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Paying off student loans can feel like a never ending struggle, but luckily a number of student loan forgiveness, cancellation, and discharge programs exist. The eligibility criteria for these program usually include a wide range of situations, so many borrowers may be able to take advantage of these programs.

If you think you might be eligible for student loan forgiveness, read on for more details about the available programs and how to apply.

Loan forgiveness programs applicable to federal student loans:

Forgiveness programs Direct loans PLUS loans FFEL program loans Perkins loans
Public Service Loan Forgiveness (PSLF) Yes Yes No* No*
Income Driven Repayment (IDR) Yes Yes (unless taken out by parent*) No* No*
Perkins Loan Cancellation and Discharge No No No Yes
Teacher Loan Forgiveness Yes No Yes No
Loan discharge due to closed school, total and permanent disability, death or bankruptcy Yes Yes Yes Yes

*May be eligible if converted to federal Direct Consolidation Loan

Profession-based loan forgiveness for private and federal student loans:

NURSE Corps Loan Repayment Program
National Health Service Corps (NHSC) Loan Repayment Program
National Health Service Corps (NHSC) Students to Service Loan Repayment Program
Indian Health Services Loan Repayment Program
National Institutes of Health (NIH) Loan Repayment Programs
Army, Navy, Air Force, and National Guard Health Professions Loan Repayment Programs
Military student loan forgiveness and assistance
John R. Justice Student Loan Repayment Program
Department of Justice Attorney Student Loan Repayment Program
Other state and institution-based programs

Public Service Loan Forgiveness (PSLF)

This program provides tax-free forgiveness of remaining student loan debt for graduates in public service careers after they have made 120 payments on qualified federal student loans.

Eligibility requirements for PSLF include:

  • You must use one of the income-driven repayment programs to repay your loans. If you are on the 10-year Standard Repayment Plan, you will have paid your entire loan balance by the time you’ve made enough payments to qualify for PSLF. Therefore, if you’d like to take advantage of PSLF and are on the Standard Repayment Plan, it’s a good idea to apply for one of the income-driven repayment programs
  • You must have made 120 qualified payments (the equivalent of 10 years unless you request a deferment or forbearance). The payments do not have to be consecutive, but must have been made after October 1, 2007, for the full amount due as shown on your bill, within 15 days of your due date, and while you have a full-time job with a qualified employer. Any payments made while you are in school or during a grace period, deferment or forbearance do not qualify as one of your 120 payments
  • Payments must be made while working full-time—the greater of your employer’s definition of full-time, or at least 30 hours per week.
  • Qualified employment includes jobs with the government and at non-profits.

Applying for Public Service Loan Forgiveness

There are a few steps to ensuring you can benefit from PSLF.

  • First, make a habit of submitting the Employment Certification for Public Service Loan Forgiveness form each year or when you change employers. You can submit this form when you apply for PSLF, but you’ll need to do so for every employer you’ve worked for while making those 120 payments, so it’s worth getting that step out of the way as you go. If you are a parent repaying PLUS loans taken out on behalf of your children, your eligibility for PSLF eligibility is based on your employment, not the employment of the student on whose behalf you borrowed
  • As mentioned above, you’ll also need to be on an income-driven repayment plan to qualify for PSLF, so be sure to apply for the program that makes the most sense for you. These plans are listed here. Parents repaying PLUS loans qualify for only one IDR plan — Income Contingent Repayment — and only after consolidating.
  • Lastly, while FFEL Program and Perkins loans are not eligible for PSLF, you may be able to get around this by taking out a Direct Consolidation Loan, which is eligible for PSLF. If you have multiple types of loans and were hoping to have them all forgiven, apply for consolidation as soon as possible.

Borrowers who do not qualify for loan forgiveness under PSLF may still qualify for loan forgiveness in an IDR plan, but it will take longer — 20 or 25 years.

Income-Driven Repayment plans

Most federal student loan borrowers can qualify for at least one of the government’s four Income-Driven Repayment plans, which provide loan forgiveness after 20 or 25 years of payments. These programs can make your monthly payment much more affordable, stretching your payments out over a longer period of time can increase your overall repayment costs.

Although your minimum monthly payment is a small percentage of your discretionary income — typically 10 or 15 percent — you may end up paying off your loan before qualifying for loan forgiveness. FFEL and Perkins loans may be eligible for IDR plans if combined in a federal Direct Consolidation Loan. Unlike PSLF, loan forgiveness granted under an IDR plan is considered taxable income by the IRS.

Perkins Loan Cancellation and Discharge

If you work in certain public service fields, you may be eligible for Perkins Loan Cancellation.

