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After paying down your student loans for months on end, it can be demoralizing to see just how large a balance you still have left. Depending on your repayment plan, you may even owe more now than you did when you first graduated.
The good news is that student loan payments don’t have to go on forever. If you have federal student loans and are making payments under an income-driven repayment (IDR) plan, you may be able to have your loans forgiven after 20 years. That can give you hope, and a tangible goal to work toward as you continue to make your payments.
Here’s how to get your federal student loans forgiven after 20 years:
- Are federal student loans forgiven after 20 years?
- Federal student loan forgiveness programs
- Student loan forgiveness by loan type
- How to apply for student loan forgiveness programs
- Strategies for student loan forgiveness
- Private student loan refinancing
Are federal student loans forgiven after 20 years?
Yes, federal student loans may be forgiven after 20 years under certain circumstances. But only certain types of loans are eligible for forgiveness, and you must be enrolled in one of a few different types of repayment plans. You’ll also need to stay out of default on your loans.
In most cases, you must be a student borrower who took out Direct Loans from the federal government for undergraduate study. Then, you must have enrolled in an income-driven repayment plan, where the amount you pay each month is determined by how much you earn.
You generally must make all your required payments during those 20 years for the time to count. When your loan is in forbearance, you won’t be making progress toward loan forgiveness.
Parent borrowers who took out PLUS Loans to pay for their child’s education generally aren’t eligible for loan forgiveness unless they consolidate their loans into a federal Direct Consolidation Loan. The same goes for Perkins Loans.
The rules for loan forgiveness differ slightly based on the type of loan you have and the repayment plan you chose.
Federal student loan forgiveness programs
The federal government’s 20-year loan forgiveness programs are part of the income-driven repayment plans they offer. These are special benefits provided to federal student loan borrowers, not available to people with private loans.
In general, income-driven repayment plans are intended to help people keep their payments manageable in their monthly budgets. Your monthly payment is based on a percentage of your discretionary income, or how much you make above 150% of the federal poverty line.
However, these plans also extend the length of time it takes to repay student loans and means you’ll pay significantly more in interest than you would if you were in a standard 10-year repayment plan.
You may be eligible for forgiveness after making 20 years of payments under the following IDR plans:
- Revised Pay As You Earn (REPAYE) Plan: Under this plan, your monthly payment is set at 10% of your disposable income, which is re-evaluated yearly. The balance of your Direct Loans can be forgiven after 20 years if your loans were for undergraduate study, or 25 years if you have graduate school loans.
- Pay As You Earn (PAYE) Plan: Your monthly payments are capped at 10% of your discretionary income, but can’t be higher than they would be under a standard 10-year repayment plan. The balance of your loans is forgiven after 20 years.
- Income-Based Repayment (IBR) Plan: Your payments will be set at 10% of your discretionary income if you borrowed after July 1, 2014, or 15% if you borrowed before then. In either case, your payment can’t be higher than your payment would be under a standard 10-year repayment plan. The balance of your loans will be forgiven after 20 years if you first borrowed after July 1, 2014, or 25 years if you borrowed before then.
- Income-Contingent Repayment (ICR) Plan: In most cases, your payment is set at 20% of your discretionary income. Your balance can be forgiven after 25 years.
Public Service Loan Forgiveness
If you work in the government or not-for-profit sector, you may be able to have your loans forgiven even sooner. The Public Service Loan Forgiveness Program can waive the balance of your loans after 10 years of payments while working full-time for certain types of employers. These include U.S. government agencies at any level, including the military, or 501(c)(3) nonprofits.
To qualify, you’ll need to be making payments under one of the four income-driven repayment plans listed above.
Student loan forgiveness by loan type
In general, you must have a Direct Loan to qualify for loan forgiveness after 20 years. These loans are issued directly from the U.S. Department of Education. The specific type of Direct Loan, though, can affect how the process works.
- Direct Subsidized Loans: These loans are available to undergraduate students with financial need and have a key benefit — the government pays your interest while you’re enrolled in school. These loans are eligible for any of the four repayment plans listed above, and can be forgiven after 20 years of payments.
