Student loan forgiveness programs can make repaying education debt on a teacher's salary easier. There are several programs that offer federal student loan forgiveness just for educators.
"Teachers have more loan forgiveness opportunities than almost any other occupation and taking advantage of these easy-to-enroll-in programs can save hard-working teachers hundreds to thousands of dollars," says Robert Farrington, founder of The College Investor. "Ignoring these opportunities is essentially passing over free money."
Qualifying for student debt relief can be tricky, however. If you're looking for student loan help as a teacher, here's what you need to know about forgiveness programs.
- There are several student loan forgiveness programs designed just for teachers.
- All of the loan forgiveness options have very specific requirements, so it's important to look at them carefully to make sure that the school where you work, your loan, experience, repayment plan, and more don't disqualify you.
- The TEACH grant, while not a loan forgiveness program, provides teachers-in-training $4,000 in grant money that doesn't have to be repaid if they meet the program's teaching requirements after graduation.
- Don't forget to check into state loan forgiveness programs and ask whether private student loan providers offer loan forgiveness.
Option #1: Public Service Loan Forgiveness (PSLF)
The Public Service Loan Forgiveness Program was established in 2007 and is designed to provide student loan forgiveness for people working in public service careers, including teachers. The minimum qualification requirements for this program include:
- Working full-time for a government agency or certain nonprofits
- Owing Direct Loans
- Being enrolled in an income-driven repayment plan
- Making 120 qualifying payments
Sounds simple enough, but there are some caveats for teachers. For one thing, this loan forgiveness program doesn't extend to teachers working for private, for-profit schools. And for another, it's notoriously difficult to qualify for loan forgiveness even if you are eligible.
The problem got so bad that, in 2018, Congress passed the Temporary Expanded Public Service Loan Forgiveness (TEPSLF) program to help some of the rejected borrowers, but few applications for that program have been approved, too. According to a report from the Government Accountability Office (GAO), 99% of borrowers who requested loan forgiveness between May 2018 and May 2019, the first-year forgiveness eligibility began, were rejected. The reasons for rejection included not being enrolled in the right type of repayment plan and owing loans that were ineligible for the program.
Now, the American Federation of Teachers has filed suit against the Department of Education on behalf of teachers to fix PSLF and provide an appeals process to address teachers who think they have been treated unfairly. The organization also sued Navient, one of the country’s largest student loan servicers, in 2018. The case was settled in 2020, with Navient agreeing to pay $1.75 million to fund a new, independent organization to counsel borrowers with public service jobs. The 10 plaintiffs were awarded $15,000 apiece. The teachers' union stated the settlement will enhance the resources available for borrowers hoping to access PSLF.
If you're interested in public service loan forgiveness as a teacher, it's a good idea to use the Department of Education's PSLF Help Tool to see if you qualify initially. This tool asks about your employment and loans to determine if you're eligible.
Option #2: Teacher Loan Forgiveness
The Teacher Loan Forgiveness Program is another program available to teachers who took out federal loans. To be eligible for this program, an individual must:
- Teach full-time for five consecutive and complete academic years at a school that serves low-income students.
- Owe Subsidized and Unsubsidized Direct Loans and/or Subsidized and Unsubsidized Stafford loans.
- Be a highly qualified teacher holding a bachelor's degree and full state certification as a teacher.
This program offers loan forgiveness for up to $17,500 in eligible loan balances. The actual amount of loans you can have forgiven depends on which subject areas you teach in. Full-time math and science teachers at the secondary level, for example, can receive up to the $17,500 maximum.
In that respect, it's less generous than the Public Service Loan Forgiveness program, which doesn't cap the amount of student debt that can be forgiven. Technically, you could apply for forgiveness through the Teacher Loan Forgiveness program and the Public Service Loan Forgiveness program, but you can't get forgiveness for loans for the same period of teaching service.
To use both, you would have to stack them, pursuing Teacher Loan Forgiveness first, then Public Service Loan Forgiveness second, says Mark Kantrowitz, publisher and vice president of research at Savingforcollege.com. "However, this means it will take 15 years until your debt is fully forgiven, instead of just 10 years with PSLF. The main benefit is if you are unsure whether you want to pursue a career in teaching, Teacher Loan Forgiveness gets you some forgiveness sooner."
If you're interested in this program, you'll want to research whether your school qualifies using the Department of Education's Teacher Cancellation Low Income Directory.
The American Rescue Plan passed by Congress and signed by President Biden in March 2021 includes a provision that student loan forgiveness issued between Jan. 1, 2021, and Dec. 31, 2025, will not be taxable to the recipient.
Option #3: Perkins Loan Teacher Cancellation
If you took out loans from the now-defunct Perkins loan program to fund your education, you may be eligible to get 100% of those loans canceled. There are a few caveats, however.
To qualify, you have to work full-time in a public or nonprofit elementary or secondary school system as a teacher serving students from low-income families; a special education teacher; a STEM teacher; or a teacher specializing in foreign languages, bilingual education, or any other underserved discipline. Loans can be canceled for teachers employed by private schools as long as the school has a nonprofit status with the IRS and provides elementary or secondary education.
This program is only open to students who got their Perkins loans before the program ended in September 2017.
Option #4: TEACH Grant
The TEACH Grant isn't loan forgiveness per se, but it is another option to consider as a teacher seeking loan help. This grant is designed for students who are still working towards a teaching degree, either as undergraduate or graduate students. The program provides up to $4,000 per year in grant funding, but as a condition of receiving the money, you must agree to teach in a high-need field in a school that serves low-income students for at least four complete academic years within eight years of finishing your degree. If you fail to meet these requirements, grant funding becomes a loan that must be repaid.
Option #5: State-Run Loan Forgiveness Programs for Teachers
Another way to get forgiveness for federal student loans is to look at what your state government offers. There's a database you can use to search forgiveness programs offered in your state. The state of Tennessee, for example, offers loan forgiveness for math and science teachers, while Illinois offers loan repayment assistance for educators and childcare workers.
What About Private Student Loan Forgiveness?
If you took out private student loans to pay for a teaching degree, whether forgiveness is available and under what conditions will depend primarily on your lender. And if you are able to have your loans forgiven, it may only be for limited circumstances, such as if you become permanently disabled or you pass away. (Your heirs are generally not liable if loans are in your name only, but a co-signer would be liable for the debt.)
If you have private loans that you're struggling to repay, there are some things you can do to manage them. You might try refinancing your loans, for example, to get a lower interest rate and potentially a lower monthly payment. A lower rate can save you money over time if you're paying less interest overall.
You could also reach out to your lender to see if financial hardship or forbearance programs are available if you're experiencing a temporary cash-flow issue. Again, whether these options exist and whether you qualify will depend on your choice of lender.
The Bottom Line
Teachers can pursue private student loan forgiveness but it's important to read the fine print on these various programs to make sure you qualify. "The biggest thing to keep in mind while deciding which loan forgiveness program to join is the longevity of the teaching job itself," Farrington says. "If the plan is only to teach for five years, the number of programs to qualify for is reduced. If this is the case, enrolling in the wrong one may not provide the expected loan forgiveness."
And of course, get your application ready early, before the deadline. "Don't wait until the last minute," Kantrowitz says.