If you’re living under the crushing burden of student loan debt, it’s natural to wonder how to get rid of it. I know I am. Who wouldn’t want to wake up one morning, log into their account, and see a balance of zero?
I don’t think I’m understating it to say it would change my life, and I’m sure many borrowers would say the same.
While mass student loan cancellation from the federal government could still be a reality, it also may amount to nothing but wishing and hoping. Fortunately, plenty of programs already exist to help you eliminate your student loans.
Federal Student Loan Forgiveness Programs
If you’re overwhelmed by student loan debt, forgiveness programs can help ease some of the burden. Forgiveness partially or fully cancels education debt. Forgiveness programs are only available on direct federal student loans. You may have to consolidate other types of federal loans for them to qualify. And private loans don’t qualify at all.
Forgiveness won’t erase your debt overnight, as many student loan repayment programs take 10, 20, or 25 years before you can get any remaining balance forgiven. But they can reduce your monthly payments in the meantime. There are two types.
Standard Federal Student Loan Forgiveness
Standard forgiveness is available to all borrowers of federal direct loans, including federal direct consolidation loans. It requires you to be on an income-driven repayment plan.
There are four income-driven repayment plans. Each bases your monthly payments on a percentage of your income and your family size. Depending on the plan and whether you have undergraduate or graduate loans, you could qualify for loan forgiveness in 20 to 25 years.
However, be aware you may owe income tax on the forgiven amount. The American Rescue Plan, passed in March 2021, makes all student loan forgiveness tax-free through 2025. And in March 2022, President Biden included a provision in his budget plan to make this policy permanent. But it still has to pass both the House and Senate to become law, so it isn’t a guarantee beyond 2025 yet.
The best way to know how much of your student loan balance could remain for forgiveness at the end of your repayment term is to use the loan simulator at StudentAid.gov. However, know that your payments and balance could fluctuate if you earn more or less throughout your career.
The Biden administration is also currently working to reform the income-driven repayment plan program. Current changes include recalculating borrowers’ forgiveness timelines to include certain past periods of deferment and forbearance, regardless of loan type or payment plan.
These future changes could include streamlining income-based repayment so that all enrolled borrowers are paying only 5% of their discretionary income in monthly student loan payments instead of the 10% to 20% they’re paying now.
These changes may not seem like much, but they could be huge for some borrowers. For example, I had to forbear my loans for six years in an attempt to pay off the private loans I took out before grad PLUS loans existed and still afford things like rent, child care, and groceries on my meager teaching salary.
This change alone puts me six years closer to forgiveness and could save me over $50,000. And the government estimates more than 3.6 million borrowers will get at least three years shaved off their clocks.
See other changes they’re planning at StudentAid.gov.
Public Service Loan Forgiveness
Perhaps the best known federal student loan forgiveness program, the Public Service Loan Forgiveness Program is for borrowers working in public service jobs. To qualify, you must:
- Have federal direct loans
- Work full-time for a nonprofit or government agency for 10 years
- Make 120 qualifying payments on an income-driven repayment plan (while working for the nonprofit)
Unlike forgiveness through an income-driven repayment plan, forgiveness through public service loan forgiveness has always been tax-free. So borrowers don’t have to worry about getting hit with a huge tax bill on any forgiven balance.
Additionally, the Public Service Loan Forgiveness Program was the first to announce major changes to the payment counts. As a result of years of mismanagement, a temporary waiver allows past “payments” to count toward the required 120 total. That includes any nonpayments made during deferment or forbearance and even late, missed, or partial payments — pretty much anything as long as you weren’t in default on your loans.
The only requirement is that you must have been working full time for a qualifying employer (a nonprofit or government agency) during the period for which you want the payment or nonpayment counted. And you must apply for the temporary waiver by Oct. 31, 2022.
Loan Repayment Assistance Programs
Federal forgiveness is only one option you can leverage to get rid of student debt. Some government and nongovernment organizations offer loan repayment assistance programs.
While they can’t directly forgive your debt (only the loan-holder can do that), they can contribute money on your behalf, which acts as a sort of forgiveness, usually in exchange for your professional contributions to a company or society. Plus, you can use them to pay off any type of loan, including private loans.
Generally, you have to work for a certain company or in a certain public service field, such as medicine or the military, for a set amount of time. In exchange, they contribute money toward paying off your loans.
The amounts they contribute vary, but they can be anywhere from several thousand to tens of thousands of dollars per year, depending on the program.
If federal forgiveness programs seem unlikely to benefit you, check into these options instead.
Profession-Specific Loan Forgiveness
Though these exist primarily in public service professions, many career fields qualify for job-specific loan forgiveness programs over and beyond public service loan forgiveness.
For example, there are organizations that repay student loans for health care professionals in exchange for working in shortage areas, such as for doctors working in rural locations or pharmaceutical scientists performing research in highly needed crisis subjects like opioid addiction.
Professions with forgiveness programs include:
- Physicians Assistants
- Physical Therapists
- Law Enforcement Officers
- Automotive Workers
Even if you don’t work in one of these professions, many employers offer student loan repayment assistance as a job perk. Through 2025, they can offer up to $5,250 per year as a tax-free benefit thanks to COVID-19 pandemic relief measures. So it’s worth checking with your human resources office to see if your company offers this assistance.
If your current company doesn’t offer this benefit, crunch the numbers to see if it’s worth changing jobs. If the benefit is high enough, it could even offset a salary decrease or the extra cost of driving further to work.
Do an online search to find companies that repay student loans. Examples include Google, Ally Bank, and Fidelity Investments.
But don’t give up if you can’t find this benefit info on a prospective employers’ webpage. Student loan repayment is a top sought-after perk. Thus, more and more employers are beginning to offer it. It never hurts to ask during a job interview if it’s an option.
