The 8 Best Student Loan Forgiveness Programs Ranked

Michael Lux Student Loan Blog, Student Loan Forgiveness 2 Comments

The goal of this list is to help borrowers decide which loan forgiveness programs are worth pursuing. Hopefully, many people will also learn about previously unknown forms of forgiveness.

No forgiveness program can be classified as easy, and some programs only forgive a portion of the debt. However, for many borrowers, debt forgiveness represents the best path to financial freedom from student loans.

  • We ranked the best student loan forgiveness programs according to how easy they are to qualify for and how many borrowers could be eligible.
  • Some programs require borrowers to be in a specific field or occupation.
  • Other programs only apply to federal student loans.
  • Student loan forgiveness can also have tax consequences.

#1 Public Service Student Loan Forgiveness

Of all the loan forgiveness programs, Public Service Loan Forgiveness (PSLF) is the best. Borrowers with federal student loans can have all of their qualifying debt eliminated after ten years of public service. The cherry on top of this excellent program is that the government forgives this debt tax-free.

Qualifying for Public Service Loan Forgiveness has three basic requirements.

  1. The loans have to be eligible federal loans.
  2. The borrower has to make timely payments on an eligible repayment plan.
  3. The borrower must be working full-time for an eligible public service employer.

While these three requirements seem simple, they each represent potential hurdles that can cause problems for borrowers.

Eligible Federal Loans – Not all federal loans qualify for PSLF. Fortunately, some loans that don’t qualify can become eligible via the process of Federal Direct consolidation. However, going through consolidation also restarts the forgiveness clock. Therefore, borrowers who need to consolidate should do so right away. It also means that consolidation should only happen when necessary.

Eligible Repayment Plan – Only specific federal repayment plans qualify for PSLF. The two most common examples that do not qualify for PSLF are the graduated and extended repayment plans. Most borrowers pursuing PSLF stick with income-driven repayment plans such as IBR, REPAYE, and PAYE. There is one exception to the eligible repayment plan requirement. Legislation signed into law in 2018 allows borrowers who mistakenly enrolled in the wrong repayment plan to qualify for PSLF. The Federal Student Aid website explains the procedure for signing up. Borrowers would be wise not to rely upon this exception, however, as it is temporary. The extended program ends when the available funds run out.

Eligible Public Service Employer – Borrowers who work for the government or a 501(c)(3) non-profit meet this requirement. Other public service employers can qualify, but things get a bit more complicated. The best way to check employer eligibility is to complete an employer certification form and mail it to your student loan servicer. This step initiates a review of your account, which tracks the progress you’ve made towards the required ten years (120 payments). For this reason, borrowers should complete an employer certification form every year.

The Department of Education’s PSLF Help tool is an excellent resource for verifying employer eligibility and tracking progress towards forgiveness.

Ranking number one doesn’t mean that PSLF is easy. While we think the reports of a 99% rejection rate are a bit misleading, there is no doubt that borrowers will have to jump through some hoops to get their loans discharged. PSLF gets the top spot because forgiveness can happen in as little as ten years. Additionally, a surprisingly large percentage of borrowers are eligible because it applies to those working for the government and non-profit employers.

#2 Income-Driven Student Loan Forgiveness

All federal borrowers are eligible for forgiveness as long as they make monthly payments based upon their income.
The forgiveness program with the broadest group of potential borrowers is the Income-Driven Student Loan Forgiveness Program. Under this forgiveness program, the government forgives borrowers’ remaining federal loans after 20 to 25 years of payments. The government bases payments upon a borrower’s discretionary income. However, the IRS will treat the forgiven debt as taxable income.

There are several Income-Driven Repayment Plans for borrowers to consider.

PlanDiscretionary Income RequiredYears Until Forgiveness
ICR - Income-Contingent Repayment20%25
IBR - Income-Based Repayment15%25
PAYE - Pay As You Earn10%20
IBR for New Borrowers*10%20
REPAYE - Revised Pay As You Earn10%20 or 25**
* New Borrowers are defined as those who started borrowing after July 1, 2014.
** Borrowers with graduate school debt will take 25 years to qualify, while those with undergrad debt can be eligible for forgiveness after 20 years.