Unlike some other forgiveness programs that simply waive any remaining debt after a longer period of time, Perkins Loan Cancellations are evaluated on a year-by-year basis, and you could have either a percentage or the full amount of your balance canceled.

The percentage of your loan that will be eligible for cancellation depends on when the loan was taken out, the type of loan, and what type of service you perform.

Eligibility for Perkins loan cancellation and discharge

You may be eligible for Perkins Loan Cancellation if you have served in any of the following capacities:

  • Volunteer in the Peace Corps or ACTION program (including VISTA)
  • Teacher
  • Member of the U.S. armed forces (serving in area of hostilities)
  • Nurse or medical technician
  • Law enforcement or corrections officer
  • Head Start worker
  • Child or family services worker
  • Professional provider of early intervention services

Applying for Perkins Loan Cancellation

Perkins Loan Cancellations are evaluated by the school you were attending when you received the loan, and there is no standardized application process. Contact your school for more details on whether you’re eligible and how to apply.

Teacher Loan Forgiveness

In addition to teacher cancellation for Perkins loans, teachers can also benefit from loan forgiveness on up to a combined total of $17,500 for Direct and FFEL Program loans.

Eligibility for Teacher Loan Forgiveness

You may be able eligible to benefit from loan forgiveness if the following applies:

  • You must have Direct or FFEL Program loans. If you only have PLUS loans, you are not eligible for teacher loan forgiveness
  • Your loans must have been taken out before October 1, 1998
  • You must have been a full-time teacher at a qualifying organization for at least five consecutive years. Look up whether your employer qualifies here
  • Your loans are not in default
  • You must be a highly qualified teacher, demonstrated by holding state certification or a teaching license.

Applying for Teacher Loan Forgiveness

You can apply for this program after your five-year teaching requirement is completed.

Download the Teacher Loan Forgiveness Application here, and submit it to your student loan servicer. If you have loans you’d like forgiven with multiple servicers, you’ll need to submit an application to each one.

Loan Discharge due to closed school, total and permanent disability, death, or bankruptcy

Many loans that were used to fund education at a school that has closed will be eligible for a 100 percent discharge. The school must have closed when you were enrolled or within 120 from the date you withdrew.

Loans are also dischargeable in the event of total and permanent disability or death of the primary borrower. In both cases, supporting documentation will be required.

In extreme cases of bankruptcy, you may be able to secure a federal student loan discharge. You must declare either Chapter 7 or Chapter 13 bankruptcy and prove that repaying your loans would result in ‘undue hardship’ on you and your dependents.

Undue hardship is a subjective term determined on a case-by-case basis in bankruptcy court. If the court rules in your favor, you may receive a full or partial discharge or no discharge but different loan terms, such as a lower interest rate.

NURSE Corps Loan Repayment Program

Nurses may benefit from PSLF and/or Perkins Loan Cancellation, but the NURSE Corps Loan Repayment Program is another option that some nurses may wish to take advantage of.

Through this program, nurses may be able to get up to 85 percent of their education debt repaid on their behalf. Participants will have up to 60 percent of their existing loans paid for and have the option to extend for a third year for an additional 25 percent forgiven. Funding is based on the facility where the nurse works as well as financial need.

Eligibility requirements for the NURSE Corps Loan Repayment Program include:

  • Private and federal student loans qualify, whereas personal lines of credit and other non-student loan sources of debt will not be forgiven
  • You must be a licensed registered nurse, an advanced practice registered nurse, such as a nurse practitioner, or a nurse faculty member
  • You must have received your education from an accredited school of nursing located in a U.S. state or territory
  • If you are a registered nurse, you must work for an eligible Critical Shortage Facility in a high need area
  • If you are a nurse faculty member, you must work for an accredited school of nursing
  • A minimum service of 32 hours per week is required to be eligible for repayment.

How to apply for the NURSE Corps Loan Repayment Program

Applications for this program are evaluated on an annual basis, so look up the current application deadline here. You should read the current application and program guidance before submitting an application to increase your chances of success.

National Health Service Corps (NHSC) Loan Repayment Program

This program offers many types of medical providers the opportunity to work in underserved communities in exchange for tax-exempt loan repayment.

Both full-time and part-time primary care providers who serve within a Health Profession Shortage Area (HPSA) at a NHSC approved site may be eligible. Depending up the HPSA score, recipients who work full-time can receive up to $50,000 in loan repayment in exchange for at least a two-year service commitment. Part time workers can receive up to $25,000 depending on the service site.

