Student Loan Forgiveness & Discharge

The Biden Administration’s one-time student loan cancellation plan is still in a legal limbo. The Administration has extended the pause on payments of federal student loans and proposed a new income-driven repayment plan that could cut student loan bills in half. There are also certain career choices – teachers, nurses, government employees – that could make you eligible for other student loan forgiveness programs.

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At the end of February, the United States Supreme Court will hear oral arguments on the legality of President Biden’s plans to forgive $10,000 of federal student debt for anyone making less than $125,000, and to cancel up to $20,000 of debt for those who received Pell Grants while in college. A decision isn’t expected until June at the earliest.

Until then, the one-time student loan cancellation program is on hold, and new applications aren’t being accepted.

Is the Biden plan popular? The answer is a resounding yes. By the time an order from a federal district court judge halted implementation of the program on Nov. 10, 2022, some 26 million applications for relief through the plan had been submitted in the three-month period since it was announced in August. The government has notified those early applicants who have been approved for relief, but to date, the legal uncertainty has kept it from canceling or reducing their debt.

If the plan ultimately can move forward, as many as 40 million borrowers of federal student loans will be eligible for it. All told, federal student loan debt totals around $1.7 trillion.

The good news is that the legal challenges haven’t affected the government’s Public Service Loan Forgiveness (PSLF) program or other student loan forgiveness options. Under the PSLF, borrowers who work 10 years in public service jobs – teachers, nurses, government employees, etc. – while making 120 on-time monthly payments, can have the balance of their student loans forgiven.

And on Jan. 9, the Department of Education announced details of a revamped income-driven repayment plan that would increase the amount of income protected from repayment, stop the accumulation of unpaid interest, and shorten the time it takes for some borrowers to obtain forgiveness.

The end result, according to the Biden Administration, is that monthly payments would be dramatically lower for some federal student loan borrowers. Parts of that plan, if it survives its own legal and bureaucratic challenges, could be implemented later this year.

Biden indicated this proposal was in the works when he announced his Student Loan Forgiveness Plan last year, but the details didn’t become public until early January.

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What Is Student Loan Forgiveness?

Student loan forgiveness means you are no longer required to make payments on the loans you used to pay for college. It’s an incentive program for those who took out more money than they can afford to repay.

Piling up student debt isn’t exactly a sin. If it were, 45 million people should head to the nearest confession booth. After all, they have that combined $1.7 trillion in sins, er, debt.

It can’t be confessed away, but it can be forgiven. Sort of.

Forgiveness means all or part of your student loan is wiped away. Poof! But the federal government doesn’t just wave a magic wand over everyone’s debt. You must qualify for forgiveness and, depending on which type of forgiveness you are pursuing, that can be a challenge. To qualify for PSLF, for example, you must make 10 years (120 months) of steady, on-time payments.

Private student loan forgiveness is even more difficult. The only way that happens is if you sustain total and permanent disability, or you die.

Student Loan Forgiveness vs. Cancellation vs. Discharge

The end result of all three of those procedures – forgiveness, cancellation, and discharge – is essentially the same: You get out from under some or all of your student debt. The means to that end differs slightly from process to process and loan type to loan type. That can be important as you research your eligibility for relief programs.

  • Student Loan Forgiveness: When you are employed in any government or certain nonprofit organizations, you can be eligible to be relieved of making payments on your federal loans. If you have a Public Service Loan, a Forgiveness Teacher Loan, or an income-driven repayment plan on a federal student loan, it likely qualifies for forgiveness.
  • Student Loan Cancellation: This is similar to forgiveness in that your job can unburden you of the requirement to make the loan payments. However, cancelation can involve different time periods for eligibility to kick in than forgiveness does, and cancellation applies to a different range of student loans. For example, most Perkins loans qualify for cancellation rather than forgiveness, though a Perkins loan can also be discharged.
  • Student Loan Discharge: A loan can be discharged when you are subject to special circumstances that are beyond your control, such as disability, death, bankruptcy, identity theft, and others. Your student loan can also be discharged if your school closed soon after you graduated or while you were enrolled.

Again, you should know which term applies to your particular situation, but for the sake of simplicity, “forgiveness” generally can apply to any of the processes that lead to student loan debt relief.

How To Get Your Student Loans Forgiven

Canceling student loan debt has been a popular subject for 20 years, and yet 47 million people still owe $1.7 trillion.

There are a number of possible paths to forgiveness.

