Your Guide to Federal Student Loan Forgiveness, Discharge and Cancellation Programs

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Getting rid of your federal student loan payments can seem hopeless, considering that most people who previously applied for Public Service Loan Forgiveness (PSLF) failed to qualify and that eligibility can take up to 25 years. However, there are several programs that allow you to wipe away your student loan debt—you just have to make sure you meet the requirements and can make your payments on time. You should also be aware of loan cancellation options and student loan discharge programs, in the event your school closes, your school falsely certified your eligibility or the borrower dies.

Student Loan Forgiveness, Discharge and Cancellation Programs

To help you find what you're eligible for, we've created a list of the student loan forgiveness, discharge and cancellation options with which federal loans qualify for each type.

Federal forgiveness, discharge and cancellation programsDirect LoansFFEL Program LoansPerkins loans
Income-driven repayment forgivenessEligibleEligibleEligible*
Public Service Loan ForgivenessEligibleEligible*Eligible*
Teacher loan forgivenessEligibleEligibleIneligible
Closed school dischargeEligibleEligibleEligible
Borrower defense to repaymentEligibleEligible*Eligible*
Total and Permanent Disability dischargeEligibleEligibleEligible
Death dischargeEligibleEligibleEligible
Bankruptcy dischargeEligibleEligibleEligible
False certification or unauthorized payment dischargeEligibleEligibleIneligible
Unpaid refund dischargeEligibleEligibleIneligible
Perkins loan cancellationIneligibleIneligibleEligible

*To be eligible, you will need to consolidate your loan into the Direct Loan Program

Student Loan Forgiveness Programs

The government offers multiple student loan forgiveness options to borrowers who have been paying off their loans consistently and those who take on certain jobs. However, qualification for forgiveness may vary based on the student loan repayment plan you choose and your profession. Below, we have listed all the federal student loan forgiveness programs for you to decide whether student loan forgiveness is the best option for you.

It's important to note that although having your loans forgiven sounds great, student loan forgiveness may not be possible or make sense for many borrowers. If you have a low balance that you can pay off before you'd be able to qualify for forgiveness, it may make sense to stick with a standard repayment plan. The interest you'll pay while waiting to qualify for student loan forgiveness could potentially add up to more money than you would pay with a standard repayment plan.

Income-Driven Repayment Forgiveness

The easiest way for you to have your student loans forgiven is to enroll in an income-driven repayment plan. These plans allow you to pay only 10% to 15% of your monthly discretionary income, which will potentially lower your student loan bill each month but lengthen your student loan term.

Your remaining loan balance will be forgiven after 20 or 25 years, depending on your repayment plan. Keep in mind that you will likely pay more over the loan term than you would with a standard repayment plan of 10 years. Also, payments are recalculated each year based on your updated income. So, even if you have a low or high student loan bill in the beginning, your payments may change.

Types of Income-Driven Repayment Plans

Repayment planDischarge after

Income-Based Repayment (IBR)

20 to 25 years
Income-Contingent Repayment (ICR)25 years
Pay As You Earn (PAYE)20 years
Revised Pay As You Earn (REPAYE)20 years (undergraduate), 25 years (graduate)

Public Service Loan Forgiveness

Public Service Loan Forgiveness (PSLF) is a program available to federal loan borrowers who work in public service fields, including government, not-for-profit, AmeriCorps and Peace Corps employees, and many teachers, nurses and attorneys. These borrowers can have their loans forgiven tax-free after making 120 qualifying loan payments while working for a qualifying employer.

To be eligible for PSLF, you must be enrolled in an income-driven repayment plan. If you are in a standard repayment plan, your loans will be paid off before you qualify for forgiveness. You will need to work full-time for a qualifying employer. And we recommend filling out an employment certification form each year, as it will help when you file for forgiveness.

Teacher Loan Forgiveness

The Teacher Loan Forgiveness Program forgives up to $17,500 for teachers of math, science or special education and up to $5,000 for other subjects. To qualify, you'll need to teach full-time at an elementary, middle or high school that serves low-income students or educational service agency. You can qualify after five years of service, and you must fill out an application to send to your servicer and get the chief administrative officer at your school to certify your employment.

