Lasted updated November 2016.
Medical school is expensive and getting more so every year. Meanwhile, federal student loans are still at above market rates (and many private ones are predatory). Combine the two and a new doctor will borrow more and then pay more for the privilege than at any other time in history.
Over the past two years, historically low-interest rates and a rebounding economy mean that private banks have re-entered the student loan business, particularly on the refinancing side.
As a resident, your options are essentially limited to refinancing with DRB or LinkCapital (potentially LendKey or Earnest). Starting in March of 2015, DRB became the first company to offer a resident refinancing program that is unique, practical, and affordable for residents ($100 a month). LinkCapital is newer, and their resident program requires a little less at $75 but isn’t available to interns.
I wrote about refinancing as a resident at length in this post.
Otherwise, here is the complete picture for student loan refinancing.1
There are only a handful of options and the initial applications are short (really short, ~5 minutes or less). Rate ranges are typically concordant and are theoretically as low as 1.9% variable across lenders. All quote you low rates assuming you’ll auto-debit from a new checking account that you’ll set up with them. Initial applications will result in a soft pull on credit (does not affect your credit score) and give you a preliminary rate, so if you have good cash flow and can otherwise afford your loans (i.e. you’re an attending), you’ll do yourself no harm by simply applying for refinancing from each company and seeing which one is willing to refinance you at the best rate:
Darian Rowayton Bank (always called “DRB”) is a Connecticut-based bank and was one the first big players to return to the student loan game along with SoFi. They currently occupy a unique niche in that in addition to conventional student loan refinancing for those with good debt/income ratios (i.e. attendings), they have a program specifically geared toward residents (where payments during residency are $100/month regardless of the total loan amount or your income). DRB refinances 100% of private and federal loans with a minimum of $5000 and no maximum, no origination fees, offer fixed and variable interest rates, and flexible loan term lengths. Refinancing after applying through the referral link above would net you $300 dollars.
LinkCapital is the newest player to the party, and they’ve joined DRB as only the second company to actively court residents for refinancing. Unsurprisingly, the resident rate won’t be as a good as the attending rate (but still likely better than the federal one). The token monthly payment is $75 instead of DRB’s $100/month, so it’s slightly more flexible, and similarly accrued interest won’t capitalize until the end of the residency/fellowship period. They also have a unique model where the resident rate automatically goes down a bit when you reach attendinghood. Trainees in their final year with a signed employment contract automatically qualify for the attending rate as well. If you’re a resident, apply to DRB and LinkCapital and use whichever gives you the best rate. Minimum amount is $15k with a maximum loan of $450k with the usual standard offerings: fixed & variable, multiple term lengths (7, 10, 15 and 20-year), cosigners if needed, etc. Refinancing via the above link gets you $150.
SoFi (which stands for “Social Finance”) was the first company to make a name for itself in the current game of loan refinancing and the most likely to send you pre-qualification letters in the mail. The “social” refers to the fact the company originally funded loans at select institutions using money invested by school alumni. Since then the company has grown and begun using conventional financing, but they still claim that some community money makes it into every loan. Refinancing after applying through the referral link above would net you $300 dollars. SoFi has no special programs for residents, interest-only payments, etc. It’s straight up refinancing: minimum loan amount of $10k, variable and fixed rates, and must have graduated from an “eligible” school (depending on where you went, there may also be an origination fee, which is otherwise not typical among these options).
LendKey (formerly known as cuStudentLoans, where “cu” stood for credit union) is the only lender to offer interest-only payments. You can do the math with your own loans to see where that leaves you, but if you didn’t borrow too much, it could be even less than IBR (making it potentially affordable as a resident). While one should theoretically always put extra money toward paying down loans, having an interest-only option gives you some month to month flexibility, particularly if you’re transitioning from resident-money to attending-money and want to refinance—but don’t want to start paying a ton immediately. No origination fees, variable and fixed options available, but the maximum loan amount is $175k, which makes LendKey nonviable for big borrowers. If you owe only a little bit more, you could always refinance the full amount possible while paying down the remainder in a lump/quickly2. They quoted to me that an annual income of around $75k would be required to refinance the maximum $175k. If you apply with a cosigner, LendKey advertises their straightforward co-signer release program, which will help you parents get off the hook after a few years.
