Student debt has reached an all-time high in the U.S. of late, with an estimated 40 million people now owing an average balance of $29,000, according to the credit reporting company Experian. Under certain circumstances, however, some of that debt may be discharged or forgiven.

Key Takeaways

  • Student loan forgiveness can be earned in two ways: by working in public service or by making payments through an income-contingent payment plan for a (long) period of time.
  • Only federal direct loans qualify for loan forgiveness—you can't get it for private loans.
  • Federal loans may also be discharged under certain circumstances, if those are beyond the borrower's control.

What Is Student Loan Forgiveness?

Student loan forgiveness releases you from the obligation to repay part or all of your federal loan debt. The prospect of seeing that debt evaporate may seem like a dream come true. In reality, though, not that many people end up being eligible. Requirements vary depending on the type of loan, but most offer forgiveness only for those employed in certain public service occupations. There are also repayment plans that include forgiveness of some debt.

Discharging Student Loans

For a federal education loan to be discharged, there must be circumstances beyond the borrower’s control. Most loans can be discharged in the following situations:

  • Permanent disability of the borrower
  • Closure of the school during the time of study
  • Falsification of the loan qualifications by the school
  • Use of identity theft on someone else's part to secure the loan
  • Failure of the school to refund required loans to the lender
  • Death of the borrower

"Circumstances beyond the borrower's control" do not include things like having to drop out of college before graduation or being unable to find a job after graduation. However, there is a possibility that they could include a school using illegal recruiting tactics, such as guaranteeing the student a well-paid job upon graduation. In June 2015, for example, the U.S. Department of Education promised debt relief to students of the bankrupt for-profit Corinthian Colleges chain. The department has more information, including how to apply, on its website.

Earning Student Loan Forgiveness

Student loan forgiveness can be earned in two ways: by working in public service or by making payments through an income-contingent payment plan for a (long) period of time. Each has its own conditions and limitations. Neither route is quick or easy.

The Public Service Loan Forgiveness Program (PSLF) is designed specifically for people who work in public service jobs, either for the government or for a nonprofit organization. You may also be able to get all or part of your loan forgiven through certain types of volunteer work, military service, or medical practice.

In order to have some debt forgiven under the public service program, you must first make 120 qualifying payments (meaning, paying the minimum amount due on time). These payments must be made while you are working for a qualified employer—generally, a federal, state, or local government or a nonprofit organization with tax-exempt status. In effect, you qualify after 10 years on the job and 10 years of monthly payments.

Potentially eligible positions include those in nursing, government, police and fire departments, and social work. Only payments made after October 1, 2007, qualify toward earning eligibility.

If you aren’t working in a public service position, you may still be able to get some of your student debt forgiven—but it will take longer. Federal income-based repayment plans allow for some debt forgiveness after a minimum of 20 years. The terms and conditions vary by program.

If you have an FFEL or Perkins Loan, you can consolidate those debts into a federal loan that is eligible for forgiveness—but only payments made after consolidation will count toward the 120-payment minimum, so do this as early as possible.

Only direct loans made by the federal government (currently known as the William D. Ford Federal Direct Loan Program) are eligible for student loan forgiveness. Non-federal loans (those issued by private lenders and loan companies) aren’t part of this program. If you do not have a William D. Ford Direct Loan and, instead, borrowed through the Federal Family Education Loan Program (FFEL) or the now-defunct Perkins Loan Program, you are allowed to consolidate those debts into a Direct Consolidation Loan. The new consolidated loan would then be eligible for public service loan forgiveness, under the same terms as those described above. Keep in mind that only payments made on the combined loan count toward the 120-payment minimum; earlier payments made on the old loans aren't considered.

The terms for student loan forgiveness are subject to change and the shifting political winds. Regardless of any changes that may be on the horizon, Mark Kantrowitz, publisher and V.P. of research at Savingforcollege.com, warns borrowers against betting their financial future on the hope of debt forgiveness, especially the kind that's tied to public service. For one thing, there's a rigid time limit: “Public service loan forgiveness occurs after 10 years of full-time service. It is an all-or-nothing benefit, so borrowers who stop working before reaching the 10-year mark will get no forgiveness.”