Keep in mind that some teachers may qualify for PSLF, which can potentially forgive more of your student loans, as PSLF covers 100% of your remaining balance after making 120 on-time loan payments. On the other hand, you can qualify for teacher loan forgiveness after only five years, which is half of the minimum amount of time to qualify for PSLF. Read more about student loan forgiveness options for teachers here.

Student Loan Forgiveness for Nurses

Technically, nurses don't have a specific federal student loan forgiveness program. Most commonly, nurses can qualify for PSLF, depending on their employer, and they can get their loan balances forgiven after 120 qualifying student loan payments. Otherwise, they can file for other programs like Perkins loan cancellation or use the NURSE Corps Loan Repayment Program, which is a repayment assistance program that pays up to 85% of your college debt. However, very few borrowers have Perkins loans, and acceptance to the NURSE Corps Loan Repayment Program is quite competitive.

Military Student Loan Forgiveness

Military personnel have many options for student loan repayment assistance and discharge. But, similar to nurses, there isn't a specific federal student loan forgiveness option for those in the military. Instead, your best option for forgiveness is PSLF. However, there are many programs to help military borrowers pay down their student loans, including Army Student Loan Repayment: Active Duty, which pays up to one-third of your principal balance each year for three years, and Prior Service Soldier Loan Repayment, where you can receive up to $50,000 toward your student loan payments.

Other Student Loan Assistance & Forgiveness Programs

There are various other student loan programs to consider if you don't qualify for any federal forgiveness programs. Many states offer student loan repayment assistance programs, and depending on your job, you may qualify for organizational assistance programs. You should always check if you are eligible for any student loan help, as it could decrease your student loan burden.

State Repayment Assistance Programs: Several states offer student loan repayment assistance, especially for health professionals, licensed teachers and lawyers. For instance, Texas offers nine different repayment assistance programs for residents, including Loan Repayment Program for Speech-Language Pathologist and Audiologists, Nursing Faculty Loan Repayment Assistance and Teach for Texas Loan Repayment Assistance Program. If you're not sure whether you qualify for a repayment assistance program, contact the higher education department in your state to see what programs it offers.

Student Loan Repayment Assistance Programs (SLRAPs): There are also many national and organizational student loan repayment assistance programs for public service borrowers. These programs include the National Health Service Corps (NHSC), Active Duty Health Professions Loan Repayment Program and Department of Justice Attorney Student Loan Repayment Program, which offers up to $60,000 in loan assistance. You should contact your organization or look for programs specific to your profession or school to find out if there are any student loan assistance options for you.

Student Loan Discharge Programs

Student loan forgiveness is not the only way to get rid of your debt. Depending on your situation, you may be able to discharge your student loans. If you or your school meet certain conditions, you can qualify for student loan discharge, in which the federal government will cancel the remainder of your loans. You will have to apply for discharge and may have to continue to pay off your loan until you are approved. Below, we've listed seven different ways to have your student loans discharged.

Closed School Discharge

If your school closes while you're enrolled or 120 days after you withdraw and you didn't complete all the coursework for your program, you could qualify for student loan discharge. You'll need to gather your academic and financial records from your state licensing agency and contact your loan servicer to start the discharge application process. Direct Loans, Federal Family Education Loan (FFEL) Program loans and Perkins loans qualify for this type of loan discharge. If you are approved, you won't have to make any more loan payments and you may even be refunded some of the payments you made.

Borrower Defense to Repayment

Another way to get your student loan discharged is if your college violated any laws and defrauded students. To qualify, you'll need to file a borrower defense to repayment claim with the Department of Education. Your loans will be discharged if the Department of Education finds that your school was involved in fraud or misrepresentation. For example, Corinthian Colleges used illegal tactics to persuade students to take out loans and attend the school. Borrowers who went to Corinthian Colleges between July 1, 2010, and Sept. 30, 2014, will have to complete a separate application.

Total and Permanent Disability Discharge

If you are unable to work as a result of being totally and permanently disabled (TPD), mentally or physically, you may qualify for a discharge of your federal student loans or your Teacher Education Assistance for College and Higher Education (TEACH) Grant service obligation. To be eligible, you must provide documentation of your disability, complete a TPD discharge application and submit your application to Nelnet, which handles TPD for the Department of Education. Your loan payments will stop while you apply and are reviewed for TPD discharge. Your finances and disability may be monitored for up to three years after acceptance to ensure you continue to meet the requirements. Otherwise, your loans may be reinstated.

