7 Min Read | May 11, 2020

What is Student Loan Debt Forgiveness?

Learn about student loan debt forgiveness, including different types of forgiveness and their qualification requirements.

Student Loan Debt Forgiveness


Student loan debt forgiveness programs are government-sponsored ways to pay off student loans.

There are several federal student loan forgiveness programs, and even more state-sponsored programs.

But requirements are stringent—it can be difficult to qualify.

For the 44 million Americans with a total of $1.48 trillion in student loan debt, few things may sound as uplifting as the concept of student loan debt forgiveness.1,2 But in practice, student loan forgiveness programs are very complicated and hard to understand—and that led to controversy and criticism in 2019 after less than 1% of applicants were approved for the federal Public Service Loan Forgiveness (PSLF) program.3 


Although the PSLF might be the most well-known student loan forgiveness program, it’s far from the only one out there. In addition to several other federal programs, nearly every state in the country offers some sort of debt forgiveness for former students who work specific jobs or live in specific regions.4

What Exactly is Student Loan Debt Forgiveness?

Sometimes referred to as cancellation, student loan debt forgiveness is when an eligible borrower is no longer required to make payments on their student loans, typically due to their job, location, or other highly specific circumstances.5 While certain debt relief companies might offer student programs, student loan forgiveness is always government sponsored. 


Student loan debt forgiveness is not to be confused with student loan discharge, in which a borrower is no longer responsible for paying the remainder of their loans due to a catastrophic event like permanent disability, bankruptcy, or if your school closes before you complete your degree.6

Selected Federal Student Loan Debt Forgiveness Programs

There are several types of federal student loan debt forgiveness programs, and all have their own specific requirements. Here are some of the options available to indebted graduates: 


Public Service Loan Forgiveness (PSLF): Perhaps the most well-known student loan forgiveness program, PSLF was created by the federal government in 2007 to help public service professionals pay off their federal Direct Loans. It sounds straightforward, but the requirements are actually very stringent—so stringent that according to the U.S. Federal Student Aid department’s June 2019 PSLF report, only 845 of the nearly 91,000 student loan borrowers who applied for PSLF have had their loan forgiveness approved.7 


Still, qualifying is possible. You just need to carefully follow several requirements and stay on top of payments to make sure they count, says the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau (CFPB).8


Teacher Loan Forgiveness: Created by the Higher Education Amendments in 1998,9 the teacher loan forgiveness program lets qualifying teachers receive up to $17,500 in loan forgiveness on certain federal loans, depending on what subject they teach.10 Like the PSLF, requirements are strict. 


Perkins Loan Cancellation: This federal student loan forgiveness program lets eligible nurses, firefighters, public defenders, and other qualified professionals discharge their federal Perkins Loans.11 Typically, a percentage of the loan is forgiven for each year of service. Depending on the borrower’s situation, Perkins Loans may be forgiven in full so long as the borrower is employed full-time in an eligible position for 5-7 years.12 


Income-Driven Repayment Forgiveness: Income-driven federal loan repayment plans like Income-Based Repayment (IBR) and Pay As You Earn (PAYE) will forgive whatever remaining balance a borrower has after 20 or 25 years of on-time payment (depending on the loan and degree).13 Unlike other federal student loan forgiveness options, borrowers have to pay taxes on whatever amount is forgiven. 


Military Forgiveness Programs: The U.S. military offers several student loan forgiveness and student loan relief options, such as the College Loan Repayment Program (LRP). LRP is an Army incentive that repays part of a soldier’s qualified student loans, but—need we say it?—requirements are strict.14

State Sponsored Student Loan Forgiveness Programs

Nearly every state in the U.S. offers at least one student loan repayment assistant program. Like federal programs, requirements are highly specific. For states, student loan forgiveness is typically tied to a certain profession, local region, or both. Job requirements are usually in the health care, education, or legal services fields.15 


What sets state-sponsored programs apart from federal student debt forgiveness programs is that many state programs cover private loans in addition to federal loans.16 And, in some cases, it might be possible to combine state or local programs with PSLF.17 


Still, eligibility and statewide funding can change often, so experts suggest borrowers check in with the entities providing loan forgiveness options before applying.18

Employer-Sponsored Student Loan Repayment is on the Rise

In addition to federal- and state-sponsored student loan forgiveness programs, some employers are taking it upon themselves to provide student loan repayment incentives, ranging anywhere from matching student loan repayments with 401(k) contributions to letting employees apply the value of unused benefits (like vacation time or health insurance) to their federal and private loans.19 According to a 2019 report by the Employee Benefit Research Institute, 11% of responding employers said they offer student debt assistance and another 24% plan to offer it.20 


Why the employer generosity? “Studies suggest rising student-loan debt is hurting employees’ well-being, focus at work, and retirement planning,” Carl Gagnon, assistant vice president of global financial well-being at Unum Group, told The Wall Street Journal.21

Watch Out for Student Loan Debt Relief Scams

Scattered among the many student loan debt forgiveness and student debt relief options is the occasional illicit service. Not every student loan debt relief service is a scam, but if you are considering one, the experts suggest careful due diligence first. 


Experts suggest the following are red flags that might indicate a scammer:22

  • Large upfront service fees (it’s illegal for a company to collect fees before providing debt-relief services) 
  • Promises that sound too good to be true (such as immediate or total loan forgiveness)
  • False credentials (claiming to be affiliated with the Department of Education)
  • Requests for your Federal Student Aid (FSA) ID and password
  • Overly aggressive sales tactics

The Takeaway

Student loan debt forgiveness might sound like a dream come true for any strapped-for-cash millennial trying to build up their savings. But most loan forgiveness programs are only available to public service professionals with certain loan types. Meanwhile, some employers are stepping in to offer student loan repayment benefits in response to the toll that student debt load takes on new hires.

Megan Doyle

Megan Doyle is a business technology writer and researcher whose work focuses on financial services and cross-cultural diversity and inclusion.


All Credit Intel content is written by freelance authors and commissioned and paid for by American Express. 

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