Specialized Loan Forgiveness Programs

If you work or volunteer for certain organizations, you may be eligible for additional programs that will forgive or reduce your student debt. Here are some examples:

  • AmeriCorps VISTA, AmeriCorps NCCC, or AmeriCorps State and National programs. Volunteers for these programs can receive up to $6,195 toward repaying qualified student loans (loans backed by the federal government) through the Segal AmeriCorps Education Award.
  • Army National Guard. The Army National Guard's Student Loan Repayment Program can help you earn up to $50,000 toward loans. Covered loans include Federal Direct, Perkins, and Stafford Loans.
  • Full-time teachers in low-income schools or educational service agencies. Through the Teacher Loan Forgiveness Program, teachers may be eligible for forgiveness of up to either $5,000 or $17,500 on their Federal Direct and Stafford Loans after five consecutive years of service. The higher amount is for certain math, science, and special-ed teachers. The Education Department has further details on its website.
  • Medical and nursing school graduates. Working in underserved areas can qualify doctors and nurses for student loan forgiveness under some state programs.

Repayment Plans With Loan Forgiveness

Income-driven repayment plans, designed to help graduates who are having trouble making payments within the standard 10-year time frame, provide forgiveness for borrowers not in the public sector after a certain period of time. The plans have a two-pronged appeal: the possibility of lower monthly payments now, plus the chance for the remaining balances to be forgiven later.

These plans include:

  • Income-Based Repayment (IBR). Maximum monthly payments will be 15% of discretionary income. Forgiveness eligibility comes after 25 years of qualifying payments.
  • Income-Contingent Repayment. Payments are recalculated each year based on gross income, family size, and outstanding federal loan balance. Forgiveness eligibility is after 25 years of qualifying payments.
  • Pay As You Earn (PAYE) and Revised Pay As You Earn (REPAYE). Maximum monthly payments will be 10% of discretionary income. Forgiveness eligibility is after 20 years of qualifying payments. The government may even pay part of the interest on the loan.
  • If you work for a federal agency, your employer may repay up to $10,000 of your loans per year, with a maximum of $60,000, through the Federal Student Loan Repayment Program.

Your student loan servicer handles the repayment of your federal student loans, so work with the servicer to enroll in a repayment plan or change your current plan. You can usually do this online via the company’s website. To apply for the public service forgiveness program, both you and your employer need to complete and file the program's employment certification form.

Drawbacks of Forgiveness/Repayment Plans

Income-based repayment can also have a downside: More interest will accrue on your loan because the repayment is stretched over a longer period of time. “Loan payments under IBR and PAYE can be negatively amortized, digging the borrower into a deeper hole,” Kantrowitz notes. “Borrowers who expect to have a significant increase in their income a few years into repayment should perhaps prefer a repayment plan like extended repayment or graduated repayment, where the monthly payment will be at least as much the new interest that accrues, and the loan balance will not increase.”

With income-based repayment plans, your loan payments will rise along with your salary.

"Remember, payments change annually based on income. When your income rises, your payment can, too,” notes Reyna Gobel, author of "CliffsNotes Graduation Debt: How to Manage Student Loans and Live Your Life." Even if you succeed in lowering monthly payments, don't go on a spending spree with the newly available funds, she adds. “If you're currently racking up more debt because you expect these plans in the future: stop! You never know what will or won't exist for graduates if the law changes in the future. Ask yourself, 'Could I afford to repay this on a regular extended repayment plan?' If not, you could be getting yourself into very high debt and a difficult situation." 

All is not perfect with forgiveness plans, either. The sorts of jobs that may make you eligible for student loan forgiveness often pay significantly less than private-sector positions. You might be able to repay your loans more quickly through a job with greater earning potential, even if it doesn't offer loan forgiveness.

If you do have all or part of your student loans forgiven, be aware that the IRS may consider the forgiven debt to be income, so you could have to pay tax on that amount. Also, if you choose to participate in any loan-forgiveness program, be sure to obtain written verification of the amount that will be forgiven and under what circumstances.