Annual and aggregate loan limits specify the maximum amount that may be borrowed from a student loan program per year and in total. Student loan limits vary depending on the type of loan, the student’s degree level, year in school and dependency status, the college’s cost of attendance, other aid received by the student and the loan program.

Federal student loan limits are specified by the Higher Education Act of 1965 and are changed by Congress about once a decade. Loan limits for private student loans are set by each lender, such as banks, credit unions and other financial institutions, and may be changed more frequently.

When a student reaches the annual or aggregate limits for federal student loans, they may need to borrow from a private or parent loan program to cover the remaining college costs. These loans have higher annual borrowing limits, which can not only meet the need for more money, but which can also contribute to over-borrowing by students and parents.

Cost of Attendance Caps

The Federal Direct Stafford Loan and Federal Direct PLUS Loan are subject to cost of attendance caps. The amount borrowed may not exceed the cost of attendance less other financial aid.

Most private lenders also base annual loan limits on the college’s cost of attendance.

The cost of attendance includes allowances for college costs, as determined by the college. These costs include

  • Tuition and fees
  • Room and board
  • Books, supplies and equipment
  • Transportation
  • Miscellaneous/personal expenses

A student with above average expenses, special needs expenses or dependent care costs may need to appeal to the college financial aid office for an increase in the cost of attendance.

The cost of attendance cap is reduced by the amount of other financial aid received by the student to pay for their college costs. Financial aid may include grants, scholarships, tuition waivers, student employment and student loans. may reduce the eligible federal loan amounts below the legal maximum.

Subsidized loans, such as the subsidized Federal Stafford Loan, may also be limited by the student’s demonstrated financial need. Demonstrated financial need is the difference between the cost of attendance and the student’s expected family contribution (EFC), as determined by the Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA).

 

Annual Loan Limits

In addition to the cost of attendance caps, Federal law prescribes specific maximum amounts for Federal Direct Stafford Loans. Private student loans may also have annual dollar limits, typically $40,000 or more. The annual limits on private student loans are generally higher than the limits on federal student loans.

Federal Direct Stafford Loans

Federal Direct Stafford Loans have overall limits for subsidized and unsubsidized loans, combined. The subsidized loans also have a separate, lower annual limit. Students may borrow any remaining Federal Direct Stafford Loan eligibility beyond the subsidized loans as an unsubsidized Federal Direct Stafford Loan.

The combined annual limits for subsidized and unsubsidized Federal Direct Stafford Loans are based on the student’s degree program, year in school, and whether the student is dependent or independent.

Subsidized loan limits are the same for dependent and independent students. Unsubsidized loan limits are equal to the overall limit less any subsidized loan received.

The annual loan limits for independent students are higher than the annual loan limits for dependent students. If a dependent student’s parent is ineligible for the Federal Direct Parent PLUS Loan because of an adverse credit history, the student becomes eligible for the increased unsubsidized Federal Direct Stafford Loan limits available to independent students.

Graduate and professional school students are not eligible for subsidized federal loans, only unsubsidized loans. The health professions include physicians, dentists, pharmacists and veterinarians.

The annual loan limits for Federal Direct Stafford Loans are shown in this table. All graduate students are independent and their limits are shown in the independent student column.

Degree Program and
Year in School

Subsidized Stafford Loan Limit

Overall Stafford Loan Limit

Dependent Students

Independent Students

1st Year Undergraduate Students

$3,500

$5,500

$9,500

2nd Year Undergraduate Students

$4,500

$6,500

$10,500

3rd, 4th and 5th Year Undergraduate Students

$5,500

$7,500

$12,500

Graduate Students

N/A

N/A

$20,500

Health Professions Students

N/A

N/A

$40,500

Federal Direct PLUS Loans

The annual limit for Federal Direct Parent PLUS Loans and Federal Direct Grad PLUS Loans is the cost of attendance minus any other financial aid received. Otherwise, there are no dollar maximums for the Federal Direct PLUS Loans.

Private Student and Parent Loans

Most private student loan lenders limit annual borrowing to the cost of attendance less all other financial aid received, including federal loans. However, some lenders do have an annual cap that might be less than the cost of attendance.

If you’ve decided a private student loan is right for you, check out our list of the best private loans for college.

Aggregate Loan Limits

The longer a student has been in school, the more likely it is that the limiting factor on borrowing will be an aggregate loan limit, sometimes called a cumulative loan limit.

An aggregate loan limit is not a lifetime limit, as the student can regain eligibility when payments reduce the total student loan debt outstanding below the aggregate limit.

Typically, an aggregate limit for a graduate student includes debt taken on as an undergraduate student.

Likewise, the aggregate loan limits for private student loans usually count amounts borrowed through federal loan programs toward those limits.

As with annual loan limits, federal law sets aggregate loan limits for subsidized and unsubsidized Stafford Loans.

Federal Direct Stafford Loans

The aggregate limits for subsidized and unsubsidized Federal Direct Stafford Loans are determined by the student’s degree program and whether the student is dependent or independent. Dependent students whose parents are ineligible for a Federal Direct Parent PLUS Loan are eligible for the same aggregate unsubsidized Federal Stafford Loan limits as independent students.

The aggregate Stafford Loan limit is $31,000 for dependent undergraduate students. The aggregate limit for independent undergraduate students and dependent students whose parents are unable to obtain Direct PLUS Loans is nearly twice as much at $57,500. Up to $23,000 of undergraduate Stafford Loans may be subsidized — this limit applies to both dependent and independent students. The unsubsidized loan limit is equal to the overall limit less the amount of subsidized loans received.

Note that graduate students and health professions students have not been eligible for subsidized Federal Direct Stafford Loans since 2012, so the effective aggregate subsidized Federal Direct Stafford Loan limit for recent graduate students and health professions students has been $23,000, the subsidized Federal Direct Stafford Loan limit for undergraduate students.

The aggregate loan limits for Federal Direct Stafford Loans are shown in this table.

Degree Program

Subsidized Stafford Loan Limit

Overall Stafford Loan Limit

Dependent Students

Independent Students

Undergraduate Students

$23,000

$31,000

$57,500

Graduate Students

$65,500

N/A

$138,500

Health Professions Students

$65,500

N/A

$224,000

Federal Direct PLUS Loans

There is no aggregate limit for the Federal Direct Parent PLUS Loans and Federal Direct Grad PLUS Loans.

Private Student and Parent Loans

Most private student loan lenders have aggregate limits based on the combined total amount borrowed from private and federal loan programs.

Aggregate limits for private student loans can be up to $120,000 to $150,000 for undergraduate students and up to $350,000 to $500,000 for graduate and health professions students. Graduate students pursuing an MBA, law degree or certain health professions are usually subject to higher aggregate borrowing limits.