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.

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.

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 Loanscheck Loans provided through the William D. Ford Federal Direct Loan Program

check Any federal loans consolidated into a Direct Consolidation Loan
 
wrong Private loans cannot be consolidated and do not qualify
Loan Forgiveness AmountThe 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.
Eligibility Requirements .Hold employment through a qualified federal, state, local, or tribal government or be employed by a nonprofit organization

.Work on a full-time basis

.Have Direct Loans (or other federal loans consolidated into a Direct Loan)

.Use an income-driven repayment plan

.Make 120 qualifying and one-time payments over a 10-year period
Qualifying Employment.Any government organization at any level except for partisan political organizations, labor unions, or for-profit government contractors

.Any nonprofit organization qualified as tax-exempt under the IRS’ Section 501(c)(3).
How to ApplyQualifying 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 Loanscheck The Perkins Loan
Loan Forgiveness AmountThe 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.
Eligibility Requirements .Received a Perkins Loan before 2017

.Qualifying employment and/or volunteer service

.Meet all requirements along the way
Qualifying Employment.Teachers: must work full-time in a public or nonprofit school working with low-income families, special education students, or in a content shortage area.

.Other occupations that may qualify for Perkins Loan cancellation include early childhood educator, child/family services agency employee, tribal college faculty member, firefighter, law enforcement officer, Title I librarian, military member, nurse/medical technician, early intervention services provider, public defender, Title I speech pathologist, or volunteer through AmeriCorps or Peace Corps.
How to ApplyInterested 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 OverviewFull-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 Loanscheck Direct Subsidized and Unsubsidized Loans

check Subsidized and Unsubsidized Federal Stafford Loans

check Direct Consolidation Loan

check Federal Consolidation Loan
Loan Forgiveness AmountUp to $17,500 after meeting qualifications
Eligibility Requirements .Possession of loan after October 1, 1998

.Loans must have been made before the end of the five years of academic service
Qualifying Employment.Employment as a full-time and highly qualified teacher for at least five consecutive years, at least one of which must have been after 1998.

and 

.Employment at a low-income school or educational service agency at the elementary or secondary level
Stacking with Other Loan Forgiveness ProgramsRecipients 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 ApplyIndividuals can submit the Teacher Loan Forgiveness Application after completing five qualifying years of teaching.

Teach for America

Program OverviewTeach 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 Loanscheck Stafford Loans

check Grad PLUS Loans

check Consolidation Loans

check Direct Loans

check Federal Family Education Loans
Loan Forgiveness AmountWhile 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.
Eligibility Requirements .Completion of bachelor’s degree by first day of training

.Minimum cumulative GPA of 2.5 or above

.U.S. citizenship legal/national residency, or DACA recipient  
Qualifying EmploymentTo 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 ProgramsWhile 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 ApplyTFA 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 OverviewThe 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 LoansAny government or private loans for tuition and living expenses incurred while working towards a nursing education.
Loan Forgiveness AmountNurses 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.
Eligibility Requirements .U.S. citizen, U.S. national, or lawful permanent resident

.Licensed RN, Advanced Practice Registered Nurse, or Nurse Faculty Member

.Qualifying amount of nursing student loan debt
Qualifying EmploymentWork 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 ProgramsNurses 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 ApplyNurses 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 OverviewAdministered 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 LoansAny government or private loans for tuition and/or living expenses incurred while working towards a qualifying health services degree.
Loan Forgiveness AmountQualifying 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.
Eligibility Requirements .U.S. citizen or U.S. national

.Full, active, and unencumbered health professional license

.Able to participate as a provider in Medicaid, Medicare, and Children’s Health Insurance (CHIP) programs

.Eligible for federal employment
Qualifying Employment.Physicians

.Physician Assistants

.Nurse Practitioners

.Certified Nurse Midwives

.Dentists (DDS, DMD)

.Dental Hygienists

.Psychiatrists

.Health Service Psychologists

.Licensed Clinical Social Workers

.Psychiatric Nurse Specialists

.Marriage and Family Therapists

.Licensed Professional Counselors
Stacking with Other Loan Forgiveness ProgramsAfter 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 ApplyThe 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 OverviewThe 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 LoansThe 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 AmountUp to $40,000 over a two-year period of full-time employment.
Eligibility Requirements .Physicians who already hold licensure or are currently applying

.Those who already completed a medical residency or fellowship training program

.Priority given to American Indian or Alaska Native applicants
Qualifying Employment.Medicine: Allopathic or Osteopathic

.Behavioral Health

.Dentistry

.Nursing

.Optometry

.Pharmacy

.Other qualifying professions
Stacking with Other Loan Forgiveness ProgramsIndividuals 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 ApplyIndian Health Services provides an online application for qualifying individuals.

National Institutes of Health (NIH) Loan Repayment Programs

Program OverviewThe 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 LoansAny loan provided by the federal government, an accredited U.S. academic institution, or qualifying commercial lenders
Loan Forgiveness AmountUp to $100,000 over the span of two years
Eligibility Requirements .U.S. citizen, national, or permanent resident

.Possess a qualifying doctoral degree

.Educational debt must be equal to or in excess of 20% of applicant’s institutional salary

.Qualifying research assignments

.Work at a domestic nonprofit institution or for the NIH
Qualifying EmploymentIndividuals 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 ProgramsIndividuals 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 ApplyThe 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:

Dental

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 OverviewOverseen 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 Loanscheck FFELP loans

check Direct Loans

check Federal Stafford loans

check Graduate PLUS loans

check Consolidation loans

check Federal Perkins loans
Loan Forgiveness AmountUp to $10,000 per calendar year or $60,000 total.
Eligibility Requirements .U.S. citizen or eligible noncitizen

.Live in a state that recognizes the JRJ program
Qualifying EmploymentApplicants 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 ProgramsIndividuals 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 ApplyInterested individuals can apply via the Bureau of Justice Assistance.

Department of Justice Attorney Student Loan Repayment Program (ASLRP)

Program OverviewThe 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 Loanscheck Federal Stafford Loans

check Graduate PLUS Loans

check Federal Consolidation Loans

check William D. Ford Direct Loan Program

check Direct Stafford Loans
 
check Consolidation Loans

check Federal Perkins Loan
Loan Forgiveness AmountThe 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.
Eligibility Requirements .Minimum qualifying debt of $10,000

.Passage of Bar Exam in their state
Qualifying EmploymentAny employee who serves in an attorney capacity and has federal student loan debt is eligible.
Stacking with Other Loan Forgiveness ProgramsAttorneys 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 ApplyApplicants 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

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.

Peace Corps

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.