  • Biden’s currently-blocked, one-time cancellation program becomes the No. 1 option if it survives the legal challenges. It would provide some form of relief for 91% of the 47 million borrowers.
  • Option No. 2 for student loan forgiveness is having a job that serves the public good. If you’re a teacher or police officer or firefighter or social worker or health care worker or government employee who kept up with payments for 10 straight years, you’ve got a good shot. If you are a sign spinner or pet psychic, forget it.
  • The third option is through a repayment plan that is based on your income. You will still have to pay a large chunk of your debt over a 10-year period, but under the current laws, a portion will be forgiven at the end. This alternative is available now, though the Biden Administration’s recent proposal would revamp and improve its terms for borrowers.

Those first three options are available for federal student loans.

  • Option No. 4 is a discharge rather than a cancellation or forgiveness, which means you probably don’t want to go there. It’s available for a federal or private loan when you can’t repay it for any of the reasons we mentioned earlier, such as death, disability, fraud, identity theft, or bankruptcy.

Here is a look at the four choices and what makes them attractive enough to research further.

1. Biden Student Loan Forgiveness

In 2022, Biden issued an executive order to eliminate $10,000 in student loan debt for people making less than $125,000 ($250,000 for married couples filing jointly) and an extra $10,000 for those who received Pell Grants while in school. The Administration activated Biden Student Loan Forgiveness in October, but court challenges blocked it before it could provide any relief to borrowers.

On Feb. 28, 2023, the Supreme Court will hear arguments centering around two primary issues. One is President Biden’s authority to make unilateral changes in student financial assistance programs. The other is the plan’s ramifications on tax revenue in six states that filed a lawsuit against the plan: Nebraska, Missouri, Arkansas, Iowa, Kansas, and South Carolina.

So, when will Biden’s student loan forgiveness be applied? A decision from the Supreme Court is expected early this summer.

In the meantime, a pause on federal student loan payments is still in effect, meaning you can delay writing those checks for a while longer. The pause was originally put in place in March of 2020 because of the COVID-19 pandemic, and it has been extended several times by both the Trump administration and the Biden administration. It was scheduled to end on Dec. 31, 2022, but Biden extended it one more time (the final time, he says) to allow the litigation to run its course.

At this point, payments are to start again 60 days after the Department of Education can re-implement the program or the court cases are resolved. That likely means you’ll have until mid-to-late summer before you need to make the next payment on your federal student loans.

If the program survives the legal challenges, more than 90% of the 47 million student loan borrowers will get some form of relief from the debt they racked up pursuing a college education. The executive order would completely eliminate the debt of an estimated 12 million borrowers and that number could grow to 20 million.

Here are some other tidbits of news that you should know if you’re hoping for relief from student loans this way:

  • If you made payments on your loans during the payment suspension period (any time after March 13, 2020), the plan would allow you to ask for a refund. Contact your loan servicer for details.
  • William D. Ford Federal Direct Loan Program loans, Federal Family Education Loan (FFEL) Program loans, Federal Perkins Loan Program loans, Stafford Loans, federal consolidation loans dispersed before June 30, 2022, Grad PLUS loans, Parent PLUS loans and current students whose parents qualify under the current income guidelines, would be eligible for forgiveness on loans that originated before July 1, 2022. (You can confirm the type of loan or loans you have by selecting “My Aid” in the dropdown menu of the StudentAid.gov website after you’ve logged in.)
  • The Department of Education already has income information on eight million borrowers who submitted it on Income-Based Repayment Plans or on Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA) forms. Forgiveness for them would be automatic. Others will have to fill out an application form that should be available if or when the program is re-activated.
  • Originally, the final deadline to apply for forgiveness under the Biden plan was to be Dec. 31, 2023. That could be extended in light of the court delays.
  • The amount forgiven would not be considered taxable income on the borrower’s federal tax return. However, some states that have income tax could decide to make you include it.
  • The Federal Reserve says that the average student loan balance is $39,351 and that the median balance (50% higher, 50% lower) is $19,281. Still, more than 25% of 47 million borrowers are expected to have their student loan debt wiped out if the plan takes effect. That number could grow to 40%.
  • Approximately 90% of the forgiveness program would go to people who earn less than $75,000.
  • Estimates of how much the loan forgiveness program would cost the Treasury vary widely. The most conservative estimate comes from the Biden Administration, which claims it would cost about $24 billion a year for 10 years. The Committee for a Responsible Federal Budget puts the cost at $360 billion and says it could grow to $480 billion, depending on how many people take advantage of the income-driven repayment plans.

2. Public Service Loan Forgiveness Program (PSLF)

Congress created the PSLF program in 2007 to encourage people to pursue noble careers that serve mankind and lessen student debt.

