Reducing Your Student Loans Through Acts of Public Service
Learn how pursuing a career for the greater good and becoming a volunteer can help eliminate your student debt.
Last Updated: 04/09/2020
Imagine getting help paying off your student loans in exchange for helping others every day. It may sound far-fetched, but it can become a reality through special loan forgiveness and repayment assistance programs that reward Americans who dedicate their career and time to public service. From working as a teacher or doctor in an underserved community to protecting our nation as a member of the military to becoming an AmeriCorps volunteer, there are many ways to qualify for loan aid that can eliminate thousands of dollars of college debt. This guide highlights these programs and explains eligibility requirements. Whether you’re a new student, recent graduate, or seasoned public service professional, keep reading to see how you can pay for college by paying it forward.
Major Federal Student Loan Forgiveness Programs
There are two primary student loan forgiveness programs provided by the federal government for those in public service careers – the Public Service Loan Forgiveness (PSLF) Program and the Perkins Loan Cancellation program. Learn more about each below.
In addition to the PSLF Program and Perkins Loan Cancellation, the Biden-Harris Administration just passed the Student Debt Relief Plan that will qualify Pell Grant recipients making $125,000 per year or less for $20,000 worth of student loan forgiveness and non-Pell Grant recipients for $10,000 worth of student loan forgiveness.
The application form for this will open in early October 2022.
In the meantime, you can prepare by doing the following:
~ Check your eligibility here.
~ Log on to your account at www.studentaid.gov and make sure your contact info is up to date & sign up for alerts.
~ If you don’t already have an account, sign up at www.studentaid.gov to manage your loans.
~ Make sure you know your loan balances and what types they are so you can be ready to apply for relief.
The plan also includes provisions for extending the loan repayment pause in 2022 and lowering student loan payments going forward. Learn more on the US Department of Education Website.
Public Service Loan Forgiveness (PSLF) Program
Perhaps the most well-known option, the Public Service Loan Forgiveness Program was created in 2007. Applicants must work full-time either for a federal, state, local, or tribal government or a nonprofit organization. Qualification is not based on the specific job type or title. Applicants must pay 120 qualifying student loan payments over a 10-year period through an income-driven repayment plan to receive consideration.
|Accepted Loans|| Loans provided through the William D. Ford Federal Direct Loan Program|
Any federal loans consolidated into a Direct Consolidation Loan
Private loans cannot be consolidated and do not qualify
|Loan Forgiveness Amount||The loan forgiveness amount depends on each applicant. Individuals must make 120 qualifying payments over 10 years via an income-driven repayment plan. If all requirements are met, the federal government forgives the remaining loan balance.|
|How to Apply||Qualifying individuals should use the Public Service Loan Forgiveness: Application for Forgiveness.|
Tips to Make Sure You Remain On-Track for PSLF
The U.S. Department of Education sets specific mandates around receiving loan forgiveness, making it crucially important that applicants follow all requirements to the letter. A report found that 99% of PSLF applications are denied for not meeting requirements. Here are some helpful tips to make sure you get the money you deserve when the time comes to cash in.
- Make Loan Payments on Time.
Qualifying payments are those defined as being on-time. If you make a late payment, you have to start the 120-payment process over again.
- Set Up Auto-Pay.
Rather than worrying about making a payment each month, set up auto-pay. If not an option, set a monthly reminder alarm on your phone.
- Work at a Qualified Location.
Specific requirements exist around who employs you, so make sure you only seek out jobs from approved government agencies or nonprofits.
- Use Income-Driven Repayment.
Your income, family size, and loan amount all impact your ability to receive loan forgiveness, making it imperative to set up a specific type of repayment plan.
- Supply Employment Certification Form.
Those seeking PSLF must provide a form each year or every time they change employers demonstrating employer qualification, repayment plan eligibility, and qualifying loan payments.
- Document, document, document.
If discrepancies arise during the repayment process, you need to be able to document your compliance. Keep up with any papers or communications along the way.
