Out of reach

Staff Writer
Columbus Alive

Just last year, students in search of private loans could usually get one despite a straight-out-of-high-school credit history.

Before, most lenders required a relatively easy-to-achieve credit score of 620 before they'd give out a loan. Now, that magic number has skyrocketed by 40 or more points, a direct result of the credit crisis that's swept through all parts of the financial sector.

"If you're a student who's straight out of high school and you have thin or nonexistent credit history, you're not getting one of these loans," said Mark Kantrowitz, who publishes FinAid.org, a popular website for student financial information, advice and tools.

You'll have to get a parent or relative to co-sign, putting their credit on the line for you, he added.

According to students and schools he's hearing from now, lenders have increased their credit-score requirements to at least 650 and sometimes more than 700.

"Even if you can get one on your own, it's to your benefit to get a credit-worthy co-signer," Kantrowitz said, explaining that this can get you a better interest rate.

Credit scores range from 300 to 850 and are based on your credit history - things like credit card debt and missed loan or utility payments.

Although you can't look up your exact credit score number, you can get a hint by finding out what your credit history looks like on AnnualCreditReport.com. Lenders, though, can see your score. It determines if you'll be approved for a loan and what your interest rate will be.

To get a credit score that meets private-loan standards these days, students would need to build about two years of good credit history - something nontraditional students are more likely to have done than those straight out of high school, Kantrowitz said.

Student loans are shrinking up because investors have recoiled across the board, starting with the housing and foreclosure crisis. It's to the point where student loans aren't nearly as profitable, and plenty of private student loan agencies have stopped offering them altogether.

Those agencies that haven't cut loans have increased interest rates, increased the minimum balance required for loan consolidation and gotten rid of the loan discounts they once offered.

For these reasons, federal loans are preferable, Kantrowitz said. They're also more readily available, and come with cheaper interest rates and better repayment terms.

Regardless of the source, he advises limiting the amount of a loan. A good rule of thumb is to avoid taking out more in loans than your expected salary.

In the meantime, the private loan sector won't change until the credit crisis is over and investments and loans start to flow again.

"My sense is that we're going to start seeing some improvement mid-next year," Kantrowitz said.

"If I could predict the future," he said, "I'd be rich."