To qualify for the Public Service Loan Forgiveness program (PSLF), you must be a full-time employee (at least 30 hours per week) in a public service job. You must also make 10 years of on-time monthly payments (120 total) after consolidating your federal loans in a qualified repayment program. If you meet those requirements, you qualify for tax-free forgiveness.

This option applies solely to Direct Federal Student Loans. Private student loans are not eligible for the PSLF program.

Before we proceed, here’s a red flag: Applicants from the class of 2007 theoretically were the first ones eligible for loan forgiveness in 2017 and 99% of applications were rejected. That number is improving slightly, with 2.4% of applications approved as of September 2020, according to the U.S. Department of Education. From November 2020 through 2021, 2.16% of applications were approved.

Many borrowers discovered their application was rejected because they had been in an incorrect repayment plan. The Department of Education introduced its PSLF Help Tool in 2018 to try and reduce the number of rejected applications.

It’s worth noting that the government made some temporary changes in the PSLF Program during the COVID-19 pandemic. For one, the pause on payments that began in March of 2020 and is still in effect applies in PSLF. Also, the Department of Education issued a limited waiver of some of the more problematic conditions for counting payments, making more of a borrower’s past payments apply toward forgiveness.

That original waiver has expired, but a tweak to the program’s income-driven repayment system essentially accomplishes a similar goal of relaxing the payment rules.

More changes are coming this summer, and they should benefit borrowers. Starting in July 2023, payments that are made late, in installments or in a lump sum, will be credited toward PSLF. Periods of time during the 10-year employment obligation that require deferments from payment such as military service, economic hardship, cancer treatments and time served in AmericCorps and the National Guard will count toward PSLF. And rules about consolidating older loans into federal Direct Loans will ease.

The PSLF Help Tool allows you to search for qualifying employers and has a series of questions related to the program’s requirements that should help steer borrowers through the eligibility process.

If you are deemed ineligible because some or all of your payments were not made under a qualifying plan, you might still be eligible through Temporary Expanded Public Service Loan Forgiveness.

So, if you think you might qualify, it would pay for you to pursue forgiveness. It might eventually pay off nicely.

One other quick note. In August of 2022, several U.S. House of Representative Republicans introduced a Responsible Education Assistance through Loan (REAL) Reforms Act bill, which would eliminate the Public Service Loan Forgiveness program, end most forgiveness programs and place caps on how much graduate students can borrow to finance their education. Since then, Republicans have taken a slight majority in the House, so it’s worth watching to see if the REAL bill makes any progress toward becoming the law of the land.

Public Service Jobs that Qualify for Public Service Loan Forgiveness:

  • Any job in a government organization at the federal, state, local or tribal level qualifies for PSLF. Working for not-for-profit organizations that are designated tax-exempt under Section 501(c)(3), also qualifies.
  • Other not-for-profit organizations that are not tax-exempt, but do provide a qualifying public service, such AmeriCorps and Peace Corps volunteers.

The most common public service careers are in education, law enforcement, health, public law, and veterinary medicine.

If you question whether your job qualifies, use the PSLF Help Tool for answers.

Repayment Plans that Qualify for Public Service Loan Forgiveness:

Currently, there are several repayment plans that qualify under the PSLF program, including Income-Based Repayment Plan (IBR); Income-Contingent Repayment Plan (ICR); Pay As You Earn Repayment Plan (PAYE); and Revised Pay As You Earn Repayment Plan (REPAYE). We’ll get into a little more detail about them in a bit.

But if Biden’s new revamped income-driven repayment proposal is implemented, those four plans will be gradually retired. More on that later, too.

Note that the 10-year Standard Repayment Plan also is considered a qualifying plan. But because it is a 10-year plan, there won’t be any funds left to forgive if you’ve made payments on time. If you plan to enroll in a PSLF program, you need to enroll in a repayment plan that extends your loan term beyond 10 years.

How to Apply for Public Service Loan Forgiveness

To apply for PSLF, you must fill out an Employment Certification Form every year and make pay stubs, W-2 forms or other documentation available as requested.

If you have met the repayment requirements, submit a PSLF application to the Department of Education. If it’s approved, the remaining balance of your loan will be forgiven.

Teacher Loan Forgiveness Program

The Teacher Loan Forgiveness program was created in 1998 to encourage teachers to take jobs at elementary schools, secondary schools and educational service agencies that serve low-income families. The U.S. Department of Education publishes the list of low-income elementary schools and secondary schools each year.

You need to teach full-time at a qualifying school for five full and consecutive years. Then you are eligible to have from $5,000 to up to $17,500 in loans forgiven.

