Applying for Public Service Student Loan Forgiveness: A Step-By-Step Guide

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Public Service Loan Forgiveness (PSLF) is a program designed to attract workers to jobs in the public sector by wiping clean remaining federal student loan debt after 120 qualifying payments.

Those payments represent 10 years’ worth of work with a qualifying public service employer, so because PSLF began in October 2007, the first applicants are just beginning to submit their forgiveness forms.

Qualifying for PSLF means meeting specific requirements for the employer, the loan type and the repayment plan — and the details can be overwhelming.

With that in mind, here’s a step-by-step guide to applying for PSLF.

Step 1: Figure out if you qualify.

First, it helps to understand why PSLF exists.

“It’s meant to be a light at the end of the tunnel for public service jobs, when people know they could make much more money going private,” says Betsy Mayotte, director of consumer outreach and compliance at the nonprofit American Student Assistance. “A lot of the careers — social workers, teachers, public defenders — require advanced degrees. The problem there is that people would accrue all this debt, then find they couldn’t stay in these public sector careers because they didn’t pay well.”

But the definition of public service is strictly defined, and “it’s not your job that matters, but your employer,” Mayotte adds. “It matters who signs your paycheck. You can be a groundskeeper at a state school and qualify. Conversely, you can feel as if your job is public service, but if your employer doesn’t meet the specific definitions, you don’t meet PSLF requirements.”

Employers that qualify for PSLF, per the U.S. Department of Education

  • A government organization (including a federal, state, local, or tribal organization, agency or entity; a public child or family service agency; or a tribal college or university)
  • A nonprofit, tax-exempt organization under Section 501(c)(3) of the Internal Revenue Code
  • A private, nonprofit organization (though not a labor union or a partisan political organization) that provides one or more of the following public services:
    • Emergency management
    • Military service
    • Public safety
    • Law enforcement
    • Public interest law services
    • Early childhood education (including licensed or regulated health care, Head Start and state-funded pre-kindergarten)
    • Public service for individuals with disabilities and the elderly
    • Public health (including nurses, nurse practitioners, nurses in a clinical setting and full-time professionals engaged in health care practitioner and support occupations)
    • Public education
    • Public library services
    • School library or other school-based services

Employers that DO NOT qualify for PSLF

  • For-profit organizations (this includes for-profit government contractors)
  • Nonprofits that are not tax-exempt under Section 501(c)(3) of the Internal Revenue Code or that do not provide a qualifying public service as their primary function
  • Labor unions
  • Partisan political organizations

You must work full time (whatever your employer characterizes that to be — though it must be an average of at least 30 hours per week by the PSLF definition) for one of these qualifying employers, or part time for two or more as long as it adds up to 30 hours per week, while you make your 120 on-time payments. You’ll also need to be in qualifying employment when you apply for your loan forgiveness.

Because you won’t be able to apply for PSLF until you have completed qualifying payments, it helps to build up a paper trail over the years. You should fill out and send an employment certification form (ECF) to FedLoan Servicing, which handles PSLF, each year and whenever you change employers. You’ll fill out personal information and have your employer sign the form before sending it in. The form isn’t required, but you’ll receive a response detailing your progress toward your 120 payments and confirming your eligibility — great for peace of mind as well as record-keeping.

“While you’re not required to submit the ECF at any point, it’s always a great idea to keep records,” says Adam Minsky, a Boston attorney who specializes in student loan and consumer issues. “An employer could go out of business, or lose the records of your employment. Mistakes can be made with paperwork. So if you find yourself having to make a case for yourself later, it helps to have all of this on record.”

FedLoan Servicing says my employer isn’t eligible. Can I appeal?

If the response to your ECF comes back and someone says your employer does not qualify you for PSLF, that’s generally the final decision, says Mayotte. “You can theoretically appeal, but these employer types are all pretty straightforward,” she adds. “The overarching rule is that there’s no wiggle room: You work for the government, a 501(c)(3) nonprofit or another qualifying nonprofit. The exception might be if you work for one of these other qualifying nonprofits, but you’ll need to make a case.”

