Public Service Loan Forgiveness: What It Is, How It Works

PSLF discharges your remaining federal student loan balance after you make 10 years' worth of payments while working for the government or a nonprofit.
Eliza Haverstock
By Eliza Haverstock 
Updated
Edited by Karen Gaudette Brewer
Public Service Loan Forgiveness

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Nerdy takeaways
  • PSLF forgives your federal student debt after 10 years of payments.

  • You must work in a qualifying nonprofit or government job.

  • Submit a PSLF certification form annually to stay on track for forgiveness.

  • Sign up for an income-driven repayment plan to lower your monthly payments while working toward forgiveness.

  • There's a 3-month PSLF processing pause underway until sometime in July.

Public Service Loan Forgiveness (PSLF) is a federal program that can erase your student loan balance after you make 10 years’ worth of monthly payments, for a total of 120 payments, while working for the government or a nonprofit organization.

You'll also be on an income-driven repayment (IDR) plan that caps monthly bills at a set percentage of your income. Any forgiveness you receive won’t be taxed.

PSLF has erased $62.8 billion worth of student loans for 876,000 borrowers as of April 2024, according to the Education Department. The program is designed to encourage students to enter potentially low-paying careers like firefighting, teaching, government, nursing, public interest law, the military and religious work. The program is currently in a 3-month processing pause through sometime in July as the Education Department takes over its administration.

You can use the Education Department’s PSLF Help Tool to find out your eligibility based on the types of loans you have and your employer. If your loans are eligible, they’ll be transferred to the student loan servicer MOHELA, which manages PSLF applications and loan repayment.

Like many federal student loan programs, PSLF underwent temporary changes as a result of the pandemic:

  • All federal student loans were put into interest-free administrative forbearance from March 2020 until October 2023.

  • The Education Department is temporarily bending the rules on which payments count toward PSLF forgiveness during the one-time IDR account adjustment, which is slated to wrap up in July 2024. This includes months spent in the pandemic payment pause, as long as a borrower also worked a qualifying job during that time. 

You’ll find details on these changes and more below.

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How to get Public Service Loan Forgiveness

Have the correct type of loans, or consolidate

Only loans that are part of the federal direct loan program, including grad PLUS loans, are eligible for PSLF. Private student loans aren’t eligible.

You must consolidate these other types of federal student loans to make them PSLF-eligible:

If you qualify for Perkins loan cancellation, which offers forgiveness after at least four and seven years of public service (depending on your job type), pursue that option and don’t consolidate your Perkins loans. You can still participate in PSLF with your other federal student loans.

Work full time for a qualifying employer

PSLF eligibility depends less on the type of work you do and more on who your employer is. Qualifying employers can include:

  • Government organizations at any level.

  • 501(c)(3) nonprofits.

  • AmeriCorps or the Peace Corps.

  • Nonprofit organizations that don’t have 501(c)(3) status but provide a qualifying public service as their primary purpose.

  • Religious organizations.

You must work for your qualifying employer full time, which amounts to at least 30 hours per week. If you work part time for two qualifying employers and your time averages at least 30 hours per week, you might still be eligible.

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Submit PSLF employment certification forms

You must submit a PSLF employment certification form to confirm that your employer qualifies for the program. Submit a new form annually, or whenever you change jobs, to make sure you’re on track for forgiveness. You’re not required to submit the form every year, but it’s a good idea to do so for your records. You can also apply for forgiveness once you’re eligible and certify your employment retroactively.

For most borrowers, the online PSLF Help Tool is the easiest way to submit the form. The tool will prompt you to complete your PSLF form, send it to your employers to digitally sign and then electronically submit it to MOHELA for processing.

Alternatively, you and your employer can manually sign a PDF version of the employment certification form. You’ll then have to mail or fax the form to MOHELA. If MOHELA is already your servicer, you may be able to upload this PDF directly to your online servicer account.

Switch to an income-driven repayment plan

Payments must be made on the standard 10-year plan or on one of the IDR plans. However, you’ll save the most money if you make all of your qualifying payments on an IDR plan. If you make all payments on the standard plan, you’ll pay off the debt by the time you’ve made enough payments to qualify for PSLF.

Choose the IDR plan that gives you the smallest monthly payment. The newest IDR plan, SAVE, will be the best option for most borrowers. SAVE caps your monthly payments at 5% to 10% of discretionary income, and if you earn under a certain threshold — about $62,500 for a family of four — you get $0 monthly payments, while still earning PSLF payment credit. See what your payments could look like under various plans with the Education Department’s loan simulator.