Eligibility requirements for these different repayment plans can vary. Additionally, each plan comes with specific provisions that can impact a borrower’s decision. For example:

  • ICR is the only repayment plan that those with Parent PLUS loans can use.
  • REPAYE has a special provision for borrowers whose payments are less than the monthly interest.
  • IBR and PAYE allow borrowers to file taxes separately from their spouses to lower their discretionary income. REPAYE does not allow this.
  • PAYE is only available to borrowers who were new borrowers as of Oct. 1, 2007, and received a Direct Loan disbursement on or after Oct. 1, 2011.

Qualifying for forgiveness takes at least 20 years and requires payments based upon income during that time. Accordingly, opting for this program may not be the best financial move for many borrowers. For some, the cost of two decades of payments and the tax bill, forgiveness ends up costing more than aggressive repayment of the debt.

IDR forgiveness checks in at number two in our rankings because all federal borrowers are eligible, and there is no cap on the amount of debt that can be forgiven. Borrowers do not have to be in a specific job or suffer extreme hardship. Instead, borrowers need to be willing to wait 20-25 years while making minimum payments on their loans.

#3 Employer Loan Forgiveness Programs

Coming in at number three in our rankings of the best student loan forgiveness programs is employer assistance programs.

More and more employers are taking advantage of the student debt crisis by creating programs to attract top talent. As competition for skilled employees grows, we expect to see more employer loan repayment programs.

Most employers cap student loan assistance on a monthly or yearly basis. Accordingly, most employers won’t pay off a borrower’s student debt in full, but they may offer help with monthly payments.

If your workplace doesn’t offer a program of this nature, the best way to present it to your boss might be to suggest a plan to attract top candidates for unfilled positions. Discussing the creation of a loan repayment assistance program may also be a valuable tool in negotiating your salary.

One other important fact to keep in mind is that these programs are not tax-advantaged like a 401(k) or health insurance plan (though that may change in the future). Employees taking advantage of employer assistance with student loans will have to pay taxes on this benefit.

Employer loan assistance programs rank highly on our list because the relief is nearly immediate.

#4 Borrower Defense Against Repayment

Borrowers whose school misled them may be able to have their federal student loans forgiven as part of the Borrower Defense Against Repayment program.

If a Borrower Defense Against Repayment application is approved, the borrower can not only get their loans forgiven, they may also be reimbursed for payments already made on the student loans.

Given the enormous potential benefit available to borrowers, it shouldn’t be a surprise that getting a borrower defense application approved can be tricky.

To be successful, a borrower defense applicant must show that the school, through an act or omission, violated state law directly related to the federal student loan or to the educational services for which the loan was provided.

The Department of Education suggests that the following documents may be helpful in a borrower defense application:

  • Documentation to confirm the school for which you are applying for borrower defense, your program of study, and your dates of enrollment—such as transcripts, enrollment agreements, and registration documents
  • Promotional materials from the school
  • Emails with school officials
  • Your school’s manual or course catalog

Borrowers can find the necessary applications and more details on the Federal Student Aid Borrower Defense page.

This forgiveness program ranks highly because of the broad relief available. However, it only applies to a limited number of borrowers, and qualifying can be difficult.

#5 School Closing

ways to qualify for student loan forgivenessIf your school closes down, it may be possible to have your federal student loans forgiven.

The good news is that 100% of Federal Direct, FFEL, and Perkins loans can be discharged when a school closes. The bad news is that the requirements for this discharge are relatively strict.

Loans are eligible for forgiveness only if one of the following applies:

* Your school closes while you’re enrolled, and you do not complete your program because of the closure.

* Your school closes within 120 days after you withdraw.

Further complicating matters is that even if you meet one of the above requirements, you still might not be eligible for forgiveness if:

  • You are completing a comparable educational program at another school
    • through a teach-out agreement with the school,
    • by transferring academic credits or hours earned at the closed school to another school,
    • or by any other comparable means.
  • You have completed all the coursework for the program, even if you have not received a diploma or certificate.
  • You withdraw more than 120 days before the school closes.

