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PSLF: Ten Years or 120 Payments?

Public Service Loan Forgiveness takes ten years, but the 120 certified payment requirement is much more accurate.

Written By: Michael P. Lux, Esq.

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When discussing Public Service Loan Forgiveness (PSLF), a common worry among borrowers is the fear of having to start over if they make a mistake.

There’s often confusion surrounding the need for ten years of employment with an eligible employer versus making 120 certified payments. Even though 120 monthly payments add up to ten years worth of payments, there are some significant differences.

This article will break down the time requirement for PSLF, including how factors such as changing employers, switching repayment plans, and pauses in payments affect the progression towards forgiveness.

Why 120 Certified Payments is More Accurate than Ten Years for PSLF

It isn’t wrong to say that it takes ten years to qualify for Public Service Loan Forgiveness. However, it’s more precise to state that PSLF requires 120 certified payments.

This distinction is crucial in regards to the payment certification process. When a borrower submits an employer certification form, the loan servicer does a comprehensive review of the borrower’s account before certifying the payment. The PSLF loan servicer, MyFedLoan, will evaluate each payment to verify that the borrower has eligible loans and is on an eligible repayment plan. If any requirement is unmet for a specific payment, that payment does not get certified.

Focusing solely on ten-years might lead to some unexpected and disappointing issues with your PSLF application.

Watch the Fine Print. In addition to 120 certified payments, borrowers must be employed full-time by a PSLF-eligible employer at the time they apply for forgiveness and when the debt is forgiven. If you wait until you have made 120 payments, it could take longer than ten years to have the debt forgiven.

Changing Employers, Breaks in Payments, and Switching Repayment Plans

Many borrowers fear that if they start a new job, pause payments, or take a break from public service, they will have to begin the PSLF process all over again.

Fortunately, PSLF does not require payments to be consecutive. As a result, borrowers have the flexibility to pause repayment, switch jobs, or leave the public sector for a private company. At some point in the future, they can choose to resume their path to PSLF right where they left off.

The key is reaching the total of 120 certified payments; how and when those payments are made offers some flexibility, allowing borrowers to navigate life changes without losing progress toward PSLF.

Sherpa Tip: As a sharp reader pointed out in the comments, it’s also worth noting that the 120 certified payments cannot start before 2007, when the PSLF program was first created.

The Starting Over Risk

Even though payments don’t have to be consecutive, there are situations in which a borrower might have to start from scratch on PSLF.

Consolidating Federal Student Loans – While there are many benefits to federal direct consolidation, one significant drawback is that it creates new loans and restarts the forgiveness clock. The limited waiver on PSLF resolved this issue for some borrowers, but the limited waiver expired on October 31, 2022.

Ineligible Loans or Repayment Plans – If a borrower isn’t on an eligible repayment plan or doesn’t have eligible loans, they won’t make any progress towards PSLF. It’s not uncommon for borrowers to believe they’re making progress towards loan forgiveness, only to discover some flaw that made those payments ineligible for PSLF. None of those payments can be certified and count towards their forgiveness.

Note for Borrowers on the Wrong Repayment Plan: If you discover that you were on the wrong repayment plan, there is a temporary federal program that can help.

Getting Payments Certified

The process to certify payments under PSLF is relatively straightforward. Borrowers must complete this form and get it signed by their employer.

If you are looking for a guided application, the PSLF Help Tool is an excellent resource. The Department of Education created the PSLF help tool to aid borrowers in verifying employment eligibility. The PSLF Help Tool also assists borrowers in completing the necessary paperwork for certification.

How Often Should I Certify Payments?

There are no rules stating how often payments must be certified for PSLF. Theoretically, a borrower could submit their first employer certification after ten years.

However, waiting ten years to certify payments comes with significant risk. If any eligibility issues are discovered in the borrower’s loans or repayment plan, it would be a major setback. Loan eligibility issues are often easy to resolve, but those ten years of payments would not count towards PSLF. Thus, waiting ten years may mean wasting ten years.

The best practice for borrowers is to certify payments when:

  • starting a new job,
  • leaving an old job, and
  • getting married.

It’s also wise to submit a certification form at least once a year. Regular certification is the best way to stay on track with PSLF and avoid mistakes.

About the Author

Student loan expert Michael Lux is a licensed attorney and the founder of The Student Loan Sherpa. He has helped borrowers navigate life with student debt since 2013.

Insight from Michael has been featured in US News & World Report, Forbes, The Wall Street Journal, and numerous other online and print publications.

Michael is available for speaking engagements and to respond to press inquiries.

30 thoughts on “PSLF: Ten Years or 120 Payments?”

