updated 6/29/2005 7:45:05 PM ET 2005-06-29T23:45:05

Borrowers flooded the Department of Education and lenders with phone calls as they rushed to beat the deadline to consolidate student loans before interest rates rise.

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The variable interest rate on federal student loans will rise nearly 2 percentage points after midnight Thursday. Some borrowers could save thousands of dollars over the lives of their loans by consolidating at the lower rate.

The unusually sharp increase has prompted a wave of last-minute inquiries, causing back-ups for banks' 800 numbers and at the Department of Education's Direct Loan Servicing Center, where at least some calls weren't getting through Wednesday.

Department spokeswoman Susan Aspey encouraged borrowers to file electronically — the department added nine Internet servers for extra traffic — or to call at off-peak times. The center will remain open until midnight Pacific time Thursday.

Borrowers can generally apply for consolidation loans online, but the process can be tricky and they often end up phoning lenders with inquiries.

"The volume is tremendous," said Jennifer Darwin, a spokeswoman for Charlotte, N.C.-based Wachovia Corp., which said call volume was up 51 percent compared to a year ago.

A spokeswoman for Charlotte-based Bank of America said callers should expect to be on hold an hour or more, even though the bank has added staff to field calls.

Other companies said their preparations worked. Mark Brenner, president of San Diego-based College Loan Corp., said 97 percent of calls were being answered within 30 seconds.

At Collegiate Funding Services in Fredericksburg, Va., executive vice president Clark McGhee also said most queries were being answered, thanks to extra staff and overtime, despite several times the usual volume. Pennsylvania's Higher Education Assistance Agency had managers answering calls, which were at more than twice the usual volume.

Some lenders bombarded students with reminders encouraging them to consolidate, but it didn't prevent a last-second rush.

"You'd be surprised how many students out there have no idea what interest rates have been doing and what it means for them," said Matthew Steingraber, vice president of marketing at Academic Financial Services in Tampa, Fla., where volume is about 50 percent higher than normal. "A lot of them don't realize they have options."

Still, consolidation is a risk. Interest rates have been at historic lows, but if they were to eventually drop even more, students might regret locking in at a higher rate.

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