To start the forgiveness process due to school closure, contact your federal student loan servicer responsible for the loans. The Department of Education has a page tracking the various school closings and specific details pertaining to those individual schools.

Even if you successfully get your student loans discharged due to your school closing, you may not be totally out of the woods. The IRS may treat the forgiven debt as income, potentially creating a large tax bill.

#6 Student Loan Forgiveness for your Profession

There are several professions with options for student loan forgiveness. However, most professions offer very little student loan relief. Those that do offer help are often limited and/or competitive. As a result, loan forgiveness by profession checks in at number six in our rankings.

The jobs and programs we have listed below are by no means exhaustive but should serve as an example of the many forgiveness programs out there. Our list focuses mainly on the most common professions with forgiveness programs and the most extensive forgiveness programs.

If you don’t see your profession listed below, taking some time to research may yield some positive results. Like scholarships, there is a multitude of forgiveness programs for many occupations.

Today we will look at various options for teachers, lawyers, the military, and nurses, but many other career-specific programs exist, including doctors, social workers, firefighters, librarians, and law enforcement. Some forgiveness programs even exist for Peace Corps and AmeriCorps volunteers.

Student Loan Forgiveness for Teachers

Most teachers are eligible for the Public Service Loan Forgiveness program. However, forgiveness opportunities aren’t limited to PSLF. Numerous other programs exist to help teachers get their student debt under control.

The Teacher Loan Forgiveness Program

The Teacher Loan Forgiveness program provides up to $17,500 for five years of teaching. Only Federal Direct and Stafford loans are eligible.

Basic Requirements:

  • Teach for five years,
  • Teach at a low-income school,
  • Federal loans cannot be in default,
  • Cannot have student loans from before October 1, 1998, and
  • Must be a “highly qualified” teacher.

The “highly qualified” teacher requirement is where this program gets complicated. A borrower must have at least a bachelor’s degree and have received full state certification to satisfy this requirement. Borrowers on a provisional, temporary, or emergency certification will not meet the requirement. Beyond these basics requirements, additional requirements exist for particular grade levels.

Finally, the entire $17,500 is available only to math, science, and special education teachers. Under this program, the government offers only up to $5,000 to those that teach other subjects.

Borrowers interested in the program can find the full details and application instructions on the Department of Education Teacher Forgiveness page.

We should also note that forgiveness under the Teacher Loan Forgiveness Program can affect Public Service Loan Forgiveness options. Though PSLF takes longer, the benefits can be far more significant.  Teachers should carefully consider their options before opting for one program or another.

Perkins Loan Cancellation for Teachers

This program will cancel up to 100% of a teacher’s Perkins loans within five years. Teachers are eligible for Perkins Loan Cancellation if they teach at a low-income school listed in this database.

Those that don’t teach at a low-income school can still qualify if they teach any of the following subjects: mathematics, science, foreign languages, bilingual or special education, or any subject determined by the local state education agency to have a shortage of qualified teachers.

Loan forgiveness comes after each year to eventually total 100%

  • 15% canceled after the first year,
  • 15% canceled after the second year,
  • 20% canceled after the third year,
  • 20% canceled after the fourth year, and
  • 30% canceled after the fifth year of service.

For complete qualification requirements, be sure to check out the Department of Education page on Perkins Loan Cancellation.

State-Based Programs for Teacher Loan Forgiveness

Many individual states also have teacher forgiveness programs in place to recruit new teachers. These programs’ requirements, qualifications, and rewards can vary significantly from one state to the next.

The American Federation of Teachers maintains an extensive database of the State-Based Teacher Forgiveness Programs.

All teachers should investigate loan forgiveness programs in their state and even their school district. Looking into these programs takes very little time, and the effort could be worth thousands of dollars.

Student Loan Forgiveness Programs for Lawyers

Surprisingly, there are a large number of student loan programs to help lawyers out. Many of these programs are called Loan Repayment Assistance Programs or LRAPs for short. Most student loan help for lawyers targets those working in the public interest, such as prosecutors and public defenders. However, a broad cross-section of attorneys might qualify for some programs.

