Our evaluations and opinions are not influenced by our advertising relationships, but we may earn a commission from our partners’ links. This content is created independently from TIME’s editorial staff. Learn more.
Student loan forgiveness is a valuable government program allowing some student loan borrowers to discharge their remaining balance after meeting specific requirements. Student loan forgiveness could be worth tens—or even hundreds—of thousands of dollars, depending, of course, on how much you borrowed.
Meeting the strict requirements for student loan forgiveness can be tricky, and it’s easy to make a mistake on the documentation, leading to an unexpected denial of your application. If it doesn’t work for you, student loan refinancing may be another option to alleviate your monthly payments.
If you're unable to meet the criteria for a credit-based loan without a cosigner, Ascent may provide an opportunity for you to qualify for a future income-based loan instead.
How to apply for student loan forgiveness in four steps
If you’re looking to qualify for student loan forgiveness, taking these four steps will get you well on your way.
Assess your student loans
Student loan forgiveness only works with specific types of federal student loans. For most borrowers, Public Service Loan Forgiveness (PSLF) is the most likely method to have your loans forgiven. If you have Federal Direct loans and work for a public employer, such as a public school, county hospital, or other government job, you may qualify for PSLF. Some nonprofit jobs also qualify for it. Complete an employment certification form and review it with your servicer to ensure that your job counts for this program.
If you’re a teacher, you may qualify for Teacher Loan Forgiveness (TLF), which has lower forgiveness limits than PSLF ($17,500 as of 2023). Because of that limit, many teachers working for public schools would be better off with PSLF. (As of July 2022, the average loan amount forgiven through PSLF was $97,218.) TLF is available to borrowers with Federal Direct or Federal Family Education loans.
If you have any doubt about your loan type or whether you may be eligible, you should contact your loan servicer (the company to which you send your student loan payments) to confirm eligibility.
Student loans may be eligible for forgiveness in other limited circumstances, such as if your school shuts down or you become permanently disabled. However, those are much less common.
Begin the student loan forgiveness application process
Work with your servicer to find the right application, fill it out, and double-check the details. Be sure that your employment qualifies you for student loan forgiveness.
For PSLF you must make 120 on-time payments while working for a qualifying employer. That’s 10 years of on-time payments, so it may be a while before you qualify. For TLF, you’ll have to work for a qualifying low-income school for five consecutive, complete academic years. If you’re a teacher, the five academic years don’t count toward the 120 payments, so you may want to skip TLF if you qualify for both programs.
Again, if you have doubts that you’ve submitted the correct forms or work for a qualifying employer, contact your student loans servicer to find out if you’re on the right track. A simple mistake at any point could disqualify you.
Continue making payments as scheduled
Don’t assume you’re approved and your loan balance is forgiven after reaching 120 monthly payments. Until you see an updated statement from your loan servicer showing the balance is forgiven, continue making payments as scheduled.
Late or missed payments can harm your credit score and mess up your forgiveness plans. If you only made 119 monthly payments or your servicer determines your employer isn’t eligible, you could make a costly mistake by stopping your loan payments.
You can always log into your loan servicer website for the most updated balance and payment information for your loans.
Confirm that your loans are forgiven
Follow loan servicer instructions to complete any final steps, submit any remaining documentation, and get your balance forgiven. You should receive a letter confirming that your loans are forgiven once your application is processed and approved. Keep any confirmations or other documentation for your records. Remember that your loans are only wiped away once you see forgiveness reflected on your student loan statement. It’s important to keep paying until you get a statement showing that no remaining payments are required.
Who is eligible for student loan forgiveness?
Student loan forgiveness is generally limited to borrowers who have spent enough years working for a qualifying public employer. You’ll need Federal Direct loans to qualify for it.
To qualify for TLF, you’ll need either Federal Direct loans or Federal Family Education loans. Under this program you must also spend at least five consecutive academic years working for an elementary school, a secondary school, or an educational service agency that services low-income students.
Other student loan forgiveness programs exist under these limited circumstances:
- Perkins Loan Cancellation and Discharge. Federal Perkins loans may be discharged after meeting certain volunteer or employment requirements under certain circumstances.