Discharge Due to Death

Federal student loans will be discharged if the borrower dies. To have the loan discharged, a family member or representative must send an original death certificate or certified copy of the death certificate to the loan servicer. Parent PLUS loans will also be discharged if the parent who holds the loan or the student passes away.

Bankruptcy Discharge

In rare cases, you can have your federal student loans discharged after bankruptcy if you file a separation action, called an "adversary proceeding." This will request that the bankruptcy court consider that student loan repayment will cause "undue hardship," where you can't sustain a minimal standard of living now and likely in the future. You must declare Chapter 7, in which you have no income to pay back any debt, or Chapter 13 bankruptcy, in which you repay all or part of your debt over a specified period. If you are unable to discharge your loans, consider an income-contingent repayment plan to make your monthly payments more manageable. You can read more about filing for student loan bankruptcy here.

False Certification or Unauthorized Payment Discharge

If your school falsely certified your eligibility to receive a Direct or FFEL Program loan even though you didn't meet the requirements or signed your name on an application or promissory note without your authorization, you can qualify for discharge. Or if you received a loan due to identity theft or you cannot meet the state requirements for employment in the occupation you trained for due to a physical or mental condition, a criminal record, your age or other qualifying reason, your loans could be discharged as well. Contact your loan servicer if any of these circumstances apply to you.

Unpaid Refund Discharge

If you decide to withdraw from school after receiving a Direct or FFEL Program loan, your school may be required to refund part of your loan. If your school didn't return the portion of your loan to the Department of Education that is required when you withdraw, the government will give you a partial discharge for Direct Loans or FFEL Program loans in that amount. Contact your school to learn about its refund policies and look to your servicer for more information if you believe you qualify for this discharge.

Student Loan Cancellation Programs

The last way to get rid of your student loan debt is through cancellation programs. There is really only one type of student loan cancellation program but there are a variety of ways to qualify based on your profession. In these cases, up to 100% of your Perkins loans could be canceled.

Perkins Loan Cancellation

To qualify for Federal Perkins loan cancellation, you will need eligible employment or volunteer service and whether you will be granted cancellation will depend on the length of time you were in the position. You can qualify for up to 100% cancellation of your Perkins loans for generally five to seven years of service, depending on your profession.

Most commonly, borrowers will qualify if they work in a public or nonprofit elementary or secondary school system as a teacher in a school for low-income families, special education teacher and teachers of mathematics, science, foreign languages, bilingual education or other fields that have a shortage of qualified teachers. Other employment or volunteer service that can qualify include firefighters, law enforcement, military servicemembers, public defenders, AmeriCorps VISTA and Peace Corps volunteers.

Student Loan Forgiveness, Discharge and Cancellation Tips

Getting your student loans forgiven, discharged or canceled can be tricky. Borrowers have complained that their loan servicers leave out crucial information on how to qualify for these programs, so you must do the extra work to ensure that your loans are eligible. Here are some things to remember when looking to get rid of your student debt.

Private student loans don't qualify

Unfortunately, your private student loans won't qualify for any of these federal student loan programs. Only your federal loans will qualify. If you are planning to refinance your federal student loans to a private lender, remember that you are giving up these federal benefits as well as income-based repayment plans. With most private lenders, you will be required to make your payments based on your loan term, rather than your income, and you won't have any options for getting rid of your debt besides repayment.

Loans may be taxable

Forgiven, discharged and canceled student loans are generally taxed as income unless you qualified for one of these programs through your profession or employer. Loan amounts forgiven through income-driven repayment plans are taxable while loans forgiven through the PSLF program are not taxable. Previously, loans that were discharged due to permanent disability or a borrower's death were also taxed. That changed in 2017, when the tax code deemed loans discharged for these reasons not taxable. If you are unsure whether your loans will be taxed upon forgiveness, discharge or cancellation, contact your loan servicer.

Beware of scams

If a company is offering to get rid of your student loans, it's probably too good to be true, as debt relief companies are usually scams. A common signal of this is when they ask for upfront fees. Many debt relief companies will also use the term "Obama student loan forgiveness" to attract borrowers and charge them to enroll in free federal student loan programs like income-driven repayment and PSLF. It doesn't cost you anything to enroll in these federal programs through the Department of Education, so you shouldn't pay for it. And the only way you can get your student loans forgiven, discharged or canceled is through these government programs.

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