To appeal, you can resend your ECF to FedLoan Servicing and ask for another review, or contact the Department of Education’s ombudsman unit. In both cases you should include evidence to show why you think your employer should qualify, Mayotte says.

But barring a clerical mistake by FedLoan Servicing, a change in decision is exceedingly rare.

Ensure your loan type and repayment plan qualify

PSLF provides forgiveness only for federal Direct Loans: Direct Subsidized Loans, Direct Unsubsidized Loans, Direct PLUS Loans and Direct Consolidation Loans. Private loans, including bank loans that are “federally guaranteed,” do not qualify.

Loans made under other federal student loan programs, like Perkins Loans, aren’t eligible for PSLF on their own. They may become eligible, if they’re consolidated into a Direct Consolidation Loan — but it’s important to know that only payments toward that consolidated loan will count toward the 120-payment requirement.

Speaking of consolidation, here’s another thing you should know: If you consolidate qualifying loans, the clock resets to zero payments. A consolidation is considered a new loan, and again, only payments toward the consolidated loan will be counted toward your 120.

Don’t know which types of federal student loans you have? Check the Education Department site My Federal Student Aid. A pro tip from the Education Department: “Generally, if you see a loan type with ‘Direct’ in the name on My Federal Student Aid, then it is a Direct Loan; otherwise, it is a loan made under another federal student loan program.”

Additionally, you must be enrolled in the right type of repayment plan. Qualifying repayment plans include all four of the income-driven repayment plans, which base your monthly payment on your income and family size: Revised Pay As You Earn (REPAYE), Pay As You Earn (PAYE), income-based repayment (IBR); and income-contingent repayment (ICR).

Payments under the 10-year standard repayment plan qualify, but you’ll want to switch to an income-driven plan as soon as possible. If you stick with that 10-year repayment you’ll have paid off the loan, with nothing left to be forgiven under PSLF when you become eligible for it.

Make 120 qualifying payments

You’ll need to make all of those 120 payments during qualifying employment to apply for PSLF, but you don’t need to provide proof of those payments. Again, Minsky advises that it’s wise to keep your own records just in case there’s a clerical issue later — but generally, FedLoan Servicing will confirm the payments itself.

Note that the 120 payments do not have to be consecutive (nor, then, must be your employment with a qualifying public service employer). If you had periods of deferment or forbearance and stopped paying your loans, the count will pick up where you left off once you begin paying anew. Even defaulting on your loan payments doesn’t disqualify you, but you’ll need to rehabilitate the defaulted loan with your servicer before the payments can count toward your 120 again.

The payments do need to be on time, defined as “those received by your federal loan servicer no later than 15 days after the scheduled payment due date.” If your payment isn’t on time, or you pay less than what you’re required to that month, it won’t count toward your 120. You may make multiple smaller payments, but they must add up to at least the minimum payment amount for that month.

Step 2: Apply for loan forgiveness

After you’ve completed your 120 payments — phew, you did it! — go to the PSLF application here. The form is six pages long, but the actual application is only two. And you, the employee, must fill out only the first page: basic personal information like your date of birth, Social Security number and contact details. You’ll also need to certify under penalty of law that the information you’re submitting is truthful.

The second page is for detailing the employer’s information, and either you or your employer can fill out the top part. Here’s what it requires:

  • Employer’s name
  • Federal Employer Identification Number (FEIN, which can be found on your W-2 — or ask your HR department)
  • Your dates of employment
  • Whether you were a full- or part-time worker
  • Which category of public service your employer falls under

At the bottom of the page, there’s a section for your employer to sign, certifying that the information above is accurate.

You’ll need to repeat that process for every qualifying employer. (That’s why it’s smart to keep track of it all by submitting ECF forms annually and whenever you change employers.)

The remaining four pages of the application form reiterate the details of what it takes to qualify for PSLF. They also explain where to send the completed application form:

  • You can mail to

    U.S. Department of Education, FedLoan Servicing
    P.O. Box 69184
    Harrisburg, PA 17106-9184

  • Fax to 717-720-1628; or
  • Upload to MyFedLoan.org/FileUpload, if FedLoan Servicing is already your servicer.

