If you have a student loan (or two), there’s a good chance you’ve heard of Great Lakes Higher Education Corporation & Affiliates. But even if you’re making payments through the company’s loan portal, you may not completely understand its relationship to your college financing. Well, we’re here to help. Here’s an explainer on Great Lakes student loans.
What Is Great Lakes?
You may have heard of Great Lakes referred to as “Great Lakes Loans” but, as we mentioned earlier, the company’s formal name is actually Great Lakes Higher Education Corporation & Affiliates (or, simply, Great Lakes for short), and it’s a student loan servicer — not a lender.
Huh? What’s a Student Loan Servicer?
A student loan servicer is a company that facilitates your student loan payments. Great Lakes is a non-profit organization that manages federal student loans for the U.S. Department of Education. (We’ve got a short, handy guide to federal student loans right here.) It also partners with private student lenders. The company is headquartered in Madison, Wisconsin, but it has operating centers around the country. According to its website, Great Lakes currently employs nearly 2,000 people nationwide.
Cut to the Chase: Great Lakes
- Headquartered in Madison, Wisconsin with nearly 2,000 employees nationwide
- Services over $232 billion in student loans for more than 8 million borrowers
- Guarantees about $29 billion in Federal Family Education Loans
- Can be reached at 1 (800) 236-4300 or via email on its website
- Has an active social media presence, answering borrower questions via its Facebook page and Twitter handle.
- Offers its borrowers a 0.25% interest-rate reduction on federal direct student loans when set to autopay
Wait … So What Does Great Lakes Do?
If Great Lakes is, in fact, your student loan servicer, it bills you for and processes your student loan payments. It’s also your go-to if you’re having trouble making payments and need to set up an income-driven repayment plan, forbearance or deferment. It can help you determine whether you qualify for student loan forgiveness. Finally, your servicer is also responsible for a number of administrative tasks associated with your student loan, including processing a change of address, changing your bill’s due date and providing you with tax-filing statements. In other words, Great Lakes is a middleman between you and your lender — and you’ll be going first and foremost to them for whatever needs arise as you work to pay back your college financing.
Can I Choose Great Lakes as My Student Loan Servicer?
Not initially. Your student loan servicer is assigned after your loan is disbursed. Student loans typically are disbursed, or paid out, in at least two installments, per the Department of Education. Your servicer generally contacts you after that first payment is made. Your student loan servicer, however, can change multiple times over the life of your loan. And you can choose your student loan servicer if you move to refinance your loans or consolidate your federal student loans under the Direct Consolidation Loan program.
How Do I Know Who My Student Loan Servicer Is?
If you’re not sure who your federal student loan servicer is, you can find out by logging into your account on the Education Department’s My Federal Student Aid website or the National Student Loan Data System. If you have private student loans, you can call your lender to find out who your servicer is. Your servicer may also be listed on your credit report. (You can view your free credit report snapshot on Credit.com.)
OK, Great Lakes Is My Servicer. How Do I Manage My Student Loan?
You can sign up for account access by visiting Great Lakes’ website and entering your Social Security number. From there, you’ll establish your user ID, password and personal identification number (PIN), which can be used to set up autopay, assess repayment options, or calculate payoff amounts, among other things. You can call Great Lakes with urgent matters at 1 (800) 236-4300. (Customer service representatives are on hand from Monday through Friday, 7 a.m. to 9 p.m. CT.) You can also email Great Lakes with less pressing questions via a form on its website.
Are There Perks to Having Great Lakes as a Servicer?
Like many student loan servicers, Great Lakes offers the borrowers it oversees a 0.25% interest-rate reduction on federal direct student loans when you set them to autopay. The company also has a pretty extensive Knowledge Center that can help current students, former students and parents learn more about student loans and the best ways to go about paying them back. It’s also very active on social media and answers plenty of general questions regarding student loans on Facebook and Twitter.
Can I Pay Great Lakes With a Credit Card?
Per our partner Student Loan Hero, not as a general rule of thumb — and beyond that, there are serious downsides to paying any student loan with a credit card. For starters, while some servicers will accept one as a form of payment, they more often than not charge additional fees to do so. So, if you were looking to charge that monthly bill to a rewards credit card in an effort to earn points and miles, you probably wouldn’t be getting ahead. Moreover, credit cards tend to carry higher interest rates than student loans, so if you plan on carrying that balance, you’re likely increasing the total cost of your college education.
In other words: If that credit card payment was an emergency backup plan and you’re struggling to stay current on your student loans, it’s worth calling up your servicer to see if you qualify for a different repayment plan, deferment or forbearance.
A Little Credit 101 for Student Loan Borrowers
If you have student loans on the books, figuring out who your student loan servicer is and setting up monthly payments post-graduation is critical when it comes to starting off on the right financial foot. On-time student loan payments will help you build credit, while missed student loan payments can do big damage to your credit score. If you don’t have a student loan, you can build credit by looking into a student credit card or a secured credit card. (Note: Under federal law, anyone under 21 will need to demonstrate their ability to repay or have a willing co-signer in order to get a credit card.)
Got a question about your student loans? Leave it in our comments section and one of our experts will try to help!
This article has been updated. It originally ran on Jan. 5, 2017.