Only direct subsidized and unsubsidized loans qualify. PLUS loans do not qualify. There are 13 states that offer some form of loan forgiveness for teachers, with varying requirements.

Apply to the program by completing the Teacher Loan Forgiveness Application and submitting it to your loan servicer.

Loan Forgiveness for Nurses

Registered nurses, nurse practitioners and members of nursing faculty, who work in high-need population areas or areas where there is a critical shortage, could qualify to have up to 85% of their loans forgiven under the NURSE Corps Loan Repayment Program.

Qualified candidates can have 60% of their student loans forgiven for working two years in an underserved area. Another 25% could be forgiven for working three years.

Some states also offer loan repayment assistance. Go to the Loan Forgiveness for Nurses website to see if yours is one of the 33 states that has one and what the eligibility requirements are.

Loan Forgiveness for Doctors

The healthcare professions, especially physicians, dentists, pharmacists and mental healthcare workers, have several options, both national and local, to receive loan forgiveness.

The requirements and the amount forgiven vary dramatically, depending upon which program you enter. Check out the links to see the amount of loan forgiveness available and requirements for Army doctors, Indian Health Services, National Institute of Health, as well as state-by-state programs.

Loan Forgiveness for Lawyers

Wait. Lawyers need loan forgiveness? Well, yes, in some cases. There are about a million jokes about lawyers being bloodsuckers on society, but the federal loan program begs to differ. There is a financial incentive for lawyers to practice in public service or government offices in order to have some portion of their law school loan forgiven.

For example, the Department of Justice provides up to $60,000 in loan forgiveness for lawyers who work there for at least three years. The Air Force Judge Advocate program offers up to $65,000 in loan forgiveness.

The best place to start looking might be your own law school, since several colleges forgive some or all of the student loans for students who make less than $60,000 a year.

That amount varies, so check with your school to get actual requirements and amounts forgiven. If you can’t qualify for a forgiveness program, look into refinancing your law school debt.

Loan Forgiveness for Military Veterans

Each branch of the military has programs that help qualified members pay off their student loans, but the loan amounts forgiven and the requirements that must be met vary dramatically.

Visit the Complete Guide to Military Student Loan Forgiveness and Repayment and find the program that best suits your situation and branch of the military.

Federal Perkins Loan Cancellation

Federal Perkins Loans have a separate forgiveness program because your school is the lender, not the federal government. To apply, contact the financial aid office at the school that administered your Perkins Loan and request the application forms. You need to be a full-time employee in a qualified career.

Qualifying Perkins Loan Forgiveness Jobs:

  • Soldier in hostile fire or imminent danger pay areas
  • Firefighter
  • Law enforcement or corrections officer
  • Nurse or medical technician
  • VISTA or Peace Corps volunteer
  • Librarian with a master’s degree (employed by Title 1 eligible schools or public libraries that serve those schools)
  • Attorney employed in a federal public or community defender organization
  • Employee for public or nonprofit organization that serves high-risk children and their families from low-income communities
  • Staff member for educational component of the Head Start program
  • Staff member for a state-licensed or regulated pre-kindergarten or child care program
  • Professional provider of early intervention services for the disabled
  • Speech pathologist with a master’s degree (employed by Title 1 eligible schools)
  • Special education teacher for children with disabilities in public, other nonprofit schools or educational service agency
  • Teacher in a field designated by the state as teacher shortage areas (math, science, foreign language, bilingual education etc.)
  • Teacher in a designated educational service agency that serves students from low-income families
  • Faculty member at a tribal college or university

You can have up to 100% of your Perkins Loans cancelled or broken down over five years — 15% per year for the first and second year, 20% for the third and fourth years, 30% for the fifth year.

3. Income-Driven Repayment Plan Loan Forgiveness

This is where the Biden Administration’s latest proposal could make a significant impact, if it’s allowed to be implemented. It must first go through a public comment period and then it will take some months to implement. It already has attracted criticism for its potential cost to the federal government, the possibility that it could motivate students to borrow even more, and that it excludes borrowers with Parent PLUS loans.

But assuming it survives any legal or bureaucratic challenges, it could officially be available by July 1, 2024, though some elements of it could be put into effect sooner than that.

Income-driven repayment plans are the third type of loan forgiveness. Monthly payments in these plans are built around a percentage of a borrower’s discretionary income and how long the borrower makes on-time payments, under a qualifying repayment plan. In exchange for a longer repayment period, a borrower gets lower monthly payments. You do not need to be working in a specific career field to qualify for loan forgiveness based on your repayment history.