Perkins Loan Cancellation
The Perkins Loan Program was eliminated in 2017, but college graduates with Federal Perkins Loans from before this time can still qualify for loan cancellation if they meet certain requirements. New students cannot take advantage of this option unless future administrations renew the program.
|Accepted Loans||The Perkins Loan|
|Loan Forgiveness Amount||The loan cancellation amount depends on how long an individual performs a qualifying full-time job and what that job is. Teachers, for instance, can have up to 100% of their loan canceled after five years of qualified work.|
|How to Apply||Interested individuals must apply for Perkins Loan Cancellation through the school that made the loan or to the servicer of the school’s Perkins Loans. The school/loan servicer then provides specific cancellation forms. You can learn more via the official Federal Student Aid website.|
Student Loan Forgiveness Programs by Public Service Career
The previous sections focused on loan forgiveness programs that provide support to those working in a variety of public service positions. The next section looks at career-specific opportunities for public service professionals who want to wipe out their student loan debt.
Student Loan Forgiveness for Teachers
Given the important work teachers do in supporting the greater good of the country each and every day, both the government and nonprofit organizations have looked for ways to relieve their student loan debt burden. We look at a couple of the top options below.
Federal Teacher Loan Forgiveness Program
|Program Overview||Full-time teachers who work for at least five consecutive years in a school or educational service agency serving low-income learners who meet several other requirements can qualify for up to $17,500 in forgiveness of Direct Subsidized or Unsubsidized Loans.|
|Accepted Loans|| Direct Subsidized and Unsubsidized Loans|
Subsidized and Unsubsidized Federal Stafford Loans
Direct Consolidation Loan
Federal Consolidation Loan
|Loan Forgiveness Amount||Up to $17,500 after meeting qualifications|
|Stacking with Other Loan Forgiveness Programs||Recipients of the Federal Teacher Loan Forgiveness Program can also apply for the Public Service Loan Forgiveness Program but not during their five years of qualifying service. Individuals would need to start their qualifying 120 payments for the PSLF after completing the FTLF requirements.|
|How to Apply||Individuals can submit the Teacher Loan Forgiveness Application after completing five qualifying years of teaching.|
Teach for America
|Program Overview||Teach for America recruits recent graduates of many academic disciplines to spend at least two years teaching in underserved, low-income schools. Aside from receiving a full salary, corps members can also take advantage of professional growth and networking programs alongside opportunities for loan forgiveness.|
|Accepted Loans|| Stafford Loans|
Grad PLUS Loans
Federal Family Education Loans
|Loan Forgiveness Amount||While Teach for America does not specifically provide education awards automatically after finishing the program, the group makes available several scholarships and grants. TFA teachers may also qualify as an AmeriCorps member, leading to an educational award of $5,300-$6,100 per year.|
|Qualifying Employment||To participate in Teach for America, individuals must commit to serving as a full-time, salaried employee in a low-income, high-need school district for at least two years.|
|Stacking with Other Loan Forgiveness Programs||While participating as Teach for America teachers, individuals can apply to also be in AmeriCorps to receive living stipends and educational awards. Those who plan to continue teaching after leaving TFA can apply for the Teacher Loan Forgiveness Program if they meet certain requirements.|
|How to Apply||TFA provides a “How to Join” portal for interested candidates.|
State Programs for Teacher Student Loan Forgiveness
Beyond the federal programs listed below, teachers looking for help paying off their student loans should look at the state level. Many states offer similar loan forgiveness programs that provide financial assistance in exchange for working in low-income and other high-need areas. The American Federation of Teachers provides a great database of state-sponsored loan forgiveness programs for teachers. Contact your state or local department of education to learn more about loan forgiveness programs near you.
Student Loan Forgiveness for Nurses and Other Healthcare Professionals Working in High-Need Areas
Medical professionals dedicate their lives to caring for others and keeping us physically and mentally well. Because of their selfless work, several loan forgiveness programs exist for qualifying healthcare workers.
