Two-thirds of college graduates leave school with student loans averaging $29,000, and many struggle to pay that debt back. But while millions of borrowers could qualify for loan-forgiveness programs to erase some or all of what they owe, only a fraction of those eligible take advantage of them.
Too many students "aren’t aware that these programs even exist," says Betsy Mayotte, president of The Institute of Student Loan Advisors (TISLA), a nonprofit that provides free one-on-one counseling for student loan borrowers.
The 12-year-old federal Public Service Loan Forgiveness program (PSLF) is one of the bigger programs. Under PSLF you can wipe out your remaining student debt after making 10 years' worth of on-time payments if you work in a qualifying public-sector job.
But there are more than 100 federal and state-based programs, though smaller or more specifically targeted, that can help you shed debt faster. There are also a number of special situations in which you can get your loans discharged without penalties.
First the caveats. Most loan-forgiveness programs have very specific requirements. Of the ones open to all borrowers, most apply to those suffering financial hardship. Typically, forgiveness programs are only for federal loans, though some are awarded based on where you live and cover private loans, too. In some situations the amount forgiven is considered income, so you could owe a big tax bill.
Despite those potential limitations, it’s well worth it to investigate whether you’re eligible. New programs pop up frequently.
Just last month, the federal National Health Services Corps unveiled an initiative to pay off up to $75,000 in loans for individuals who are private or public sector healthcare workers and spend three years in jobs to combat substance abuse tied to the opioid crisis.
Almost every state offers a forgiveness program—and many have several, typically to work in an underserved community or profession, and require you to serve for only a few years. The programs aren’t mutually exclusive, either. You could be in both a state or federal loan-forgiveness program as long as you meet the requirements. You can even do volunteer work in exchange for payments that go directly to reducing your student debt.
About 35 million American workers are employed in the public sector and could be eligible for the federal Public Service Loan Forgiveness program alone, according to an estimate from the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau. Yet less than one million people have applied for PSLF so far. To help students find these programs, TISLA created a database that lists more than 100 loan-forgiveness programs.
Still, you shouldn’t choose a profession or take on a lot of debt based on the possibility that your loans could be erased down the road, Mayotte says.
“Programs change all the time, and if state and federal budgets are tight, funding for these can easily be cut,” she explains.
That could be a problem if you finish school with a lot of loans and the program you’re counting on no longer exists.
There are trade-offs, too. While you could shed tens of thousands of dollars in debt, you may be required to work in a rural area or at an organization that pays less than you might earn elsewhere. You have to weigh whether having a higher-paying salary would allow you to repay your debt faster, Mayotte says.
A Guide to Student Loan Forgiveness
Still, if you're struggling with debt, it can pay to find ways to get relief from your loans. Here's a guide.
There are many programs based on the kind of work you do or the kind of organization that employs you. Under the federal PSLF program, people who've made 10 years' worth of on-time payments while working full-time in the public sector can have the balance of their loans erased.
Public-sector work is broadly defined. It includes any employment with a federal, state, or local government agency or a not-for-profit organization. The type of work you do for the organization doesn’t matter. You can be an accountant or in marketing and get your loans forgiven under PSLF.
In addition to PSLF, there are many programs for people in healthcare and education careers that require many fewer years of service. For example, the federal Teacher Loan Forgiveness program will discharge up to $17,500 in federal loans for teachers employed full-time in low-income public elementary or secondary schools for five consecutive years.
Many states offer loan forgiveness programs for teachers—especially if you teach in a high-need area. The American Federation of Teachers has a searchable database for state and local programs.
The NURSE Corps Loan Repayment Program pays up to 85 percent of qualified nurses’ unpaid college debt. The Department of Justice’s Attorney Student Loan Repayment program awards $6,000 to lawyers who have at least $10,000 in loans and work at the Department of Justice for three years.
Public defenders can get up to $60,000 under the John R. Justice Grant Student Loan Repayment Program.
The USDA's Veterinary Medicine Loan Repayment Program gives veterinarians who work for three years in an area where there is a shortage of vets $25,000 a year.
Almost every state has a loan-forgiveness program to attract people in certain professions to work in underserved or low-income areas. To find programs in your state, contact your state’s Department of Education or talk to someone in the financial aid office at the college where you are studying or in an association related to your profession.
Where You Live
A growing number of states and towns are trying to attract a younger, more educated population with programs to erase or pay down college debt.
The Talent Attraction Program scholarship in the town of Hamilton, Ohio—about 40 minutes from Cincinnati—offers up to $5,000 over a 25-month period to put toward your student loans. Though it is not limited to a specific profession, the TAP foundation says it prefers people who have graduated in the last seven years with what they call a STEAM degree: science, technology, engineering, arts, or mathematics.
There are similar programs in a number of Midwest cities, from Marquette, Kansas, to St. Clair, Michigan.
In the Northeast, the Move to Maine program has a different incentive. When you move to Maine, the money you spend toward paying your student debt each year is subtracted from your state income taxes. For instance, if you pay $1,800 toward your loan and owe the state $2,000 in taxes, you'll end up paying Maine only $200.
Some states will just give college grads money for moving there. For example, Vermont's Remote Worker Grants give up to $10,000 for two years to people who live in Vermont but work remotely from home or in a shared work space for a company located outside of Vermont. You must have earned an associate or bachelor degree in 2015 or later.
Serving in the Military
Every branch of the military offers a Military College Loan Repayment Program as an incentive to join. Qualifying borrowers can receive up to $65,000 in loan forgiveness over the length of the time they are in the military. But the exact amounts and requirements differ between branches and whether you are active duty or in the reserves.
Several federal volunteer organizations give you money for your student loans. VISTA and Americorps volunteers, who work with nonprofits focused on reducing poverty and illiteracy, can get up to $6,000 to pay student loans in addition to stipends for living expenses.
Then there are startups like the Shared Harvest Fund, which has a “debt freelancer” concept: Complete volunteer projects and earn credits that get put toward your student loan debt. They call it a “mindful side hustle” that you can do while you work another full-time job.
If You Become Disabled
If you become disabled and are unable to work, your federal loans will be erased under the Total and Permanent Disability (TPD) discharge program. You can stop making payments as soon as your application is approved, but you are subject to a monitoring period of five years to ensure you’re not able to work.
For Financial Hardship
This isn’t a good situation to be in because you get loans forgiven only if you haven’t been able to pay them off in 20 to 25 years, depending on the type of loan you took out and the repayment plan you’re in. At that point, the government will write off the loan, but there are tax consequences because the amount forgiven is typically subject to income tax.
There are several unusual circumstances in which you can get your loans dismissed. They include if your school shuts down while you’re enrolled, if your college has defrauded you in some way, or if the school certifies your eligibility to work in an occupation you trained for but you can’t do because of a physical or mental disability or criminal record. You can find out more information on how to qualify and apply at the Department of Education.