Get the scoop on student loans
Stay up to date on how student loan forgiveness and repayment may affect your finances.

Reconsideration for PSLF applications

Make 10 years' worth of payments

You must make 120 monthly loan payments to reach the forgiveness finish line. These payments must be made:

  • For the full amount due; partial payments don't count.

  • On time, meaning within 15 days of your due date.

  • On or after Oct. 1, 2007.

  • While you’re working full time for a qualifying employer and on a qualifying repayment plan.

Payments generally don’t count if they’re made while you’re in school, in deferment or forbearance, during a grace period, or if your loans are delinquent or in default.

The payments do not need to be consecutive. For example, you could make some qualifying payments, pause payments through forbearance and then resume repayment, picking up where you left off.

You can also change jobs, switching between qualifying employers and non-qualifying employers. However, payments only count toward PSLF when you’re working for a qualifying employer.

Apply for PSLF forgiveness

Once you’ve met all of the above requirements, submit the PSLF application. You can do this online through the Education Department, or you can mail in a paper application to the student loan servicer MOHELA. You must be working full time for a qualifying employer at the time when you apply. The Education Department recommends you submit the form annually and each time you switch employers.

Along with the application, you’ll need to submit an employment certification form for your current employer and each employer you had while making the 120 payments. If you’ve been completing these forms regularly, you’ll need to submit only one for your current employer.

MOHELA will notify you when it receives your paperwork. You aren’t required to make loan payments while it processes your application.

» READ: How I Got My Loans Forgiven Through PSLF

One-time IDR account adjustment for PSLF borrowers

Under the one-time IDR account adjustment, any payments made toward your federal loans while working a qualifying PSLF job during or after October 2007, regardless of the payment plan you’ve been on, will count toward PSLF. That includes months spent in the pandemic payment pause from March 2020 through September 2023.

Previously, only payments made on certain repayment plans would qualify. Any payments made in the past that were rejected because they weren’t considered on time will also now count toward PSLF.

The account adjustment will be automatic for all PSLF-eligible Direct Loans, including consolidated and unconsolidated parent PLUS loans. PSLF borrowers who have commercially or federally held FFELP loans can also qualify for the recount, but they must first apply to consolidate those loans by April 30, 2024.

If you already hold Direct Loans, there is no need to consolidate. Rather, you just need to verify you work for an employer eligible for the program and then submit a PSLF form through your loan servicer.

Borrowers with at least one approved PSLF form began seeing their payment counts adjusted in late 2023. The payment recount is continuing through July 2024.

If you're seeking relief via the account adjustment and are not receiving the help you need from your servicer, the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau instructs borrowers to file a student loan complaint. The PSLF Help Tool can also help you certify periods of employment and track progress toward forgiveness.

Reconsideration for rejected PSLF applications

Beginning April 2022, borrowers whose applications were rejected for PSLF in the past can request a reconsideration online at StudentAid.gov. Anyone who thinks their application should be reconsidered can submit a request.

You'll be able to submit one or more reconsideration requests of your application to certify employment or payment determinations. You won't need to provide more documentation with your request, but you might have to provide more information following its review. There was no deadline provided.

You still must meet payment and employment requirements under the law, which includes the current waiver that would count previously ineligible payments.

To figure out if you need a reconsideration of your employer, you can use the PSLF Help Tool. If your employer isn’t eligible, consider supplying documentation as to why the not-for-profit organization you work for should qualify.

The Federal Student Aid office did not indicate how long it would take to review each submission. Make sure your StudentAid.gov account has the most up-to-date contact information so you can receive correspondence.

Get the scoop on student loans
Stay up to date on how student loan forgiveness and repayment may affect your finances.

Don't qualify for PSLF? You have other options for relief

You're not alone if you don't meet PSLF's strict requirements. You have other options to get student loan relief, including:

  • Explore other paths to forgiveness. PSLF isn't the only federal student loan forgiveness program, although it's one of the most popular. However, watch out for loan forgiveness scams.

  • Stay on income-driven repayment. IDR plans can lower your monthly payments based on your income, or even give you a $0 monthly payment. You can get your remaining balance forgiven after 10 to 20 or 25 years, depending on the amount you owe and type of debt you have. 

Consider refinancing. Student loan refinancing can save you money and help you become debt-free faster if you qualify for a lower interest rate. However, once you refinance federal loans, they're no longer eligible for forgiveness programs or income-driven repayment. You need stable finances and good credit to qualify.

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