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Student Loans

Do Student Loans Cover a Semester or Year?

Student loans are typically designed to cover the costs of an entire academic year, although they are often disbursed one term at a time. This means your funding might be divided across semesters, trimesters, or quarters, depending on your school’s schedule.

This article explains how student loans are structured, the disbursement process, and the key factors affecting your loan coverage period. You’ll gain a better understanding of managing your student loan funds effectively and avoiding financial stress while you pursue your education.

Are federal student loans per semester or year?

Federal student loans are awarded for a full academic year. Even so, they’re usually disbursed once per term. Depending on the school you choose to attend, terms are commonly broken down into semesters, trimesters, or quarters. 

Federal student loan application process

The federal student loan process starts with submitting the Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA) form. You can expect it to take about an hour to complete, including the time you need to gather any required information (e.g., details about your income and assets).

When you complete the FAFSA, the Department of Education will send you an award letter detailing the federal financial aid for which you’re eligible. That might include federal student loans, Pell grants, or work-study funding. 

The FAFSA is only good for one academic year. You’ll need to renew your eligibility for student aid by resubmitting your FAFSA annually. In many cases, you’ll just need to:

  • Update your income information
  • Update your tax information
  • Double-check all your personal information is still correct

Each time you renew your FAFSA, the Department of Education will review your information to determine the amount you’re eligible to receive for the new academic year. The amount of aid you receive can change from one year to the next. However, changes to your aid amount shouldn’t affect your school’s schedule for disbursing those funds. 

Federal student loan disbursement schedule

You can generally expect your school to disburse your federal student loan funds at least once a term, which may be semesters, trimesters, or quarters. Some schools instead disburse funds at the beginning and halfway points of the academic year. 

Knowing that the student loan funds might not be disbursed immediately is important. For instance, if you’re a first-year undergraduate student and first-time borrower, you may be subject to a 30-day waiting period for funding. It begins after the first day of your enrollment period.

Some students must also complete entrance counseling before the school disburses the funds, including: 

  • First-time borrowers of Direct Subsidized or Unsubsidized loans
  • First-time graduate or professional borrowers of Direct PLUS loans

Not only is it helpful to know the disbursement schedule, but understanding how much money you might receive can help ensure proper planning. The amount of money you can receive from the FAFSA can depend on your year of enrollment, the type of loans you qualify for, and your dependency status. 

Schools apply your federal loan funds toward your tuition, fees, and room and board if you’re living on-campus on a per-term basis. The school then pays out any remaining funds to you. 


Let your school know if you don’t want to use the excess student loan funds. These can be returned, even if the funds have already been sent to you. It’s a good idea not to borrow more student loans than you need. 

How do my federal student loans change if I only attend school for one semester?

While federal student loans are awarded for a full academic year, they’re usually only disbursed once a term. If you only attend school for one semester, you simply won’t receive any additional disbursements after that term ends. 

Taking a semester off school means there’s nothing to disburse for that period. You must notify the financial aid office you don’t plan to enroll that semester. Your school would still disburse funds as scheduled when you’re attending classes to cover your costs of attendance.

As a part of its normal process, your school’s financial aid office will double-check to ensure you haven’t received too much in student loan funds than you’re eligible to receive. If there’s an overpayment, you may be required to repay the excess funds. 

Alternatively, you may be asked to sign a reaffirmation agreement, where you agree to repay the excess funds per the terms of the original promissory note you signed. If you have any questions, contact your school’s financial aid office to discuss this. 


Federal student loans have a six-month grace period in which no payment is due. The grace period covers six months after graduation, dropping below half-time enrollment, or leaving school. If you plan to take time off, reenroll within the six-month window to avoid triggering loan repayment. 

Are private student loans per semester or year?

Unlike federal loans, private student loans typically cover a single academic year. Some lenders may allow you to apply for funding on a per-semester basis. You’ll need to reapply each academic year or semester you anticipate needing funds.

Private student loan application process

Banks, credit unions, and private lenders offer private student loans. You can apply for a private student loan anytime, regardless of when the academic year or semester begins. 

While the exact process will vary by lender, you’ll usually apply for a private student loan by submitting an online application. Once you do so, the lender will evaluate your creditworthiness and income to determine if you qualify. 

Some lenders will allow you to apply with a well-qualified cosigner if you can’t get approved independently. Remember that the cosigner agrees to repay the student loan if you fail to do so. That said, take extra care to ensure you pay your loan as agreed to preserve the relationship. 