Eligibility for the NHSC Loan Repayment Program

Eligibility requirements differ depending on your practice area, but NHSC loan repayments are generally available to:

  • Primary care physicians
  • Nurse practitioners
  • Certified nurse-midwives
  • Physician Assistants
  • Dentists
  • Dental hygienists
  • Behavioral and mental health providers (including psychiatrists, health service psychologists, licensed clinical social workers, marriage and family therapists, psychiatric nurse specialists, and licensed professional counselors)

Participants must work for an approved site for at least two years. Both federal and private student loans that were obtained prior to when the NHSC application was submitted may be eligible. Consolidated or refinanced student loans may also be considered.

Full eligibility details can be found here.

Applying for NHSC Loan Repayment

Applications are accepted once per year and can be submitted online. The applicant must complete a number of sections, as well as provide supporting documentation, so be sure to leave enough time before the deadline to thoroughly complete your application.

National Health Service Corps Students to Service Loan Repayment Program

Students who are still in medical or dental school but are sure they’d like to commit to the National Health Service Corps can receive even more assistance repaying their loans from the Students to Service program. This program provides up to $120,000 to students in their final year of school who commit to three years of primary care service in underserved areas once they graduate.

Applications for the NHSC Students to Service program open in the fall, so get started early to make sure you have time to gather the appropriate documentation. Full guidance on how to apply can be found here.

Indian Health Services Loan Repayment Program

Similar to the NHSC programs, the Indian Health Services Loan Repayment Program offers to pay up to $40,000 of your loans in exchange for two years of commitment to practice in health facilities that serve American Indian and Alaska Native communities. After two years, you may be able to extend your contract annually until your student debt is fully repaid.

This program is available to those in a number of different health professions, including nursing, medicine, dentistry, optometry, behavioral health, and more.

National Institutes of Health (NIH) Loan Repayment Programs

The NIH offers three internal (meaning that participants will do research for the NIH) loan repayment programs to scientist holding medical degrees. General research requires three years of service, while AIDS research and clinical research for disadvantaged backgrounds requires only two years of commitment.

There are also five external repayment programs funded by the NIH distributed across a variety of research topics. An NIH grant is not required to participate and recipients will receive $35,000 per year in repayment benefits.

Army, Navy, Air Force, and National Guard Health Professions Loan Repayment Programs

The Army, Navy, Air Force, and National Guard all offer loan repayment programs to health professionals who meet eligibility requirements and agree to serve for a minimum of years. The amount repaid and service commitment differs by military branch.

The Navy’s program, for example, is available to current active duty medical personnel as well as to those interested in repayment through military service. The maximum yearly loan repayment is $40,000, minus about 25 percent for federal income taxes, which are taken out prior to lender repayment.

Applicants for the Navy’s repayment program must be a current health professional or a student in his or her final year at an approved medical residency program. Participants must serve on active duty for a minimum of 2 years for one year of loan repayment.

Research the options available to your profession and branch of the military you’re interested in, as there are a wide variety of programs and corresponding eligibility requirements.

Military student loan programs

In addition to repayment programs for health professionals, many branches of the military offer assistance to undergraduates who commit to service once they’ve finished school. Learn more about programs from the Navy, Army, and National Guard if you’re considering going this route.

John R. Justice Student Loan Repayment Program

The John R. Justice Student Loan Repayment Program provides up to $10,000 per year of law school loan repayment for state and federal public defenders and state prosecutors who agree to remain employed as public defenders and prosecutors for at least three years.

If the employment commitment is not fulfilled, any amount received must be repaid. In 2014, all states received funding except for Tennessee, so there’s a good chance this program is available in your state.

Department of Justice Attorney Student Loan Repayment Program

The Department of Justice offers its own loan repayment program as a recruitment and retention strategy for highly qualified attorneys. Participants must serve for three years and must have a minimum federal loan balance of $10,000 (private loans are not eligible for this program).

Through this program, the Department of Justice matches up to $6,000 in loan payments per year, up to a cumulative lifetime maximum of $60,000. It is expected that attorneys are simultaneously making payments, so the benefits of this program are intended to be a supplement, not a replacement for, your own loan payments.

Other state and institution-based programs

There are hundreds of loan forgiveness programs out there, so don’t stop searching if none of the above programs apply to you.

For example, those pursuing an MBA may find repayment programs through their school, and many states offer unique repayment programs for lawyers and many types of health professionals.

Having thousands of dollars repaid on your behalf is well worth the effort of finding repayment programs you’re eligible for, so be sure to conduct thorough research—and apply carefully to maximize your chances of success.

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