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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.

Last Updated:

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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.

Last Updated:

Affiliate Disclosure and Integrity Pledge

When discussing Public Service Loan Forgiveness (PSLF), many borrowers get confused about the difference between ten years at an eligible employer and 120 certified payments.

Even though 120 payments add up to ten years, there some significant differences. The big fear for most borrowers is if they have to start over if they make a mistake.

This article will break down the time requirement for PLSF, including how changing employers, switching repayment plans and breaks in payments impact the clock.

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 is more clear to say that qualifying for PSLF requires 120 certified payments.

This critical distinction goes back 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 check to see that the borrower has eligible loans and is on an eligible repayment plan. If a requirement is missing, the payment does not get certified.

If you only focus on the ten years of public service requirement, you risk disappointment with the results of your PSLF application.

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 that they will have to start PLSF from scratch.

Fortunately, there is no consecutive payment requirement. As a result, borrowers can pause repayment, leave the public sector for a private company, and later pick up where they left off.

As long as the total certified payments add up to 120, borrowers can qualify for PSLF.

Sherpa Tip: As 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 is still a risk that borrowers might have to start from scratch on PSLF.

Consolidating Federal Student Loans – While there are many benefits to federal direct consolidation, one of the downsides 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 expires 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. Many borrowers think they are making progress but have to start over when they discover a major flaw.

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 payment certification process is relatively straightforward. Borrowers need to complete this form and have 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 forms for certification.

How Often Should I Certify Payments?

There isn’t a requirement for payment certifications. Theoretically, a borrower could complete one employer certification after ten years.

However, waiting until ten years have been completed is a huge mistake. If there is an eligibility problem with the borrower’s loans or repayment plan, it would be devastating. Loan eligibility issues are often easy to fix, but it requires restarting the PSLF clock. 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.

Additionally, borrowers should plan on submitting a certification form once a year at the minimum. Frequent certification is the best way to maximize PSLF forgiveness 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.

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

  1. 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?

  2. 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?

  3. 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.

  4. 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.

  5. 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.


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