Although most borrowers think of federal programs when they think about student loan forgiveness, all U.S. states and the District of Columbia have at least one forgiveness assistance program. State forgiveness programs typically take the form of loan repayment assistance programs, which states design to attract high-need professionals to shortage areas.
Thus, they’re always for specific professions and typically require a work commitment for a specified period.
For example, the Massachusetts Loan Repayment Program for Health Professionals awards up to $50,000 ($25,000 per year for two years) to health professionals working in shortage areas. And the Rural Iowa Veterinarian Loan Repayment Program awards up to $60,000 ($15,000 per year for four years) to veterinarians who work in rural Iowa communities.
To discover what programs are available in your state, do an online search or contact your state’s department of higher education.
Every branch of the military offers various forms of student loan forgiveness, including programs for doctors, dentists, psychologists, veterinarians, and lawyers as well as both current members of the armed forces and veterans.
However, not all branches offer the same benefits or programs, and in some cases, benefits only apply to service members in certain fields. Examples include:
- Army College Loan Repayment Program. The Army’s College Loan Repayment Program pays one-third of your loans every year up to $65,000 in exchange for a three-year commitment. There are also repayment benefits of up to $50,000 for those who join the Army Reserves or Army National Guard.
- JAG Corps. JAG stands for “judge advocate general.” It’s essentially the military’s law firm. Law school graduates who join a JAG Corps in a participating branch, such as the Army or Air Force, can get up to $65,000 of their student loans repaid in exchange for a three-year commitment.
- Health Professions Loan Repayment Program. The Navy repays up to $40,000 per year (minus 25% for income taxes) toward student loans for qualifying medical professionals through the Health Professions Loan Repayment Program in exchange for an agreed-upon commitment. And the Air Force repays $40,000 per year (minus 25% for income taxes) for a maximum of two years in exchange for a two-year commitment.
- Sign-On and Retention Bonuses. Professionals are often eligible for sign-on and retention bonuses they can use to repay student loans. For example, the Army Medical Department offers a $50,000 sign-on bonus, and the Navy JAG Corps offers $60,000 in total retention bonuses payable at the four-year, seven-year, and 10-year marks.
Other programs may be available, and offerings may change without notice, so contact a recruiter for the branches you’re considering for more information.
Other Types of Student Loan Relief
If you’re wondering about the difference between forgiveness, cancellation, and discharge, the answer is: not much. The only real difference is implementation.
Forgiveness and cancellation apply when you’re no longer required to make payments because you fulfilled your program requirements. Discharge happens when your loans are eliminated because of your circumstances — for example, if you become permanently disabled and can no longer work or you win a bankruptcy or lawsuit.
The other important difference is timing. If you qualify for one of the many cancellation or discharge programs for federal student loans, you won’t have to wait decades to see your loan balance disappear. Instead, you can be free of the burden as quickly as the Department of Education processes your case.
The term “cancellation” only applies to federal Perkins loans. A Perkins loan is a discontinued type of federal student loan that featured a low, fixed interest rate and was for low-income borrowers. Additionally, they were typically a school loan. Your school, and not the government, was the lender.
Those who work in various public service fields can qualify to have some or all of their Perkins loans canceled under certain circumstances. These typically include working in shortage areas and high-need specialties, such as math or special education for a teacher.
Perkins loan cancellation happens a little at a time. For each year of service, you get a percentage of your loan canceled. It can take up to five years to wipe out 100% of your loans.
Professions eligible for Perkins loan forgiveness include:
- Preschool teacher
- Employee at a child or family services agency
- Faculty member at a tribal college or university
- Law enforcement officer
- Librarian with a master’s degree at a Title I school
- Military service member
- Nurse or medical technician
- Provider of early intervention disability services
- Public defender
- Speech pathologist with a master’s degree at a Title I school
- Volunteer with AmeriCorps VISTA or the Peace Corps
Meeting eligibility requirements for a student loan discharge is rare. But if you qualify, you can get some or all of your loans eliminated.
There are many situations in which you could qualify for a federal student loan discharge. These include:
- Closed School. If your college or school closes while you’re enrolled or within 180 days of your graduation or withdrawal, you’re entitled to a discharge of your debt.
- Total and Permanent Disability. If you become permanently disabled to the extent that you can no longer work, you’re entitled to a disability discharge.
- Death. If you die, the government can’t collect against your estate. And if you borrowed parent PLUS loans, and your child dies, you no longer have to pay the debt.
- Bankruptcy. This one’s tough to do, but if you can prove repaying the loans would cause undue financial hardship, you can get your student loans discharged in bankruptcy.
- Borrower Defense to Repayment. If your school broke the law, such as lying to you to get you to enroll, you can get your loans discharged.
- False Certification. If you had your identity stolen and someone took out the loans under your name without your knowledge or forged your signature on the documents, you’re entitled to have them discharged.
- Unpaid Refund. If your school owed you a balance but never paid it to you or returned it to the U.S. Department of Education, you can have that amount discharged.
If you’re searching for ways to wipe out your student debt, you may be susceptible to student loan forgiveness scams. So-called debt relief companies prey on desperate borrowers by charging high upfront fees and then failing to deliver the promised forgiveness.
Be forewarned: Legitimate student loan forgiveness, cancellation, and discharge programs will never charge you a fee to apply. And you never have to pay to sign up for an income-driven repayment plan.
Be skeptical of anything that sounds too good to be true. Additionally, never give out your personal information over the phone or pay fees to companies whose names you don’t recognize or programs you’ve never heard of.
If you’re unsure if a program is legit, always ask for information in writing and contact your student loan servicer, who can tell you what programs your loans actually qualify for.