Student Loan Forgiveness: How Does it Work?

For decades, educators have encouraged young people to get increasingly expensive post-secondary degrees that provide arguably decreasing real returns in the labor market, and to take out large subsidized loans, regardless of their career choices.

In 2016, the average college graduate borrowed between $26,450 and $31,200. Fortunately, some borrowers may find relief. There are many programs in place, some old and some new, through which debt forgiveness is possible, and we should expect more programs to surface in the near future, as untenable student debt burdens become a larger political topic.

Using Debt Forgiveness

Debt forgiveness programs are exactly what they sound like. In a student loan forgiveness program, qualifying borrowers may have some or all of their public student debt forgiven, either immediately or over a period of time. Unfortunately, none of these programs forgive private loans. The only known methods of discharging or removing private loan amounts is through bankruptcy or a one-off restructuring with the borrower’s private lender.

Currently, there are four major programs and several other minor programs that might cancel or significantly reduce your federal student loan balance. The major ones are Public Service Loan Forgiveness, Perkins loan cancellation, income-based repayment and Teacher Loan Forgiveness. The catch is these may not apply if the debtor is in default status, meaning the loan has gone unpaid for more than nine months.

Each plan has very strict requirements which must be met before student loans may be forgiven. Many require annual submission of official paperwork to student loan servicers, and any missteps might disqualify an otherwise eligible borrower. If you are considering or currently in the process of trying to have your loans forgiven, it is crucial that you understand the necessary steps and follow them diligently.

Most Common Loan Forgiveness Options

Depending on the state in which you reside, there may be occupation-based forgiveness programs available. These are typically designed for doctors, attorneys or other professionals who pay above-average amounts for advanced degrees. Borrowers who used Perkins loans may actually have their entire debt forgiven after just five years. This mostly depends on your occupation, especially for those who serve full-time in a public or non-profit school. This program is used to entice teachers to work in low-income schools and in states where there are shortages of qualified teachers in a given field. Potential specialties range from speech pathologists and preschool teachers to high school math and science teachers.

Nationwide, however, the most common are the Public Service and Teacher Loan Forgiveness plans. Full-time public servants can have their entire federal loan balances forgiven within 10 years. Teachers at qualifying low-income schools may receive partial forgiveness ranging between $5,000 and $17,500, excluding those who only have PLUS loans.

Obama Student Loan Forgiveness

There is a fifth option, popularly referred to as the Obama Student Loan Forgiveness Plan, which came into existence after the Health Care and Education Reconciliation Act of 2010. It might be identified more correctly as a debt restructuring program with possible forgiveness in the future.

Borrowers who qualify may consolidate all of their federal student loans into one single loan, at which point the borrower may choose from five different repayment options. These options — standard, graduated, income-contingent, income-based and Pay As You Earn (PAYE) — offer a wide range of attractive reconstructions.

The graduated repayment plan, for example, allows the borrower to make lower-than-standard payments at first, and every two years, the monthly payment amount increases. This is designed to spread more of the loan amount into the future, when the borrower would ostensibly earn a higher income. The PAYE plan typically offers the lowest monthly payment, including payments as low as $0, though many borrowers have a difficult time qualifying for these plans.

Those enrolled in the income-contingent, income-based or PAYE plans must pay their loans during a term lasting between 20 to 25 years. If, at the end of the term, the borrower still has an outstanding balance, such a balance could be forgiven. Anyone who makes payments in one of these three plans and who also works in the public sector can count his or her Obama Loan Forgiveness payments as qualifying payments for their Public Service or Teacher forgiveness programs.

Total & Permanent Disability Discharge

The Department of Education (DoE) also offers relief to those who have significant physical or mental impairments and are unable to engage in “substantial gainful activity,” which is the official government term for a real job. Those individuals interested in applying for permanent disability status must work through the DoE process to prove their disability. To prove that you have a disability, you need a letter from a qualified physician and other required supporting documentation. Applications typically take between three and six months before a decision is rendered. If your application is accepted, you’re unable to apply for any other student loans until you receive another letter that deems you able to engage in gainful activity.