NURSE Corps Loan Repayment
|Program Overview||The Health Resources & Service Administration oversees this federal loan repayment program designed for RNs, APRNs, and nurse faculty to have up to 85% of their unpaid student loans covered after spending two to three years working in a high-need area or teaching at an accredited school of nursing.|
|Accepted Loans||Any government or private loans for tuition and living expenses incurred while working towards a nursing education.|
|Loan Forgiveness Amount||Nurses who complete a two-year service contract can have 60% of their nursing education loans repaid. Some participants can sign up for a third year and have an additional 25% covered.|
|Qualifying Employment||Work full-time at an eligible Critical Shortage Facility (CSF) or become a nurse faculty member an accredited school of nursing|
|Stacking with Other Loan Forgiveness Programs||Nurses who plan to work full-time in the public or nonprofit sector may also qualify to apply for the Public Service Loan Forgiveness Program.|
|How to Apply||Nurses can submit an application and learn more about this program at this Health Resources and Services Administration webpage.|
National Health Service Corps (NHSC) Loan Repayment Assistance
|Program Overview||Administered by the Health Resources & Services Administration, the NHSC Loan Forgiveness Repayment Program serves a variety of qualifying health service professionals willing to work in a Health Professional Shortage Area (HPSA) for at least two years.|
|Accepted Loans||Any government or private loans for tuition and/or living expenses incurred while working towards a qualifying health services degree.|
|Loan Forgiveness Amount||Qualifying practitioners can have up to $50,000 in loans repaid after two years of full-time service. Professionals interested in part-time service can have up to $25,000 repaid after two years.|
|Stacking with Other Loan Forgiveness Programs||After completing the NHSC program, individuals who plan to work in governmental or nonprofit settings on a full-time basis may qualify for the Public Service Loan Forgiveness Program.|
|How to Apply||The National Health Service Corps Loan Repayment Program provides both application and program guidance. Applicants can find additional information about how to apply on the official NHSC website.|
The HRSA also offers two programs specifically designed for medical and mental health professionals who want to help treat opioid addiction and other substance abuse in areas affected the most: The Substance Use Disorder (SUD) Workforce Loan Repayment Program and the Rural Community Loan Repayment Program. Both have slightly different eligibility requirements and award amounts than the standard NHSC Loan Repayment Assistance program. Interested healthcare professionals can compare all three programs here to see which is the best fit.
Finally, dental and medical students in their last year of college can apply for the NHSC Students to Service Loan Forgiveness Program. Graduates who agree to provide 3 years of full-time clinical practice in designated high-need areas will receive up to $120,000 in loan repayment assistance.
Indian Health Services Loan Repayment Program
|Program Overview||The IHS Loan Repayment Program provides up to $20,000 per year for two years to qualifying health professionals who practice full-time in a clinic or program administered by Indian Health Services.|
|Accepted Loans||The IHS program covers any undergraduate or graduate student loan debt associated with receiving a health professions education. Consolidated loans are accepted, but only if all loans relate to the qualified applicant.|
|Loan Forgiveness Amount||Up to $40,000 over a two-year period of full-time employment.|
|Stacking with Other Loan Forgiveness Programs||Individuals who finish the IHS program and want to continue working in a nonprofit or governmental setting can apply for the Public Service Loan Forgiveness Program.|
|How to Apply||Indian Health Services provides an online application for qualifying individuals.|
National Institutes of Health (NIH) Loan Repayment Programs
|Program Overview||The NIH’s Loan Repayment Programs offer up to $100,000 in debt relief for qualified health professionals who spend at least two years at the NIH or a nonprofit conducting research on topics like health disparities, pediatrics, and AIDS.|
|Accepted Loans||Any loan provided by the federal government, an accredited U.S. academic institution, or qualifying commercial lenders|
|Loan Forgiveness Amount||Up to $100,000 over the span of two years|
|Qualifying Employment||Individuals who hold an approved doctorate participate in research projects. These can be intramural, meaning they are done within the NIH, or extramural, meaning they are employed by another organization or agency.|
|Stacking with Other Loan Forgiveness Programs||Individuals who plan to continue working in a government agency or nonprofit organization can apply for Public Service Loan Forgiveness after meeting the NIH Loan Repayment Program requirements.|
|How to Apply||The NIH offers an interactive roadmap to help individuals apply.|
State Programs Offering Student Loan Repayment Assistance for Healthcare Careers
Many states offer their own loan repayment assistant programs to healthcare workers who commit to work in health professional shortage areas (HPSAs) or through other socially impactful practices. For example, over 30 states receive cost-sharing grants from the federal government as part of a State Loan Repayment Program (SLRP). A list of states that participate in SLRP programs can be found at this Health Resources & Services Administration webpage.