Law School Loan Repayment Assistance Programs

Many law schools offer programs to help graduates working in public service make student loan payments.

The quality of these LRAPs varies from school to school. If there is any pattern, the higher tier, highly regarded schools seem to have the most robust repayment assistance. However, each school is different, and the terms seem to be unique to each school.

The John R. Justice Student Loan Repayment Program

The John R. Justice Student Loan Repayment Program is a nationwide opportunity that provides loan repayment assistance for state public defenders and state prosecutors. Though the federal government created the program, administration occurs at the state level.

Repayment award benefits are a maximum of $10,000 per year and $60,000 lifetime per attorney. Attorneys can use this repayment assistance for Federal Direct and FFEL loans only. Other loans, such as private loans and Parent PLUS loans, are not eligible.

Recipients must agree to continue as prosecutors or public defenders for at least three additional years.

Further details on the program, including the applicable state agency to contact, can be found here.

Employer Forgiveness and Loan Repayment Assistance

Numerous employers offer student loan assistance as an incentive to recruit employees. This is especially true within the legal field.

Federal employees may be eligible for recruitment and retention programs that provide loan repayment assistance. The Office of Personnel Management has more details here. The Department of Justice also has a dedicated Attorney Student Loan Repayment Program. Federal programs like these are merely examples of the many employer-based student loan assistance programs. State and local governments, as well as many private employers, offer loan assistance.

Borrowers should inquire about student loan assistance when discussing a compensation package with a new employer. It is also probably worth sending a quick email to HR to check if your employer has a program.

State-Based Loan Repayment Programs

Most states also offer programs to encourage attorneys to take jobs as prosecutors or public defenders.

These programs also vary significantly in terms of size and scope. Legislative appropriations fund some of the programs, while others rely upon private funding.

The best source of information on these programs will usually be the state bar association.

Military Student Loan Forgiveness and Loan Assistance Programs

The men and women serving the country are eligible for some excellent forgiveness and loan assistance programs.

Some of these programs are open to all members of the military. Others are dependent upon your branch of service or the nature of the work performed.

The Military College Loan Repayment Program (CLRP)

The Military College Loan Repayment Program (CLRP) is a recruitment incentive authorized by Congress. Congress designed the program to help those who join the military after incurring student loan debt. All branches are eligible for participation in the program, as are some reserves.

Unlike many other loan repayment programs, the government pays the benefits directly to the lender or servicer of the student loan rather than the individual loan holder.

Borrowers considering returning to school after their service should be careful. Participation can impact future GI Bill eligibility.

The maximum benefit under the program is $65,000, but some branches impose lower limits. Those interested in this benefit should contact their recruitment officer for specific details and current recruitment incentives.

Active Duty Health Professions Loan Repayment Program

Those that work in the health fields can qualify for special loan repayment programs through the military. Eligible professionals include doctors, nurses, optometrists, dentists, pharmacists, and veterinarians. However, only professionals fully licensed in their field are eligible for this program.

The total benefits for the program depend upon your specialty and branch of service, but they can be as high as $40,000 per year or $120,000 in total. These funds are available to pay down private student loans, which is relatively rare for student loan forgiveness programs.

For more details on this program, check out the appropriate page with the Army, Navy, or Air Force.

Other Military Repayment Assistance

Several laws and programs exist to assist members of the military with their debt:

Servicemembers Civil Relief Act (SCRA) Interest Rate Cap – The SCRA limits all student loan interest rates to 6% for active-duty military members. This limit applies to both federal and private student loans. Note: this applies only to debt incurred before your active duty start date. Consolidating or refinancing during active duty may not be eligible for the interest rate reduction. Contact your loan servicer for instructions on how to apply for this benefit.

0% Interest – Anyone serving in a hostile area that qualifies for special pay does not have to pay interest for up to 60 months on their Federal Direct student loans. This benefit applies to all Federal Direct loans issued after October 1, 2008.

Additionally, there are several deferments and reduced documentation privileges available to members of the military. The Department of Education has an excellent summary of the various military forgiveness programs and loan repayment privileges.