As you’re thinking about how much private student loan funding to request, consider factors like:

  • Whether you’re also receiving federal student aid
  • Your costs of attendance at your chosen school

Most private lenders offer loans covering up to 100% of your cost of attendance, less any financial aid you’ve received. For example, if your cost of attendance is $30,000 per year, and you’re getting $20,000 in federal aid, you may need to take out a $10,000 private student loan to cover the gap. 

Private student loan disbursement schedule

Once approved for student loans, most lenders send funds to the school, though some may send funds directly to you. During the application and approval process, you should ask your lender how funds will be disbursed so you’re prepared for what’s next.

Schools can set the dates for funds to disburse, often at the beginning of each semester you’re enrolled. For instance, if you attend school in the fall and spring semesters, the institution will disburse half the funds each term. 

How do my private student loans change if I only attend school for one semester?

As mentioned, private student loans often follow the school’s disbursement schedule. If your school disburses funds at the beginning of each semester, and you enroll for the fall term only, it won’t disburse money for the spring term. 

You’re not obligated to repay loan funds until they’re disbursed. So if you decide to skip a semester, and your school doesn’t disburse the money, you won’t need to return anything to the school. However, you need to let the school know you’re not planning to enroll for the next semester. 

The school may have a deadline for canceling student loan disbursement. If you’re confident you won’t need additional loan funds because you’re not planning to attend, it’s wise to contact your financial aid office as soon as possible.

What factors affect your student loan coverage period?

In general, the amount of your student loan award is intended to cover a full year of education expenses. Your school will disburse just enough funds to cover the annual cost of attendance (COA) each term. Student loan awards are generally limited to the COA.

Each school will set its own policies regarding when and how the funds are disbursed. Most schools issue two payments (one in the fall semester and another in the spring). However, if your school operates on quarters or trimesters, you may receive more frequent distributions.

In addition to the school’s policies, the other major factor affecting your student loan coverage period is your cost of attendance. While most schools will apply some of your loan proceeds directly to your tuition and fees, you’ll need to budget for other items included in the COA.

It’s critical to carefully budget your loan proceeds to ensure you have enough funds to cover the costs during each distribution period. As you prepare your budget, plan for all the annual costs your student loans are intended to cover. Some significant costs in the annual COA include:

Tuition and fees

These are the primary expenses that your student loans will cover. They include the cost of attending classes and any additional fees required by your institution.

Books, materials, and supplies

These costs can add up quickly. Be sure to allocate enough funds for your courses’ textbooks, lab materials, and other necessary supplies.

Living expenses

Whether you live on-campus or off-campus, you must budget for housing, food, and utilities. This is a significant part of your COA.

Transportation costs

Depending on your situation, this may include public transportation, gas, or car maintenance. Plan for daily travel expenses and trips home during breaks.

Other costs of attendance

Beyond the primary expenses, there are other expenses to consider. These may include miscellaneous expenses like buying a personal computer, childcare or dependent care, disability-related costs, fees for getting licensed or certified, and expenses for eligible study abroad programs. 

Each of these costs can vary, so include them in your budget to avoid financial surprises. With careful planning, you can ensure that your student loan coverage lasts throughout the year, helping you focus on your studies without financial stress.

How to manage student loan funds

Any time you put together a budget, it’s essential to detail the expense line items and the source of the funds. You should follow the same process with your student loans. By taking time to plan, you’ll help ensure you receive the right amount of funding.

As you’re putting together your student loan budget, take time to do the following:

  • Plan for the semester versus the year. Breaking down your annual budget into manageable chunks helps track spending more effectively and make necessary adjustments. This ensures you have enough funds each term.
  • Adjust loan amounts if needs change. Contact the financial aid office at your school if your financial situation changes during the academic year. An advisor may be able to help you adjust your loan amounts to better match your current needs.
  • Avoid over-borrowing. Only borrow what you truly need. While taking the maximum loan amount offered may be tempting, remember that you’ll have to pay it back with interest. Assess your actual expenses and borrow accordingly.
  • Track your spending. Monitor your expenses regularly to stay within your budget. Use spreadsheets, budgeting apps, or ordinary pen and paper to keep track of where your money is going.

Financial plans are only worthwhile if you use them. Taking time to put together a plan, monitor it, and make adjustments are critical steps to effectively managing your student loan funds.