- Direct Unsubsidized Loans: These loans can go to undergraduate or graduate students, with no requirement of financial need. You’re responsible for interest from the moment the loan money is sent to your school. These loans are also open to any of the four repayment plans, and you may have your loans forgiven after 20 years. However, if you have any loans for grad school, that time period is extended to 25 years under the REPAYE Plan.
- Direct PLUS Loans: These loans are for graduate or professional students, or parents of undergraduate students. If you’re a student borrower with these loans, you can qualify for any of the four repayment plans. Because these are for graduate study, you’ll need to make payments for 25 years if you’re on the REPAYE Plan. However, if you’re a parent, you won’t qualify for loan forgiveness without consolidating your loans.
- Direct Consolidation Loans: These loans let you combine multiple types of federal loans into a single loan with a single servicer. Unless you have parent loans in the mix, you can use any of the four repayment plans and qualify for forgiveness after 20 years. If you do have parent loans, you’ll only have access to the ICR Plan, which allows you to have your balance forgiven after 25 years.
- FFEL or Stafford Loans: Federal Family Education Loans haven’t been issued since 2010. If you still have these loans, you can use the IBR Plan, and you may have your loans forgiven after 20 years if you’re a recent borrower.
- Perkins Loans: Perkins Loans were made for low-income students with “exceptional financial need,” but they’re no longer available. These loans aren’t eligible for any of the four IDR plans. You have a maximum of 10 years to repay a Perkins Loan.
How to apply for student loan forgiveness programs
Applying for student loan forgiveness programs happens through your loan servicer, the company that handles your payments. Contact your loan servicer if you’re interested in learning how to qualify.
To start, you’ll want to make sure you’re enrolled in one of the income-driven repayment plans you qualify for. This doesn’t happen automatically. Unless you choose otherwise, you’ll be put on the Standard Repayment Plan, which requires a payment that’ll pay off your loans in 10 years. You can switch your repayment plan at any point, for free.
During your 20 years of payments, you’ll likely need to recertify your income level and family size each year to make sure your income-based repayments are at the right amount. You’ll still have to do this, even if nothing has changed. Your servicer will be able to walk you through this process, so make sure you keep your contact information current with your loan servicer. You can also call them to make sure you’re still on track.
If you’re applying for Public Service Loan Forgiveness, the process is a little different. You’ll need to fill out a special application for this program, which is available on the StudentAid.gov website.
Strategies for student loan forgiveness
Twenty years is a long time, but it’s important to stay on track toward your loan forgiveness. These strategies may be able to help you:
- Set a reminder for paperwork deadlines. To stay in an income-driven repayment plan that qualifies you for forgiveness, you’ll need to recertify your earnings and family size each year. Put this deadline on your calendar and remind yourself a month ahead of time, so you have plenty of time to complete the process.
- Consider renewing early. If your income goes down or if your family grows, you may want to recertify early. This can reduce the payment you’re required to make.
- Make sure your payments qualify. In most cases, you must make a full payment by or within 15 days of your due date in order for your payment to qualify toward your 20 years.
- Keep track of your progress. Your loan servicer will keep a record of your payments and your progress toward loan forgiveness and should let you know when you’re getting close. You likely can check up on this progress online through your loan account, making it easier to keep on top of any requirements you must meet.
Private student loan refinancing
Loan forgiveness applies to federal student loans only. If you have private loans, you’re not eligible. In most cases, private loans only offer repayment plans that fully satisfy your loans in a specified period of time — often five, seven, or 10 years.
However, you may be able to lower your monthly payment on your private student loans by refinancing. When you refinance your student loans, you take out a new loan that pays off and replaces the ones you currently have. If your financial situation has improved since you first borrowed, you may qualify for a lower interest rate that can dramatically reduce the amount you pay.
While it is possible to refinance federal student loans into a private loan, you should be extremely cautious before doing this. By refinancing, you’ll lose access to federal benefits — including income-driven repayment and loan forgiveness after 20 years.
The student loan consolidation companies in the table below are Credible’s approved partner lenders. Because they compete for your business through Credible, you can request rates from all of them by filling out a single form. Then, you can compare your available options side-by-side. Requesting rates is free, doesn’t affect your credit score, and your personal information is not shared with our partner lenders unless you see an option you like.
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