Student Loan Forgiveness for Nurses

Nursing is another profession where the current staffing levels do not fill the needs of society. As a result, numerous programs exist specifically for nurses to get more individuals into the profession.

Many nurses will find that they qualify for Public Service Loan Forgiveness due to their employer being either a government agency or an eligible non-profit. However, the forgiveness programs available to nurses go beyond PSLF.

NHSC Loan Repayment Program

The NHSC Loan Repayment Program offers up to $50,000 in student loan repayment assistance. To qualify for forgiveness under this program, applicants must work at an NHSC-approved service site located in, designated as, or serving a Health Professional Shortage Area (HPSA).

The icing on the cake for this program is that the benefit does not count as taxable income. This tax treatment is very rare for these types of forgiveness opportunities.

Application information and eligibility details are on the HRSA website.

NURSE Corps Loan Repayment Program

The NURSE Corps Loan Repayment Program is for full-time nurses who work in a public or private nonprofit Critical Shortage Facility. A critical Shortage Facility is a health care facility located in, designated as, or serving a primary care or mental health HPSA. Nurses can also qualify if an eligible public or private nonprofit school of nursing employs them.

This program will pay 60% of outstanding student debt for nurses who make a two-year commitment. Furthermore, qualifying participants may earn an additional 25% forgiveness for participating an additional year. For nurses with more significant student debt levels, having forgiveness capped as a percentage of debt rather than a dollar limit could help.

You can find full eligibility details and an application here. Those interested in the differences between the NHSC Loan Repayment Program and the NURSE Corps Loan Repayment Program will likely find this handout helpful.

State-Based Nursing Forgiveness Programs

Most states also offer some sort of student loan forgiveness program to attract nurses.

In some states, these benefits can exceed $100,000 in student loan forgiveness. However, the forgiveness amount and the requirements can vary significantly from one state to the next.

You can find a good compilation of the various state programs here. However, a quick Google search for nursing information in your state is probably the best way to find up-to-date program availability and benefits.

Perkins Loan Cancellation

Like teachers, nurses are eligible to have up to 100% of their Federal Perkins Loans canceled.

15% of Perkins Loans can be canceled after years one and two, with 20% coming after years three and four. Finally, the remaining 30% is eligible for forgiveness after year five.

The Department of Education Perkins Cancellation page has some information on this program. However, borrowers will probably need to reach out to their school or school’s Perkins Loan servicer for application details and eligibility information.

#7 Student Loan Bankruptcy

Getting your student loans discharged in bankruptcy is challenging, but it is an option for people in truly desperate situations.
One common misconception about student loan debt is that it is impossible to discharge in bankruptcy. The reality is that a borrower can get their student loans discharged in bankruptcy proceedings, but the process is very difficult. For this reason, we rank bankruptcy near the bottom of our best forms of student loan forgiveness rankings.

The first thing borrowers should know about student loan bankruptcy is that the law treats it differently from all other debt, such as mortgages, credit cards, and auto loans. To get student loan debt forgiven in bankruptcy, borrowers must prove some additional items.

Federal law governs bankruptcy rules, and the standard that most borrowers must prove is called the Brunner Test.

The Brunner Test requires that the borrower prove the following:

  1. That the borrower cannot maintain, based on current income and expenses, a minimal standard of living for the borrower and dependents if forced to pay off student loans;
  2. that additional circumstances exist indicating that this state of affairs is likely to persist for a significant portion of the repayment period of the student loans; and
  3. that the borrower has made good faith efforts to repay the loans.

For borrowers who think they can meet this difficult standard, it is probably worth reaching out to a few bankruptcy attorneys to investigate the possibility of bankruptcy for student loans.

#8 Death and Disability Discharge(s)

Borrowers who die during repayment or become permanently disabled are eligible to have their federal student loans discharged, which means they no longer have to make payments.

Borrowers with private student loans may also be eligible for a similar discharge of the debt. However, the terms of conditions in the event of death and disability vary from lender to lender. The loan contract will specify forgiveness requirements under these circumstances.

