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If the thought of catching up with your student loan bills seems impossible, it might be time to explore your options for loan forgiveness. Over the last few years, the government has expanded loan forgiveness programs for the more than 40 million Americans carrying federal student loan debt. Loan forgiveness is not a panacea for the student debt crisis — you’re still looking at 10-25 years* of payments and folks with private student loan debt don't qualify — but it’s an option worth exploring.
Here’s what you need to know.
The first step to getting your federal student loan debt forgiven is signing up for an income-driven repayment plan. There are three different kinds of IDR’s, which you can read all about here. These plans increase the amount of time you have to pay your debt (from 10 years to 20-25 years) and can lower your payments to 10% to 15% of your income. All you’ve got to do is call your loan servicer to get set up.
Once you’re enrolled, every monthly payment you make gets you one step closer to loan forgiveness. If you still carry a balance after your loan repayment period ends, the remaining debt can be forgiven. Unfortunately, once your loans are forgiven, the forgiven amount can be treated as taxable income. There’s an exception for borrowers who work in public service, which we’ll cover next.
Public Service Loan Forgiveness
If you work full-time for the government, a 501(c)(3) nonprofit or a public service program like AmeriCorps or Peace Corps, you may qualify for the Public Service Loan Forgiveness program. The magic number for this program is 120 — that’s how many monthly payments it takes to make you eligible for loan forgiveness, and the forgiven debt won’t get taxed later. A full-time worker is defined as someone who works at least 30 hours per week.
Right now, the PSLF program allows government employees to count student loan payments made as early as Oct. 1, 2007 toward their goal of 120. That means the first class of public service workers who qualify for loan forgiveness will see their debt gone in October 2017.
To be sure your employer qualifies you for PSLF, download the government’s Employment Certification for Public Service Loan Forgiveness form and submit a new one each time you switch employers. Once you submit the form, they’ll confirm that your employer still qualifies you for the program. It’s not mandatory to submit a new form each time you change jobs, but you’ll have to do this anyway when you finally apply for loan forgiveness. It could be a huge headache to go back to find information you need from past employers.
The downside of loan forgiveness
As we mentioned previously, you have to be enrolled in an income-driven repayment plan in order to qualify for loan forgiveness. This drags out your payments and makes them smaller, but it also means interest will have twice as long to accrue, meaning you could wind up paying more money over the course of the loan. In fact, some borrowers end up owing so much in interest that the payments they make don’t even make a dent in their principal loan balance.
And then there’s the recertification process. Once you’re enrolled in an IDR, you have to remember to renew your repayment plan each year. If you forget to renew it, or you have to defer your loan or go into forbearance at any time, any payments you make during that period won’t count toward your goal of 120.
You also won’t get bonus points for making extra payments. Let’s say you are hoping to qualify for public loan service forgiveness. Your monthly bill is $500 but you want to pay $1,000 — that’s still only counted as one of your 120 monthly payments. If you want to make additional payments, call your loan servicer and tell them to apply the payment only to the current month’s bill, or else it won’t be counted as one of your 120.
*Due to a reporting error, we incorrectly stated that loan debt is forgiven for those who are enrolled in income-driven plans after 120 payments. That is the case only for Public Service Loan Forgiveness.
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