your repayment isn’t going the way it could, whether that’s because of a debt collector breathing down your neck or money issues specific to your situation. If your loans are a strain on your finances, for example, the counselor might review your budget.

Once you’ve identified the challenges together, the counselor could explain your range of opportunities. If you didn’t find room in that budget to make consistent loan payments — 8% of your gross monthly income is the recommended upper limit — the counselor might explain the value of switching to an income-driven repayment (IDR) plan.

Now that you know your problems can be solved, your counselor will likely lead a goal-setting session. They’ll ask what you want out of your repayment, whether it’s making your repayment more affordable, putting a finish line on your debt, or something in between.

3. Explore possible solutions for your repayment

Before working toward your loan repayment goals, you and your counselor would review the best ways to achieve them. Depending on your loan status, you might only have two or three options at your disposal. Prepare to evaluate these approaches in exhaustive detail, comparing their pros and cons.

For many borrowers, these options include:

  • Forgiveness and cancellation: There are many ways to receive partial or full forgiveness of your loan balance, including debt forgiveness based on your health, career, school or other factors.
  • Switching repayment plans: Transitioning your federal loans from their standard, 10-year term to an IDR plan, for example, would limit your monthly dues to a percentage of your discretionary income.
  • Deferment and forbearance: Applying to pause your repayment because of eligible causes, such as a job loss or military service, could give you the break you need before resuming payments.
  • Rehabilitation: If your federal loans are in default, you could rehabilitate them with nine straight payments of a lower, agreed-upon amount to remove derogatory marks from your credit report.
  • Consolidation: You could group your federal loans into a direct consolidation loan to get out of default or simplify your repayment going forward.
  • Student loan refinancing: If you’ve handled your federal and private loan repayment well to this point, you might qualify to consolidate your debt — and potentially lower your interest rate — with a private lender seeking creditworthy candidates.

Keep in mind that none of your specific repayment options are likely to be perfect or immediate solutions to your education debt. A good counselor should temper your expectations by explaining what each option could deliver, and at what cost. An IDR plan, for example, lowers your monthly payments but increases the total cost of your loan due to mounting interest.

4. Set a loan repayment action plan

Hopefully, you and your counselor will agree on a specific solution for your repayment problem. Although the onus will be on you as the borrower to execute it, your counselor should provide you with a written action plan to serve as the map for your journey.

If, for instance, you’ve decided that switching to Income-Based Repayment, a type of IDR plan, is in your best interest, the plan should detail:

  • What information you need to apply for Income-Based Repayment, such as your gross monthly income
  • How to submit an IDR plan request via StudentLoans.gov
  • What next steps you need to complete once your servicer has accepted your plan request
  • How a revised budget or spending plan ensures you can afford your monthly payment

The document should also list your new estimated monthly payment, payoff date and total loan cost.

If the counselor is genuinely working to help you achieve your goals, that should be reflected in the plan. If it isn’t, remember that the counselor works for you. Ask them to head back to the drawing board.

5. Keep tabs on your loan repayment progress

Like anyone who assists your student loan repayment, they’re doing just that — assisting. You wouldn’t count on your counselor to take every step of your repayment for you.

However, you should be able to rely on a counselor to check in and follow up on your progress. You might even call upon them to assist further, such as in the case that your loan servicer has unfairly denied your request to switch repayment plans, or — more likely — in severe cases, loan rehabilitation and collections.

Good counselors don’t end the relationship when their client walks out the door or hangs up the phone. Instead, it should continue until you’re completely done with your debt.

Do you need a student loan counselor?

Financial experts’ advice on student loans shouldn’t be ignored, but one-on-one consultations aren’t necessary for every borrower.

You could work your way through the five steps above using free, accessible online sources, including Student Loan Hero’s trove of tools. On the other hand, you could find that a certified been-there-and-done-that pro could get you the answers you need without as much effort or frustration.

Whether or not you plan to work with a pro-bono counselor, or even to hire a private one, consider all the people with helpful advice on repayment. Sometimes it’s good to have some help to push you to the debt-free finish line.

This article originally appeared on StudentLoanHero.com and was syndicated by MediaFeed.org.

Featured Image Credit: Depositphotos.

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