Student Loan Forgiveness: Who Qualifies, How Long Does It Take

Eligibility for student loan forgiveness depends on your loan type, what repayment plan you’re on and your job.
Loans, Student Loans
NerdWallet's Guide to Student Loan Forgiveness

Who doesn’t want their debt wiped away? Student loan forgiveness might seem too good to be true, but there are legitimate ways to get it.

So-called debt relief companies, like the ones on NerdWallet’s Watch List, claim to get rid of debt but rarely deliver after charging already struggling borrowers high upfront fees. The only way to get debt discharged is through government programs, which are free to apply to.

Qualification for these forgiveness programs is available only to federal student loans borrowers and is based on their job or repayment plan type.

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Click on each forgiveness type to learn more about who qualifies and how to apply:

The federal government offers four main income-driven repayment plans, which allow you to cap your loan payments at a percentage of your monthly income. When enrolled in one of these plans, your remaining loan balance will be eligible for forgiveness after 20 or 25 years, depending on the plan. These plans are most beneficial for those with large loan balances relative to their income.

Learn more about forgiveness from income-driven plans.

Public service loan forgiveness is available to government and qualifying nonprofit employees with federal student loans. Eligible borrowers can have their remaining loan balance forgiven tax-free after making 120 qualifying loan payments. In order to benefit from PSLF, you’ll need to make payments while enrolled in an income-driven repayment plan. Otherwise the loan will be paid off before you’re eligible to benefit from forgiveness.

Learn more about Public Service Loan Forgiveness.

Teachers employed full time in low-income public elementary or secondary schools may be eligible for forgiveness after working for five consecutive years. They can have up to $17,500 in federal direct or Stafford loans forgiven. To qualify, teachers must have taken out loans after Oct. 1, 1998.

Learn more about Teacher Loan Forgiveness.

Borrowers with federal Perkins loans can have up to 100% of their loans canceled if they work in a public service job for five years. In many cases, approved borrowers will see a percentage of their loans discharged incrementally for each year worked. The Perkins loan teacher benefit is for teachers who work full time in a low-income public school or who teach qualifying subjects, such as special education, math, science or a foreign language.

Learn more about Perkins Loan Forgiveness

Other forgiveness options

There are a few additional niche student loan forgiveness or payment assistance programs you may qualify for through federal or state programs. Eligibility in these programs depends on your profession and where you work.

State-sponsored repayment assistance programs

Licensed teachers, nurses, doctors and lawyers in certain states may be able to take advantage of programs to assist with repaying debt. To be eligible for some of these programs, you may need to be working or commit to work in an underserved or high-need area for a certain period of time.

For example, the Mississippi Teacher Loan Repayment Program will pay up to $3,000 per year for a maximum of four years on undergraduate educational loans to teachers with a specific teaching license for each year of teaching full time in a particular geographical or subject area.

Even if your job doesn’t fall into one of these fields, contact your state’s higher education department to find out if there are other loan repayment assistance programs you may qualify for.

Military student loan forgiveness and assistance

Military personnel in the Army, Navy, Air Force or National Guard may qualify for their own loan forgiveness programs.

In the National Guard, for example, qualifying soldiers and officers could receive up to $50,000 to pay off federal student loans through the Student Loan Repayment Program.

Additional student loan repayment assistance programs (LRAPs)

There may be other national or organizational student loan repayment assistance programs offered for public service professions. The National Institutes of Health, for example, offers up to $35,000 in debt assistance annually to health professionals who are appointed by the institutes to conduct research.

Student loan discharge programs

Your federal loans may be discharged entirely if you find yourself in certain unforeseen or special circumstances, such as total or permanent disability.

Closed school discharge

You may qualify for loan discharge if your school closes. At the time of closure, you must have been enrolled or have left within 120 days, without receiving a degree. If you qualify, contact your loan servicer to start the application process. You’ll need to continue making payments on your loan while your application is being processed. If you’re approved, you will no longer have to make loan payments and you may be refunded some or all of the past payments you made on the loan.

Borrower Defense to Repayment discharge

Borrowers defrauded by their colleges may qualify for debt relief. You’ll need to file a borrower defense to repayment claim with the U.S. Department of Education. If you qualify, you may have your loans automatically discharged, at the discretion of the Education Department, if your school was involved in clear widespread fraud or misrepresentation that affected a broad group of borrowers.

Learn more about borrower defense to repayment.

Total and permanent disability discharge

If you cannot work due to being totally and permanently physically or mentally disabled, you may qualify to have your remaining student loan debt canceled. To be eligible, you’ll need to provide documentation proving your disability. Once your loans are discharged, the government may monitor your finances and disability for three years. If you don’t meet requirements during the monitoring period your loans may be reinstated.

Details on the application process are available at disabilitydischarge.com.

Discharge due to death

If you die, your federal loans will be discharged once a death certificate is submitted to your loan servicer. Your parent’s PLUS loans used to pay for your schooling will be discharged if your parent who holds the loan or you die.

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