Parents who borrow Parent PLUS loans for their child can also have the debt forgiven if the parent or child dies.

Student Loan Discharge Due to Death – For a borrower, or parent in the case of Parent PLUS loans, to have the debt forgiven, the federal student loan servicer usually needs to be supplied with a copy of the death certificate. At that point, the federal government discharges the remaining balance in full.

Student Loan Discharge Due to Permanent Disability – For a borrower who has become permanently disabled to have their debt discharged, they must prove permanent disability. Federal servicer Nelnet handles disability discharge requests for all federal loans. Borrowers who are temporarily disabled or unable to work in their field are not eligible for a disability discharge.

Those who become disabled can prove permanent disability in one of three ways:

  1. Borrowers can submit documentation from the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) showing that the VA has determined that they are unemployable due to a service-connected disability.
  2. Borrowers receiving Social Security Disability Insurance (SSDI) benefits can submit a Social Security Administration (SSA) notice of award for SSDI. Alternatively, borrowers receiving Supplemental Security Income (SSI) benefits can submit a notice stating that their next scheduled disability review will be within five to seven years from the date of their most recent SSA disability determination.
  3. Physicians can certify that a borrower is totally and permanently disabled. The physician must certify that the borrower is unable to engage in any substantial gainful activity because of a medically determinable physical or mental impairment that:
    • Can be expected to result in death,
    • Has lasted for a continuous period of not less than 60 months, or
    • Can be expected to last for a continuous period of not less than 60 months.

Borrowers can find full details on the disability discharge process and an application here

Finally, the rules regarding the taxation of death and disability discharge have recently changed. In the past, this form of loan forgiveness triggered a tax bill from the IRS. $50,000 of forgiven student loans counted as $50,000 of income. As of January 1, 2018, loans discharged due to death and disability are no longer taxed. However, this tax provision expires in 2025.

When Forgiveness Options Fail

Qualifying for student loan forgiveness is great. However, the vast majority of borrowers will not be able to have their debt forgiven.

For the most part, the available forgiveness options are in place to help the borrowers in most need of assistance and to encourage educated individuals to take less lucrative jobs that benefit society. If you don’t fall under either of those categories, student loan forgiveness could be a long shot.

Borrowers who are sure they will be paying back their loans in full can look to student loan refinancing as an option to reduce their spending. Refinancing debt will take most forgiveness programs off the table, but it can also dramatically lower interest rates.

There are several refinance options:

LenderInterest RatesLoan Amounts
Splash Financial1.88% – 6.25%$5,000 – No Max
Splash Financial Review: Splash has competitive rates, but they start slightly higher than the top lenders. Splash also offers unique 8 and 12 year repayment terms. Application
+ Up to $500 Bonus
CommonBond2.49% – 6.84%$5,000 – $500,000
CommonBond Review: CommonBond has a higher approval rate than many other lenders. The interest rates offered are among the best and customer satisfaction appears to be very high. Application
+ $150 Bonus
ELFI2.39% – 5.99%$15,000 – No Max
ELFI Review: ELFI routinely offers excellent interest rates. Even though ELFI is new, it is the product of a regional bank that has been in business for decades.Application
+ $150 Bonus
Laurel Road1.89% – 6.00%$5,000 – No Max
Laurel Road Review: Laurel Road currently has excellent approval rates combined with solid interest rates. Laurel Road also has a specialized program for medical professionals. Application
+ $150 Bonus
SoFi2.25% – 6.74%$5,000 – No Max
SoFi Review: SoFi consistently offers the best actual interest rates to applicants. Combine that with SoFi's unique job placement program for borrowers and you have a winner. Application
+ $150 Bonus

Whether by qualifying for forgiveness or by refinancing, most borrowers can find some student loan savings if they chase down the right opportunity.

Subscribe
Notify of
guest
2 Comments
Oldest
Newest
Inline Feedbacks
View all comments
Megan Campbell
Megan Campbell

This is quite the detailed read.
Does a foreign nursing student qualify for debt forgiveness or is it just limited to students that are permanent US residents?
Thank you for the elaborate information.