  1. I have multiple loans from 2005 to 2016 (undergrad and graduate school). Do I need 120 qualifying payments under each of these individual loans? Or, once I hit 120 qualifying payments on my oldest loan, will the entire amount of all my loans be forgiven?

  2. So confusing! And I have a grad degree. 😉 Anyway, I only have 5 years (~$15.5k) left on my loan. I started repayment in 2005 (2006? at the latest) never missed a payment, so I’m all good on the 120 payments. My question is I worked for 1.5 years for the State, and just started a job at a non-profit (yes, both qualify). Do I need 10 years of public/non=profit service, or can I forgiveness for the period I did/am working?

    Also, I currently have a ridiculously low fix rate. It seems like it’s telling me I have to move my loan. Does that mean giving up the rate?

    • The important thing about those 120 payments is that you have eligible loans, on an eligible repayment plan, while working for an eligible employer. There are temporary programs to help people who were on the wrong repayment plan or timed consolidation wrong, but you still need a full 10 years of work at an eligible employer.

      When you consolidate, they use the weighted average of your existing loans, so it shouldn’t change your rate. However, if you have an FFEL loan and a promotional interest rate, it will revert back to the rate of the original federal loan.

  3. I want to understand what is considered a qualifying payment under the PSLF program. I have been in income based repayment plans basically since graduation and often had $0 required monthly. If the plan calls for a $0 payment does it still qualify? I’m not in any easier position to repay my loans than before and I hate have them hanging over my head. I also had a long term deferment due to bankruptcy.

  4. Hello, so glad i came across this post. Thank you for the information. What counts as one of the 120 payments? Can I make 2 full payments in one month and it would count as 2 payments or would it only count as one? I have been working for the same eligible employers over the years and have been re certifying regularly and now have 80 certified payments under my belt. I am scheduled to have my loans forgiven by 2026 as having the loan balance make it difficult to apply for things like mortgages. I work a second job and would love to put that money to having my loans forgiven earlier, i just always assumed it had to be 10 years.

  5. someone told me that during the current loan forgiveness pause/ the moratorium on federal student loan payments, interest and collections, that started in March 2020, we have been getting monthly credits to reach the 120 qualifying payments requirement during this pause/moratorium even if we haven’t been making payments. Is this true?

  6. I consolidated my loans. I am close to the 120 payment mark on two of the loans. The other three have two years left. Am I eligible now for all of the loans or can I get those two forgiven?

    • If you consolidated the loans, the consolidated loan should have one count, and it will likely be the highest number of the included loans. Either way, I’d encourage you to apply now. Processing can take some time, and if you are not quite up to 120, you can always submit another PSLF form later on.

  7. I had student loans with FedLoan Servicing, and I consolidated with Nelnet. My question is, will all the payments I have paid to FedLoan Service count even though I consolidated with Nelnet?

  8. I received a notice saying I have 0 qualifying payments even though I have paid for 20 years. I know the processing times are long, but the letter sounded definite. I called the PSLF help number, but the wait times are a nightmare as you might imagine. Do I have any other recourse?

  9. Hi! Like so may public servants, who were duped by the Bush Administration, I made 180 hefty payments for my consolidated FFEL loans beginning in 2007 prior to conversion to a DOE loan in 2022. My remaining loans were just forgiven through the TEPSLF. Outrageous that we can’t currently be reimbursed for the 60 extra payments, but I also made 2 very large extra payments (total 25K) during my repayment. My question is that since payments were suspended 03/13/2020, can I get reimbursed at least for the payments made after that date until the DOE consolidation this year? Thanks so much for your counsel.

  10. According to the servicer, not any 10-year period qualifies, only late 2007 to 2017. I retired in 2013 with 38 years service. I was told I didn’t qualify for PSLF. This seems designed only to benefit people recruited during the Obama administration.

  11. I met the 120 Qualifying Payments. I have been teaching for over 30 years in the public schools here in Massachusetts. I just got off the phone with PSLF Rep. and it will take at least another 1-3 months to be Forgiven. Why? I have met all the requirements. Should be immediate.

    • I’m in the same boat. I met all the requirements. I made 124 “qualifying” payments but my account still shows a balance. I was wondering how long it takes for my balance to reflect the forgiveness. Glad you asked.

      • One of my bosses told me it took almost four months for their 120 months of qualified payments to be certified. She was also told not to leave her public service employer before she got the certification approved.
        I still have four years to go. But the four-month wait for certification has made me think about my retirement date. Instead of July 2027, my retirement date goes to December 2027. If I work till July 2028, my pension benefit will increase from 24% to 26% of my final average salary. But I’ll be 71 years old versus 70.
        Definitely a big decision.

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