Student loan settlement is possible, but you’re at the mercy of your lender to accept less than you owe. Don’t expect to negotiate a settlement unless:
Your loans are in or near default.
Your loan holder would make more money by settling than by pursuing the debt.
You have or can save enough cash to pay the settlement amount in full or over a few installments.
Don’t miss student loan payments to try and force a debt settlement. You’ll severely damage your credit, collection costs can be added to the amount you owe, the savings may be less than you hope and there’s no guarantee your lender will negotiate with you.
When you can settle student loans
Federal and private student lenders will require your loans to be in or near default to start settlement negotiations. Federal student loans enter default after 270 days of past-due payments. Timelines vary for private student loans, but default often occurs after 120 days of missed payments, according to the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau.
Federal and private student loans are rarely discharged via bankruptcy. Federal student loans have other options that could eliminate your debt. Defaulted federal student loans can be discharged in instances such as school fraud and total and permanent disability, but they aren’t eligible for loan forgiveness. If you’d otherwise qualify for forgiveness, return your loans to good standing instead of settling them; you’ll likely save more money.
Reasons for federal student loan settlement
Federal student loan settlements are not common because the Department of Education and other federal student loan holders have ways to get money from defaulted loans, such as wage and tax refund garnishment. They may make an exception in the following situations:
Reasons for private student loan settlement
Settlements for defaulted private student loans are more common because these lenders don’t have the collection leverage of their federal counterparts. A private loan holder may accept a settlement in the following instances:
How much student loan settlement could save you
Private student loan debt settlement amounts vary greatly. Experts say some lenders may not accept less than 80% of the total owed, whereas other lenders will take less than 50%.
Savings aren’t nearly as big for federal student loans. The Department of Education provides its loan holders with specific guidelines for how much of the debt is OK to waive. You may receive one of the following:
100% of collection costs waived.
50% of interest owed waived.
10% of principal and interest waived.
If you have older loans originated under the Federal Family Education Loan Program, your guarantor — the organization that takes ownership of these loans in default — has an additional option: waiving 30% of your principal and interest.
Federal student loan holders can accept settlement offers for less than these amounts, but it’s rare. Alternate settlement offers require additional approval, either from within the organization or the Department of Education itself, as they further affect the loan’s profitability.
Whether you settle federal or private student loans, you may owe income taxes on the amount you don’t pay. Contact a tax professional to find out the implications for your situation.
How to get a student loan settlement
You can attempt to settle student loans on your own or with the help of a more experienced negotiator.
Make contact yourself. Reach out to the company that’s been in contact about your defaulted loan. For defaulted student loans, this will likely be a collection agency. Contact them and ask to discuss settlement options.
Hire an attorney. Choose a student loan lawyer or an attorney who specializes in debt settlements. You will likely have to pay legal fees, and lawyers cannot guarantee better savings than you can get on your own. Attorneys can negotiate federal student loan settlements but may prove most helpful if your private student loan holder has sued you.
Work with a debt settlement company. If you’re still making payments, debt settlement companies will have you stop and fund an account with them instead. Once you’ve put enough money aside, the company will try to negotiate a settlement. Using a debt settlement company is risky, especially if your loans aren’t already in default. Only some of these companies help settle student loans, and some lenders won’t negotiate with debt settlement companies. Check that your lender will before selecting this option.
If you and your loan holder agree to a settlement, get the offer in writing. Once you’ve paid the amount as required, make sure you receive a paid-in-full receipt. You’ll want to hang on to that in case questions about your debt arise in the future.
If you need additional student loan help
If you’re struggling with your student loan debt, first speak with your servicer or lender to:
Discuss repayment options.
Take a temporary payment pause.
Temporarily reduce your monthly payments.
If your problem is with your lender or servicer or you’re not getting the help you need, look for a legitimate student loan help organization that offers counseling. Consider these vetted resources for student loan help; they are established organizations with verified histories:
Student loan help resource
Advice on repayment plans, forgiveness programs and dispute resolution.
Comprehensive information on options for student loan borrowers.
Advocacy on behalf of all borrowers to influence policy.
Complete financial review for struggling borrowers, which can include advice on student loan options and plans for dealing with other debt.
Advice on repayment plans, help with paperwork and budget counseling.
Information for student loan borrowers and an attorney directory.
Help for borrowers who have already filed bankruptcy that did not include their student loans.
Advice on defaults, dispute resolution, collections, debt settlement and legal remedies. Licensed in Massachusetts and New York.
Advice on debt settlement, bankruptcy, default and forgiveness. Licensed in Missouri and Illinois.
Many of these organizations offer advice for free. In some cases, you may need to pay a fee, as with a certified nonprofit credit counseling agency or if you hire an attorney.
None of the organizations above calls, texts or emails borrowers with offers of debt resolution.
Offers of help that you have not sought out are likely to be scams. While it’s not illegal for companies to charge for services such as consolidation or enrollment in a payment plan, those are steps you can do yourself for free.
Avoid any debt relief companies that demand money upfront.
» MORE: How to spot student loan scams