Generally, you will make on-time payments for 20 or 25 years, depending on the existing repayment plan. The remaining loan balance is forgiven after that period of time.

Currently, there are the four existing income-driven repayment plans:

  • The Pay As You Earn (PAYE) Repayment Plan, which qualifies you for loan forgiveness after 20 years of on-time payments. This repayment plan will generally offer you the lowest monthly payment. To enroll in this repayment plan, you must demonstrate a financial hardship. You may remain in the program, however, after the hardship has resolved.
  • The Revised Pay As You Earn (REPAYE) Repayment Plan, which is similar to the PAYE plan except that you don’t need to demonstrate financial hardship to qualify for the program.
  • The Income-Contingent Repayment (ICR) Plan, which qualifies you for loan forgiveness after 25 years of on-time payments. The student loan programs under which the ICR Plan is available are somewhat limited, though they include Parent PLUS loans. Monthly payments generally are higher in an ICR Plan than they are in an Income-Based Repayment (IBR) Plan.
  • The Income-Based Repayment (IBR) Plan also qualifies you for loan forgiveness after 25 years of on-time payments and generally has a broader reach than the Income-Contingent Plan. IBR is available under both the Federal Family Education Loan Program (FFEL) and the Federal Direct Loan Program.

Rather than introduce a fifth income-driven plan, Biden’s new proposal would modify the REPAYE Plan and eventually eliminate any new enrollments in the other three.

Currently, income-driven repayment plans generally charge 10% of a borrower’s monthly discretionary income. The Biden proposal would lower it to 5% for undergraduate loans and only require payments from people who earn more than about $30,000 per year. Any remaining debt would be canceled after 20 years of payments. And for a balance that is $12,000 or less, a student loan could be forgiven after 10 years.

Information for applications for the existing income-driven repayment plans can be found at StudentLoans.gov. You will need documentation on personal and financial information. Your loan servicer also can provide an application.

Forgiveness based on 20 or 25 years of on-time payments is only available to Federal Student loans. Private student loans do not qualify.

4. Student Loan Discharge

There’s one additional way to achieve student loan forgiveness which is called discharge. It is generally awarded by a judge and can apply to both Federal and private student loans. Discharge is granted under extremely rare circumstances.

Circumstances for Student Loan Discharge:

  • Permanent disability or death
  • Victim of identity theft
  • Unauthorized signature of the loan by the school without your knowledge
  • False certification of student eligibility
  • Unpaid refund, which is when you withdrew from school and it didn’t return the required loan funds to your loan servicer
  • School closure while you were enrolled

Discharging student loans through bankruptcy is extremely rare. It is technically not impossible, but demonstrating undue hardship is very difficult. Read more about the differences between forgiveness and discharge.

Student Loan Forgiveness Alternatives

The qualifying standards for student loan forgiveness eliminate many of the 45 million borrowers, but there are other avenues to pursue that might make repaying your debt a little less challenging.

The most obvious one for federal loans is to sign up for one of the income-driven programs. These programs adjust your monthly payment based on your income, so if you’re not making much, you aren’t required to pay much.

The historically low interest rates in 2020 were a prime time for borrowers to examine whether refinancing their student loans made sense. Some borrowers were able to get rates at 3% APR and that reduced their monthly payment to a manageable level. Be aware, however, that if you refinance a federal student loan, you will lose the many options federal programs offer.

If your money crunch is temporary, you can ask that your loans be deferred or placed in forbearance. This allows you time to reorganize financially so you can meet monthly payment responsibilities.

Get Help Navigating Student Loan Forgiveness

If you’ve read this far, you already know that student loan forgiveness is complicated and volatile. Pending court cases, new proposals, unforeseen challenges … the situation is a political football and the goal posts can change from one week to the next.

Some of the uncertainty might resolve itself in the coming months. We should know the status of the Biden Student Loan Forgiveness Program by sometime this summer. Same with the Administration’s new student loan income-driven repayment proposal. The Public Service Loan Forgiveness Program is making changes for the better, but they won’t be in place for another five or six months.

If you’re struggling with the weight of your student loans right now, the confusion surely doesn’t help. Your patience no doubt is being severely tested.

Stay up to date on the latest news and continue communicating with your student loan servicer. You can find your student loan servicer here.

About The Author

Michael Knisley

Michael Knisley was an assistant professor on the faculty at the prestigious University of Missouri School of Journalism and has more than 40 years of experience editing and writing about business, sports and the spectrum of issues affecting consumers and fans. During his career, Michael has won awards from the New York Press Club, the Online News Association, the Military Reporters and Editors Association, the Associated Press Sports Editors and the Sports Emmys.

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