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What is the maximum amount of student loans in a lifetime?

December 05, 2018

There are two main types of student loans: federal student loans and private student loans.  While the eligibility requirements and repayment terms differ for each type of loan, every student loan program defines upper limits on how much money students may borrow.  Below we explain the maximum lifetime amounts that students are eligible to borrow for each type of loan.


Maximum Borrowing Limits for Federal Student Loans

Every federal student loan program has defined upper limits on how much students are eligible to borrow.  Limits are imposed on annual and maximum borrowing amounts, and differ based on a few different factors:

  • Cost of school attendance;

  • Type of loan (whether it is subsidized or not);

  • Student’s year of enrollment in school;

  • Whether the student is considered a dependent or independent for tax purposes;

  • For dependent students, whether the student’s parents qualify for Direct PLUS loans; and

  • Whether the loan is for undergraduate or graduate school.


The Federal Student Aid Office of the Department of Education defines the maximum permissible borrowing amounts for federal student loans.  The maximum amount that dependent students may borrow is $31,000, of which not more than $23,000 may be in the form of subsidized loans.  The maximum amount that independent students may borrow is $57,500, with the same upper limit ($23,000) on subsidized loans. Graduate students, who are always considered independent, can borrow the most - $138,500, with not more than $65,500 taken in the form of subsidized loans.  However, the aggregate loan limit imposed on graduate students also includes any federal student debt incurred during undergraduate studies.


Students may borrow above the maximum stated limits if they repay some of the debt that they already have incurred.  However, in no case may a student borrow an amount that exceeds the cost of attending his or her school.


Maximum Borrowing Limits for Private Student Loans

Private lenders, such as banks and credit unions, independently set the terms for private student loans.  As such, every private lender specifies a different upper limit for how much it is willing to loan to students.  Private lenders typically consider the following factors when determining maximum permissible borrowing limits:

  • Internal guidelines: Financial institutions typical define a maximum dollar amount that no student loan can exceed.

  • Credit qualifications: Just like with non-student loans, lenders will consider a student’s credit history when determining maximum borrowing limits.  Students with bad credit or no credit may need a co-signer in order to obtain a private loan.

  • Education and employment: Private lenders do not want to extend more credit than is likely to be “affordable” for a student to pay back.  As such, many private lenders consider factors such as the degree program in which the student is enrolled (and how much money the student is likely to earn after graduation) and the co-signer’s income (if applicable).

  • Cost of attendance: Even if a lender is willing to finance up to 100 percent of the cost of attendance, which many are, few private lenders will let a student borrow more than the total price of enrollment at school.


Many students do not obtain enough federal financial aid to adequately cover their costs.  Receiving federal loans, even up to the maximum permissible amount, does not prevent a student from also borrowing from a private lender.  As such, students often assume additional private loans to pay for the remainder of their expenses.