College graduates worry that they will be stuck repaying their student loans for decades, even during retirement. The amount of time it takes to repay a student loan in full depends on the type of loan, the amount borrowed, the interest rate and the repayment plan the borrower selects, as well as the use of deferments and forbearances. Borrowers typically take no more than 16-19 years to repay their federal student loans. 

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Repaying Federal Student Loans

Repayment plans for federal student loans are divided into two categories: traditional and income-driven.

Traditional repayment plans include:

  • Standard repayment. A standard repayment plan gives borrowers up to 10 years to repay the loan. The exact monthly payment amount will vary depending on the total loan amount, but each payment will be a minimum of $50. As a good rule of thumb, the monthly payment will be about 1% of the loan balance at repayment.
  • Graduated repayment. Under the graduated repayment plan, borrowers have up to 30 years to repay their federal student loans, depending on the amount borrowed. Monthly payments will start just above interest-only payments and increase every two years.
  • Extended repayment. The extended repayment plan gives borrowers up to 30 years to repay their loans in full, depending on the amount owed.

There are two types of extended repayment plans.

  • If the borrower does not consolidate their federal student loans, the borrower is eligible for a 25-year repayment term, if the borrower has a total of at least $30,000 in federal student loan debt.
  • If the borrower consolidates their federal student loans, the consolidation loan is eligible for various repayment terms based on the loan balance, according to this table.

Loan Balance

Repayment Term

Less than $7,500

10 years

$7,500 to $9,999

12 years

$10,000 to $19,999

15 years

$20,000 to $39,999

20 years

$40,000 to $59,999

25 years

$60,000 or more

30 years

A similar set of repayment terms apply to graduated repayment. (Beware, the information on the U.S. Department of Education’s web site that claims that graduated repayment is limited to 10 years and extended repayment to 25 years is incorrect.)

Income-driven repayment plans base the monthly loan payments on the borrower’s income and family size, as opposed to the amount they owe. Income-driven repayment plans include:

  • Income-Contingent Repayment (ICR). Monthly payments are based on 20 percent of the borrower’s discretionary income, which is defined as the amount by which the borrower’s income exceeds 100 percent of the poverty line. Monthly payments are not capped and will increase without limit as income increases. If the borrower is married, monthly payments are based on just the borrower’s income if the borrower files as married filing separately and includes the spouse’s income if the tax filing status is married filing jointly. After 25 years (300 payments), the remaining debt is forgiven.
  • Income-Based Repayment (IBR). Monthly payments are based on 15 percent of the borrower’s discretionary income, which is defined as the amount by which the borrower’s income exceeds 150 percent of the poverty line. Monthly payments are capped at the standard 10-year payment amount. If the borrower is married, monthly payments are based on just the borrower’s income if the borrower files as married filing separately and includes the spouse’s income if the tax filing status is married filing jointly. After 25 years (300 payments), the remaining debt is forgiven.
  • Pay-As-You-Earn Repayment (PAYE). Monthly payments are based on 10 percent of the borrower’s discretionary income, which is defined as the amount by which the borrower’s income exceeds 150 percent of the poverty line. Monthly payments are capped at the standard 10-year payment amount. If the borrower is married, monthly payments are based on just the borrower’s income if the borrower files as married filing separately and includes the spouse’s income if the tax filing status is married filing jointly. After 20 years (240 payments), the remaining debt is forgiven.
  • Revised Pay–As-You-Earn Repayment (REPAYE). Monthly payments are based on 10 percent of the borrower’s discretionary income, which is defined as the amount by which the borrower’s income exceeds 150 percent of the poverty line. Monthly payments are not capped and will increase without limit as income increases. If the borrower is married, monthly payments are based on both the borrower’s and spouse’s income, regardless of their tax filing status. After 20 years (240 payments) for undergraduate students and 25 years (300 payments) for graduate students, the remaining debt is forgiven.

Repaying Private Student Loans

Repayment terms on private student loans vary much more than on federal student loans. It is common for private student loan holders to offer 10-year repayment terms, but some can offer repayment terms as short as 5 years and as long as 25 years.

For private student loan debt originating from academic year 2010 and 2011, 90 percent of outstanding debt was repaid within 32 quarters, according to MeasureOne.

Private student loan borrowers should examine their loan terms and/or talk to their loan servicer to ensure they know the repayment terms.

How Long Does Repayment Take in Reality?

While repayment plan terms offer some insight into the amount of time it takes to pay off student loans, repayment in practice can take a different course. Here are some actions that can increase or decrease the amount of time it takes to repay a student loan in full.

  • Extra payments. Some borrowers can afford to make extra payments on their student loans. Consistent extra payments will reduce the time it takes to pay off the debt and the lower the total repayment amount. For example, suppose a borrower owes $30,000 at 6% interest with a 10-year repayment term. The monthly payment is about $333 and the total payments are $39,967. If the borrower makes an extra payment of $50 every month, the total payments drop to $38,263 and the loan will be paid off in 8.3 years.
  • Deferments and Forbearances. Student loan deferments and forbearances allow borrowers to temporarily stop making payments on their student loans. The economic hardship deferment for federal student loans is limited to 3 years in total duration, as are forbearances. With private student loans, forbearances are typically limited to a year in total duration. Deferments and forbearances add to the amount of time it takes to repay the debt. Interest continues to accrue on unsubsidized loans during a deferment and on all loans during a forbearance, and will be capitalized by adding it to the loan balance if it is not paid as it accrues.
  • Consolidation. Consolidating student loans allows borrowers to combine multiple federal student loans into one. This means making a single monthly loan payment instead of multiple payments. While this can streamline the repayment process, it resets the clock to zero, increasing the amount of time in repayment.
  • Refinancing. Refinancing a student loan can lower monthly payments on student debt, but lower payments inevitably mean it will take longer to repay the loan in full. For example, refinancing a loan with an initial 10-year payment period could result in 30 years of repayment.
  • Delinquency and Default. A student loan is considered delinquent after one late or missed payment. The student loan goes into default after a continued period of delinquency, 120 days for private student loans and 360 days for federal student loans. Missed payments will obviously add to the timeline for repayment, as well as other consequences.

According to an analysis of government data by Mark Kantrowitz, Publisher and VP of Research of Savingforcollege.com, the average time in repayment for federal student loans is up 16 or 19 years, depending on whether the maximum repayment term is weighted by the number of borrowers or the amount of the loans.