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Student Loans Student Loan Repayment

Is Student Loan Forgiveness Real?

Updated Apr 06, 2023   |   6 mins read

Please pardon those who took out student loans for being skeptical about student loan forgiveness.

It has a nice ring to it, but by now we’ve heard mixed messages about whether it’s a reality for most borrowers—from applicants being denied to outright scams that cost more than they save.

Is student loan forgiveness legit? In this guide, we’ll explain what student loan forgiveness is, who is (and isn’t) eligible, and how to get it.

In this guide:

How do you get your student loans forgiven?

The U.S. Department of Education offers several routes to forgiveness, discharge, or cancellation for federal student loans. In many cases, you’ll be required to repay a portion of your loans before qualifying for forgiveness of the remaining balance.

To have your student loans forgiven, find out whether you qualify for any of these student loan forgiveness programs.

Public Service Loan Forgiveness (PSLF)

This is the student loan forgiveness program that gets the most attention. Public Service Loan Forgiveness cancels Direct Loan balances for those working in government, nonprofits, or the military. The program offers student loan forgiveness for nurses, educators, and others working as public servants.

You may qualify for PSLF if you make 120 on-time, in-full payments under an income-driven repayment plan while working full time in an eligible public service job. A few things to note to improve your chances of approval:

  • Your 120 payments don’t have to be consecutive; you just have to be employed full time in an eligible job when you make them.
  • Some nonprofit work for religious organizations, such as religious instruction or proselytizing, does not count toward eligible work hours.
  • Enroll in income-driven repayment (IDR). If you make 120 full payments under the 10-year standard repayment plan (though they’re technically eligible), you’ll repay your loan and leave no balance to cancel. 
  • Payments under the standard repayment plan for a Direct Consolidation Loan are not eligible, so payments must be under IDR to be eligible.
  • Volunteer service including AmeriCorps and Peace Corps service may also qualify.
  • Many borrowers who are eligible for PSLF are also eligible for Perkins Loan Forgiveness, but you’ll apply separately. PSLF applications are through the Department of Education. Perkins Loan Forgiveness applications are through your school or loan servicer.
  • If you received Teacher Loan Forgiveness, you’ll have to make an additional 120 qualifying payments before applying for PSLF.

Teacher Loan Forgiveness

Under the Teacher Loan Forgiveness program, teachers may qualify for forgiveness of up to $17,500 of Direct or Stafford Loan balances, or the outstanding balance of a Consolidation Loan.

To qualify, you must teach full time for five consecutive academic years in a low-income K-12 school. Eligible schools and educational agencies are listed in the Department of Education’s annual “Low-Income School Directory.”

Teachers who receive Teacher Loan Forgiveness can also qualify for Public Service Loan Forgiveness, but the five-year qualifying period doesn’t count toward PSLF; you’ll need to make 120 more qualifying payments to be eligible. 

Military loan forgiveness programs

Military members can receive several student loan benefits, including eligibility for Public Service Loan Forgiveness and repayment assistance during their years of service.

Student loan forgiveness for income-driven repayment

The most likely route to student loan forgiveness for most borrowers is through an income-driven repayment plan

When you enroll your federal student loans in one of these plans, your monthly payment is reduced to a limited percentage of your discretionary income, and your repayment period is extended to 20 or 25 years.

If you make all required payments during the repayment period—including when your monthly payment is $0 or during economic hardship deferment—your remaining loan balance is forgiven at the end of the repayment period.

Federal student loan discharge and cancellation

You may have other options to discharge your federal student loans if:

  • You’re totally and permanently disabled.
  • Your school closed while you were attending or within four months after you left.
  • Your school falsely certified you to receive the loan.
  • You withdrew, and your school failed to make a required refund to your loan servicer.

Learn more in our guide to student loan cancellation.

How to qualify for student loan forgiveness

Your eligibility for student loan forgiveness depends on the program under which you want your loans forgiven. In most cases, you can’t apply for forgiveness until at least 10 or 20 years after you leave school.

To give yourself the best chance of success when it comes time to apply:

  • Talk to an adviser in your school’s financial aid office about your repayment options.
  • Pay attention to any required exit counseling to understand your repayment obligations and available plans.
  • Research requirements for student loan forgiveness programs related to your field of work early, so you can consider them when choosing a job, enrolling in a repayment plan, and budgeting for your monthly payments.
  • Keep an eye out for news from the Department of Education for any legislative changes that could affect your eligibility for forgiveness.

Can you get private student debt forgiven?

Unfortunately, private student loan forgiveness is not an option for most borrowers. Because they’re issued by private lenders, they are not eligible for the federal programs. You’re also not likely to be able to discharge student loans in bankruptcy.

Individual lenders may have programs in place to support borrowers in unique situations. For example, some lenders offer private student debt discharge with death, others offer forgiveness if you are permanently disabled.

Avoid student loan discharge scams

With all the hype surrounding student debt discharge, scams have popped up to take advantage of student loan borrowers.

For a fee, sometimes as much as $2,000, these scammers promise borrowers debt forgiveness and other savings. Remember, federal student loan forgiveness eligibility is limited, and you can apply for free; you should never pay to apply for student loan forgiveness.

If you want to reduce your interest rate or lower your monthly payment on your loans, consider applying directly with a student loan refinancing lender. For federal loans, you may want to first consider student loan consolidation to retain the possibility of student loan forgiveness and other borrower protections.