#StudentLoanForgiveness. It’s a hashtag now, so you’ll all pay attention, right? Everyone wants their student loans forgiven. The perception is that very few qualify for any forgiveness programs. But did you know that there is one broad, employment-based forgiveness program for federal student loans? Most people don’t, or misunderstand how it works. Let me break down some key points of the Public Service Loan Forgiveness Program to help you figure out if you could qualify.
Can you check the all the boxes?
[ 1 ] Work in “Qualifying Employment”
First, you need to work in “qualifying” employment; that is, you must work in “public service.” But what does that mean? Everyone seems to have a different definition. Ours is based on who employs you, not what you do for your employer. The following types of employers qualify:
- Governmental organizations – Federal, state, local, Tribal
- Not-for-profit organization that is tax-exempt under Section 501(c)(3) of the Internal Revenue Code
- A not-for-profit organization that provides some specific public services, such as public education, law enforcement, public health, or legal services
The following types of employers do not qualify:
- Labor unions
- Partisan political organizations
- For-profit organizations
[ 2 ] “Qualifying Employment Status”
If you work at one of these types of organizations—great! That’s the most difficult criteria to meet. Next, you need to work there in a “qualifying” employment status, which means that you must be a full-time employee of the organization. Full time, for our purposes, generally means that you meet your employer’s definition of full time or work at least 30 hours per week, whichever is greater.
[ 3 ] Have a “Qualifying Loan”
A “qualifying” loan is a Direct Loan. It’s that simple. Of course, it’s the government, so nothing is actually that simple. You see, there are (or were) three big federal student loan programs:
- The Direct Loan Program, which is now the biggest program,
- The Federal Family Education Loan (FFEL) Program, which is what many students borrowed from until mid-2010, and
- The Federal Perkins Loan Program, which is a relatively small program.
You may have loans from just one of these programs, or you may have borrowed from all three. If you’re not sure which loan program you borrowed from, I can’t blame you—I had 20 separate loans by the time that I finished graduate school! You can use the National Student Loan Data System to determine which program you borrowed from. Here’s a tip from me to you: basically, if you see “Direct” in the loan type name, it’s a Direct Loan. Otherwise, it’s not.
Don’t have a Direct Loan? Don’t despair! You can consolidate your other federal student loans into a Direct Consolidation Loan and qualify that way. Not having a Direct Loan is the biggest reason that borrowers who are seeking Public Service Loan Forgiveness aren’t on the right track, so be sure that all of your loans that you want forgiven are Direct Loans before you proceed to the next step. If you do need to consolidate, be sure to check the box in the application that says that you’re consolidating for the purposes of loan forgiveness. It will make your life easier, I promise.
[ 4 ] Have a “Qualifying Repayment Plan”
Next, you need a “qualifying” repayment plan. All of the “income-driven repayment plans” are qualifying plans for Public Service Loan Forgiveness. So is the 10-year Standard Repayment Plan, but if you’re on that repayment plan, you should switch to an income-driven repayment plan straight away, or you will have a drastically lower loan balance left to be forgiven after you meet all of the criteria.
If you’re consolidating your loans, you can apply for an income-driven repayment plan in the consolidation application, but if you don’t, you will be placed on the Standard Repayment Plan for Direct Consolidation Loans, which is almost never a qualifying repayment plan for Public Service Loan Forgiveness. If you already have Direct Loans, you can submit an income-driven repayment plan application on StudentLoans.gov.
[ 5 ] Make 120 “Qualifying Payments”
Lastly, you need to make “qualifying” payments—120 of them. A qualifying payment is exactly what you would expect it to be. You get a bill. It has an “amount due” and it has a “due date”. Make the payment in that amount by the due date (or up to 15 days after), and the payment is a “qualifying payment”. If you make a payment when you’re not required to—say, because, you’re in a deferment or you paid your student loan early—then that doesn’t count. But if you reliably make your payment every month for 10 years, you should be okay. The best way to ensure that your payments qualify is to sign up for automatic payments with your loan servicer.
Note that these payments do not need to be consecutive. So, if you had made 10 qualifying payments, and then stop for a period of time (say, you go on a deferment), then start making qualifying payments again, you don’t start over; instead, you pick up where you left off.
And, I’m sorry to have to mention a seemingly arbitrary date, but a payment only qualifies if it was made after October 1, 2007, so nobody can qualify for Public Service Loan Forgiveness until 2017 at the earliest.
Ok, so do I qualify?
Now that you have the details, let me explain how all of the criteria work together. For any payment to count toward Public Service Loan Forgiveness, you need to meet all of the criteria when you make each payment. Stated differently, you need to be working for a qualifying employer on a full-time basis when you make a qualifying payment under a qualifying repayment plan on a Direct Loan. When you break these criteria down separately, it seems simpler. It’s when you try to pack it into one sentence that it seems overwhelming.
As much as I’d like to think that all of you now have a perfect understanding of this program and how it works, I know all of you are thinking—“okay, but do I qualify?” Here’s how you find out. Download this form. Fill it out. Have your employer certify it. Send it to FedLoan Servicing (one of our federal student loan servicers), queue up How I Met Your Mother on Netflix, and wait for an answer. FedLoan Servicing will do the following:
- Check whether you have any qualifying loans.
- If you have qualifying loans, validate that your employment qualifies. If none of your loans qualify, they’ll tell you so.
- If your employment qualifies, they will send you a letter confirming that your employment qualifies. Then, any of your federally held loans that are not serviced by FedLoan Servicing will be transferred to them so that we can keep better track of your loans and payments for Public Service Loan Forgiveness. If your employment doesn’t qualify, they’ll tell you so.
- After your loans are transferred, they will match up the dates of employment on the form that you submitted to the payments you made during that time and determine how many qualifying payments you made. You’ll receive a letter with a count of qualifying payments and an anticipated forgiveness date (which assumes that all your future payments also qualify).
It’s after you get this payment count back that you’ll know whether you’re on the right track. So, it really is a good idea to submit this form early and often. We recommend that you submit the form once per year or when you change jobs. The beauty of submitting these forms early and on an ongoing basis is that it means that you won’t have to submit 10 years’ worth of them when you ultimately want to apply for forgiveness. It also means that when you apply for forgiveness, that you’ll be able to do so with confidence that you qualify for it.
One more piece of good news: Public Service Loan Forgiveness is not considered income by the IRS. That means that it’s tax-free.
Ian Foss has worked as a program specialist for the Department of Education since 2010. He’s scheduled to be eligible for Public Service Loan Forgiveness on October 6, 2021, if all goes according to plan.