CommonBond is unique in that they offer a “hybrid” 10-year rate plan which is fixed for the first 5 years and then variable for the last 5 (essentially analogous to a 5-year ARM on your mortgage). The hybrid rate range doesn’t look particularly impressive, but one imagines that on an individual basis that the hybrid rate should fall somewhere between the variable and fixed rates and helps mitigate the anxiety of committing to a full variable rate (particularly if one hopes to be aggressive in paying down the loan). No origination fees, but there is an accepted/eligible school list. They also do Parent PLUS loans. CommonBond also offers academic deferment if you decide to go back to school for that MBA. They also agreed to reimburse readers with $300 for using the above link.
Earnest has some interesting unique features compared with the other players. The main one is totally arbitrary term limits (up to 20 years). You want 10.5 years? You got it! What this means is that you can choose a term length and pay the monthly amount, or you can decide on a monthly amount that works for you (and then pay that over the resultant calculated term). In practice, that makes Earnest a potential option for refinancing during residency. For example, if you refinanced a $200k loan at 3% for 20 years, your monthly payment would be $1000 (more than IBR but doable for some). Smaller loans make this option more feasible obviously, but even if you have a long term-length, you can always pay down faster, so really the goal here is to get the shortest term that you can afford for now and pay down aggressively as soon as possible. Other interesting features are biweekly payments (to help cut down on accrued interest) and the ability to quickly refinance/change between fixed and variable rates without charge or penalty.3 So if you need to lower your payments because of tough times, they offer rapid refinancing at a longer term to make it happen (of course you’ll also pay more and probably have a worse rate, but hey). It also means that once you’re making more money and can afford to pay more per month, it may be worth refinancing again to get a lower rate (assuming the market hasn’t shifted). Loans start at $5000, no origination fees. Most but not all states are eligible.
Citizens Bank offers new student loans in addition to loan refinance. The maximum loan amount is $170k, on the low side. Product is otherwise typical: No origination fees. Fixed or variable. Co-signer release available. Nothing special/unique.
Credible isn’t an actual lender, it’s a student loan refinance marketplace. When you apply through Credible, you apply to up to 9 lenders simultaneously, which would be a nice time savings and an easy head to head comparison. That said, several big players aren’t on their list, so you’d have to (and should) apply to those separately. Residents probably needn’t bother, as DRB and LinkCapital aren’t included. Neither are SoFi and Earnest. And several of the 9 are irrelevant to most doctors, due to low loan amount caps or for only being for people from Rhode Island.
Overall, the interest rate ranges offered by these companies are generally comparable. Typically when one lowers their rates, the others have followed quickly followed suit.4 The increasing competition in this space has been excellent for consumers, because the rates offered even a year ago weren’t that much lower than the federal ones. So, if you have several potential options based on your loan burden and your income, you might as well apply to all and see who gives you the best deal.5 Preliminary applications generally take 2-5 minutes, so there isn’t a big time investment in doing your due diligence.
Unless you work at qualifying non-profit institutions and are making qualifying payments toward achieving public service loan forgiveness (PSLF), there is essentially no reason to stay with federal loans given today’s interest rates if you qualify for private refinancing.
Bonuses: As mentioned above, I was able to convince several companies to provide a monetary incentive for you, dear reader, should you choose to refinance with them (in addition to a more standard referral bounty to me). I’m pretty pleased about that, as this allows you to effortlessly support me/this site as well as yourself.
Many of these programs have referral programs, so if you were to refinance through one of the links below, you would also be supporting me/this site. After negotiating, some have been kind enough to extend even bigger bonuses to the referees (you), which I’ve enumerated below.↩
E.g. 185k loan = refinance $175k and pay 10k to the feds at the same time to be done with it.↩
Technically you can always refinance your loans or switch companies, and none of the players charge fees or prepayment penalties, but Earnest lets you do this quickly without reapplying and all the time and energy that entails.↩
Current rates have recently lowered again with variable rates at the moment as low as 1.9%↩
When you apply to several student loan companies within a short time frame once, it’s considered a single hit (soft pull, not hard) on your credit report, and your score won’t change. The hard pull comes once you’ve chosen a company and it’s time to make money change hands.↩