I've narrowed my lenders down to these two lenders and I'll tell ya what I know. It's a lot of little details so I hope I'm getting them all right...
1) ADVANTAGE: For Staffords, their interest rate reduction begins IMMEDIATELY after the repayment period begins. At most of the other places, you have to make 36 consecutive payments ON-TIME to qualify for a 3.3% interest discount, but if you miss 1 of those payments, you lose your shot at the rate reduction for good. If you miss a Stafford payment at THE (2 months) or Access (12 months), they have ways for you to get it back (see below). For THE the interest reduction is 1.3% for Staffords and 1% for private loans. For Access, it's only .8% reduction on Staffords with an additional .25% reduction for automatic withdrawals. For private loans, Access group only offers a .5% reduction after 48 on-time payments and the .25% auto-withdrawl discounts with NO way to regain the incentive eligibility if you miss a payment, so I'd stay away from Access for private loans.
ADVANTAGE: I got a better PRIVATE interest rate from both Accesss (LIBOR + 1.7% = ~7.15%) and THE (LIBOR + 1.75% ~7.15%) than from the others. From Citibank and Sallie Mae, I was offered Prime + 0% (about 8%). Who knows how long the LIBOR will be lower than the prime, but for now it works out well.
ADVANTAGE: The FA officer told me both are non-profit lenders that try to funnel money back to students rather than shareholders. They're also supposed to have much better customer service and leniency according to the experience of the FA officer I spoke with.
ADVANTAGE: Neither Access nor THE have any origination or repayment fees Make sure you watch this with other lenders!
DISADVANTAGE: For private loans at THE, their interest rate cap is 18% vs. I think 9% or 10% with Citibank. Interest rates are topping out right now but its still something to consider...
DISADVANTAGE: You have to do the calculations, but the 3.3% interest rate reduction offered by Sallie Mae after 36 on-time payments may be a better deal than getting only 1.3% in the short-term. This will depend on how long you plan on taking to pay back your loan obviously...
2) -For private loans, DEFINITELY go with THE as described above.
-In repayment for a Stafford, THE's cashback incentive is 1.3% vs. 1.05% for Access Group (assuming you do the automatic withdrawals).
-THE allows you to regain the 1.3% incentive as long as you have no delinquent accounts in the last 60 days whereas Access takes 12 months to regain the incentive if you miss a payment.
3) No insider info, but I can give you my personal advice:
If you plan on paying back your loan within the first 4 or 5 years after graduation, THE is probably the best way to go for both Staffords and Private loans.
If you plan on paying back you loan over the 10 or 20 years period, you should do the calculations but its probably better to go with someone other than Acess and THE (Sallie Mae offers 3.3% back after 36 ontime payments BUT they also charge a 3% repayment fee, so watch for it. Citibank gives you 2.25% back after 36 payments but with NO repayment fee.)
Yikes, that was wayyyy more info than I planned on when I started typing! There's so much info there, someone please make any corrections or additions where you see fit. Anyhow, I hope its helpful. Personally, I've decided to go the way of THE for both my Stafford AND private loan just to make it easy to keep track of my loans...but whatever you do, good luck to ya!