Other state programs are completely independent from the federal government, such as California’s CalHealthCares program, which provides up to $300,000 in loan repayment assistance to physicians and dentists who dedicate a large portion of their case load to treating low-income Medi-Cal patients.
Here are a few resources to help you find healthcare student loan forgiveness programs in your state:
American Dental Education Association: State and Federal Loan Forgiveness Programs
Physicians and Other Healthcare Workers
American Association of Medical Colleges: Loan Repayment and Forgiveness Programs
Student Loan Forgiveness for Public Interest Lawyers
If you’re an attorney who provides public defense, public prosecution, pro-bono, or other public interest legal services, you may qualify for one of several loan repayment programs. Let’s take a deeper look at some of the major options currently available.
John R. Justice Student Loan Repayment Program
|Program Overview||Overseen by the U.S. Department of Justice, the JRJ Student Loan Repayment supports eligible public defenders by paying off up to $60,000 in qualifying loan debt over a six-year period.|
|Accepted Loans|| FFELP loans|
Federal Stafford loans
Graduate PLUS loans
Federal Perkins loans
|Loan Forgiveness Amount||Up to $10,000 per calendar year or $60,000 total.|
|Qualifying Employment||Applicants must be a full-time attorney serving as a public defender at the local, state, or federal level. They may be employed by the government or a defender organization.|
|Stacking with Other Loan Forgiveness Programs||Individuals who qualify for the John R. Justice Program can also qualify for Public Service Loan Forgiveness Program, but they should contact their loan servicer to learn how the JRJ program impacts their timeline.|
|How to Apply||Interested individuals can apply via the Bureau of Justice Assistance.|
Department of Justice Attorney Student Loan Repayment Program (ASLRP)
|Program Overview||The U.S. Department of Justice offers the Attorney Student Loan Repayment Program allows qualifying attorneys to have some of their debt repaid in exchange for committing to three-years of service at the DOJ.|
|Accepted Loans|| Federal Stafford Loans|
Graduate PLUS Loans
Federal Consolidation Loans
William D. Ford Direct Loan Program
Direct Stafford Loans
Federal Perkins Loan
|Loan Forgiveness Amount||The U.S. Department of Justice matches payments made by the attorney, with a maximum of up to $6,000 per year or $60,000 in total.|
|Qualifying Employment||Any employee who serves in an attorney capacity and has federal student loan debt is eligible.|
|Stacking with Other Loan Forgiveness Programs||Attorneys receiving ASLRP aid should be able to count their three years of service towards the Public Service Loan Forgiveness program but applicants should check program details to confirm.|
|How to Apply||Applicants can find all relevant materials needed to apply on the DOJ website.|
Law School Loan Repayment Assistance Programs
Several law schools offer loan forgiveness programs for graduates working in public interest roles. The American Bar Association maintains a list of colleges and universities with Loan Repayment Assistance Programs (LRAPs) to help law students make an informed decision. Eligibility requirements such as employer, loan type, loan debt amount, and salary all vary by institution, so read carefully about each.
