On July 1, the interest rates for federal Stafford loans will hit the highest level since 2001. The rate for outstanding Stafford loans for the academic year 2006-7 will be 7.14%. New loans issued after July 1 will have a fixed rate of 5.8%.

A lot of student loan borrowers will be seeking out consolidation to lower that rate and their payments. And a new bill will give you a chance to shop around a bit more.

The emergency spending bill signed into law recently eliminated the “single holder rule”. For those of you who didn’t lock in your rate before July 1 — Saturday — you can shop around for a lower rate, since you missed out on one by not locking in your rate.

My parents still receive at least three phone calls a week from people wanting to consolidate student loans. And they haven’t had us living at home with them for years. You can pretty much expect to get more phone calls now that the single holder rule is null.

The rule used to require borrowers whose student loans were all with one lender to consolidate with that lender. They couldn’t go elsewhere for consolidation.

Now, you can shop around, no matter who holds how many of your student loans. However, you need to shop wisely.

Federal law bars most borrowers from consolidating their student loans more than once. You are never told this by the consolidating lender, but it is true. Once you consolidate with a lender, you are stuck with them for life — or at least the next 30 years or so.

So look around a bit before you consolidate. Many lenders have to use the government set rates for Stafford loans. However, they often offer you a reduced rate for having your payments automatically withdrawn from your bank account. Some will even cut your rate if you make so many payments on time. In total, you can have your rate cut by 1.25%.

Read the fine print carefully. Some lenders will take back that rate reduction if you make a late payment in the future.

Because a student loan is a long term debt, you should work with a company that treats you the way you want to be treated. It is probably best to go with a well-known company over one that has no track record. There seems to be thousands of consolidation companies out there (approximated by the numbers of offers I still receive in my mail), so you should be sure of any company you chose to do business with.

You can always call your college’s financial aid office. They will tell you if they have had any complaints about a specific lender. They can also suggest lenders that are good to work with.

Look at the level of service you receive from a company when you contact it. Do you sit on hold forever? Are you left with unanswered questions? Can you talk with the person, or is there a language barrier? I picked up the phone at my mom’s house and the company was calling to consolidate my sister’s loans. The woman couldn’t even pronounce the word “Sarah”. She thought it spelled “Shawn”. She spelled Sarah’s name, and then said she was offering a great student loan consolidation opportunity. I wouldn’t consolidate with anyone you cannot communicate clearly with.

Don’t spend so much time looking for the best deal that you waste time. Most lenders offer the same deals. Choose a reliable, reputable company and get to writing one check instead of three, four or even five a month.