- Closed School Discharge. If your college or university shuts down, you may qualify to have loans related to that school forgiven. This only works for Direct loans, Federal Family Education loans, and Perkins loans.
- Total and Permanent Disability Discharge. Federal Direct loans, Federal Family Education loans, and Perkins loans may be discharged if you are totally and permanently disabled.
- Bankruptcy Discharge. Getting your student loans forgiven during bankruptcy is extremely difficult but not impossible. Bankruptcy discharge may be available to borrowers with Direct Loans, Federal Family Education loans, and Perkins loans.
- Death Discharge. If you die, your loan balances are forgiven, which at least doesn’t pass on your debt to your heirs.
Some extremely rare additional situations may qualify you for forgiveness, including if the school did something egregious related to your loans or education, your school falsely certified your loan eligibility, or loans were created fraudulently using your information.
How long does it take for student loan debt to be forgiven?
Under the PSLF program, you’ll need at least 10 years (120 months) of eligible loan payments while working for an eligible employer to qualify. Depending on your loan balance and payment schedule, you might find your loans paid off well before that date, but if you had large student loans or made payments under an income-based repayment plan, you’re likely in a good position to qualify.
For TLF, you’ll only have up to $17,500 of your loan balance forgiven. This could be the right choice if you would have that remaining balance or less after five years of payments. PSLF could prove more valuable if you would have a much higher balance after five years. You’ll have to work for five full, consecutive academic years to get TLF.
The time it takes to process a student loan forgiveness application can vary by the loan servicer. When applying for loan forgiveness, always ask about the time frame for completion. Keep making those regular payments during the application review process unless your loan servicer specifically tells you you’re not required to do so. While making additional monthly payments is not fun, it’s better to continue paying than deal with the repercussions of late or missed payments.
Can you improve student loan forgiveness chances?
The best way to improve your chances of approval for student loan forgiveness is to follow the rules exactly. You don’t have to look far to find horror stories from student loan borrowers whose applications were denied for unexpected reasons.
Determine right away if your employer qualifies as a public employer or low-income school. Most government jobs count as working for a public employer. However, if you’re a contractor or work for a government contractor, your work may not count toward the 120-month requirement.
If you have other types of federal student loans, you may be able to consolidate them into Federal Direct loans. However, refinancing your loans with private student loans removes any eligibility for federal student debt relief programs. Only federal student loans qualify.
Missing student loan payments can put your loans into default. Loans in default don’t qualify for loan forgiveness programs. Getting your loans out of default can be challenging, so staying on top of your monthly minimum payments is critical for loan forgiveness.
What if you have private student loans?
Private student loans are not eligible for government student loan forgiveness programs. Such loans are made by private, for-profit companies, so you likely won’t see any forgiveness for them.
If you’re experiencing economic hardship, you may qualify for a loan payment deferral or similar program. Your debt, however, is not forgiven under such a program. You should expect to pay the entire balance later, possibly with interest accrued during the deferral period.
Alternatively, private student loan refinancing may help you save on interest or lower your monthly payment, depending on your current and future loan terms. Pay attention to interest rates and total interest cost, as a lower monthly payment may cost you more in the long run.
TIME Stamp: Follow the rules meticulously to qualify for student loan forgiveness
When you have federal student loans, the opportunity to have your entire balance wiped out is a potentially life-changing benefit. Just make sure to check that your employer qualifies, follow program guidelines exactly, and keep up on your payments to make it work.
If you have private student loans, refinancing may be your best option. If you can refinance to a lower interest rate, you may save money even if you can’t have your balance forgiven.
Frequently asked questions (FAQs)
How will I receive my student loan forgiveness?
You won’t receive a check to pay off your student loan balance when approved. Your loan servicer will receive any payments and credit them to your balance. You’ll see the new, lower balance reflected on your student loan statement.
Which forms do I need to fill out for student forgiveness?
The forms required for student loan forgiveness vary based on the loan and forgiveness program. Work with your loan servicer to find the correct forms.
What are the best options for student loan refinancing?
Shopping around to find your best refinancing options is a good idea. Usually, the refinancing company with the lowest interest rate for your credit history and financial situation is best.
The information presented here is created independently from the TIME editorial staff. To learn more, see our About page.