State Programs Offering Loan Forgiveness for Public Interest Lawyers
Several state loan repayment assistance programs also exist for lawyers and attorneys serving the public interest. As of 2020, 24 states currently offer these repayment assistance programs. Each state sets different eligibility requirements for employment, types of eligible loans, and funding opportunities, so it’s best to check with the administrator in your state. The American Bar Association provides a list of loan forgiveness programs available by state and contact information.
Student Loan Forgiveness Opportunities for Military Service
Safeguarding our nation as a member of the military is one of the biggest acts of public service. Active duty and veterans alike can take advantage of several loan forgiveness opportunities as a reward for their service. Branches maintain detailed service and eligibility requirements, but we provide an overview of each one below.
Army – College Loan Repayment Program
Designed for individuals who already graduated from college when they enter the Army, the Loan Repayment Program will cover a portion of student loans for highly qualified applicants who qualify for Military Occupational Specialties (MOSs).
Navy – Student Loan Repayment Assistance
Sailors can have up to $65,000 worth of federal education loans repaid by the Navy during their first three years of active duty service. Applicants must provide numerous pieces of documentation to ensure they qualify and pay any state or federal taxes resulting from the repayments.
Air Force – Judge Advocate General’s Corps Loan Repayment Program
Qualified lawyers within the Judge Advocate General (JAG) Corps can receive up to $65,000 in loan repayment funding for qualified loans. These payments are made over a three-year period once the member has been a JAG officer for at least one year.
National Guard – Student Loan Repayment Program
Soldiers and officer candidates can apply for these awards if they have a loan listed on the Department of Education National Student Loan Data System or a Federal Parent Loan. State and private loans cannot be forgiven. Applicants must commit to at least six years of service and can receive up to $50,000 in funds.
Volunteer Opportunities That Forgive Student Loans
Becoming a public service professional isn’t the only way to help pay for college by giving back. Several government and nonprofit volunteering opportunities allow you to gain valuable experience, serve others, and qualify for financial aid or student loan forgiveness.
AmeriCorps gives Americans the opportunity to volunteer across the country in areas in need of the most help. Aside from receiving a living allowance, certain health benefits, skills training, networking opportunities, and student loan deferment, members can qualify for an education award to cover college or graduate school after completing the program. Education awards vary based on participation type and program. Those who complete a full AmeriCorps assignment are eligible for the Public Service Loan Forgiveness Program and can have their time in the program count towards the 120 qualifying payments if they use part of the education award to make a lump sum payment.
The Peace Corps provides volunteer opportunities in more than 60 countries. Programs last one to two years and provide several benefits. These include travel funding, a living stipend, potential student loan deferment, medical and dental coverage, and networking opportunities. Upon completion, members receive a $10,000 award to transition back to civilian life. Some students use this funding towards their educations. Returned members who plan to attend graduate school can qualify for additional financial aid through The Paul D. Coverdell Fellows Program. Members can also count their years of Peace Corps experience toward the Public Service Loan Forgiveness program.
Shared Harvest Fund
The Shared Harvest Fund connects recent graduates with nonprofits in need of specialized services for short-term projects. DebtFreelancers, as they are known, sign up on the website and get connected with a project that matches their profile. After completing the project, SHF sends a check to their student loan lender.
Other Ways to Reduce Your Student Debt
Scholarships and Grants
Scholarships and grants do not need to be repaid, making them a great option for students who meet GPA, major, and any other eligibility requirements set by the awarding body. Scholarships come from governments, nonprofits, colleges and universities, and professional associations. Grants can be awarded at every academic level and typically set requirements similar to scholarships such as minimum GPA, discipline area, and financial need.
Income-Driven Repayment Plans
IDRPs are great for graduates who feel overwhelmed by their current student loan payments and need to make a change. Federal loan servicers work with individuals to set a monthly payment that fits within their current income.
Student Loan Refinancing
Student loan refinancing can help individuals score lower monthly payments, save money spent on interest, pay off loans more quickly, and decrease their debt-to-income ratio.