In rare cases, you may not be able to obtain employers’ certification. There’s a checkbox on page 1: “Check this box if you cannot obtain certification from your employer because the organization is closed or because the organization has refused to certify your employment. The Department will follow up to assist you in getting documentation of your employment.”

“That’s another reason it’s prudent to send the ECF forms every year, because you’ll already have a signature on record,” Mayotte says. “I’ve heard of a few cases where employers were not comfortable filling out the form for privacy reasons, but usually if you show them the form and explain a bit, you can change their mind.”

Mayotte added that FedLoan Servicing will likely accept a tax return as proof of employment, but that solution is more of a “last-ditch effort” to satisfy the conditions.

FAQ and other things to know

It’s not yet clear, as the first qualifying borrowers are just now applying for PSLF. Mayotte says American Student Assistance is in touch with an early applicant, to see how the process goes, but no timetables for forgiveness have been confirmed. The Department of Education did not immediately respond to MagnifyMoney’s questions on the topic.

Yes. If you’ve made your 120 payments and are looking to switch to an employer who isn’t eligible, be sure to file your PSLF application first. You must also be employed full time at a qualifying employer or employers at the time the forgiveness is granted, according to the Department of Education.

“No concrete proposal seems imminent, but whenever something happens, there’s a general view among experts that a change to PSLF won’t be retroactive to existing borrowers,” Minsky says.

The payment count restarts, back at zero. The consolidated loan is considered a new loan, and only payments toward it will count.

Here are the employer certification form and the PSLF application.

While studentaid.ed.gov has all of the official information, it’s spread across different pages and can be unwieldy. American Student Assistance offers an excellent guide that breaks down the basics and also links to official webpages and forms.

Alternative loan forgiveness programs

Beyond PSLF, there are other federal programs to forgive or discharge federal student debt. These include:

Industry-specific forgiveness programs

  • Perkins Loan Cancellation and Discharge: This applies to people who perform certain types of public service or are employed in certain occupations. According to the Department of Education, for each complete year of service a percentage of the loan may be forgiven. That percentage varies by job/employer type, and the following workers qualify:
    • Volunteer in the Peace Corps or ACTION program (including VISTA)
    • Teacher
    • Member of the Armed Forces (serving in area of hostilities)
    • Nurse or medical technician
    • Law enforcement or corrections officer
    • Head Start worker
    • Child or family services worker
    • Professional provider of early intervention services
  • Teacher Loan Forgiveness: Teachers who work full time for five complete and consecutive academic years (in certain elementary and secondary schools and educational service agencies that serve low-income families, and meet other qualifications) may be eligible for forgiveness of up to a combined total of $17,500 on Direct Subsidized and Unsubsidized Loans and Subsidized and Unsubsidized Federal Stafford Loans. (Those who have only PLUS loans are not eligible.) Read more about loan forgiveness programs available to teachers, including TEACH Grants and state forgiveness programs.
  • Programs for lawyers: Lawyers with at least $10,000 in federal student loans may qualify for the Department of Justice Attorney Student Loan Repayment Program (ASLRP). Additionally, the John R. Justice Student Loan repayment program provides assistance for state and federal public defenders and state prosecutors for at least three years and is renewable after 3 years. Benefits cannot exceed $10,000 in a calendar year and cannot exceed $60,000 per attorney total. .) Read more about programs for lawyers, including forgiveness programs through specific law schools and certain states.
  • Programs for doctors and health professions: Several programs are available, including multiple military doctor loan forgiveness options through the Army, Navy and Air Force. Other options include state-specific forgiveness and the National Health Service Corps (NHSC), which can provide up to a $50,000 to repay a health profession student loan in exchange for a two-year commitment to a NHSC site in a high-need area.

Income-based repayment plans

  • This isn’t a traditional cancellation program like what’s above. These four federal income-driven repayment plans base your monthly payment on your income: Revised Pay As You Earn (REPAYE), Pay As You Earn (PAYE), income-based repayment (IBR) and income-contingent repayment (ICR).The payment terms vary, and your outstanding balance is forgiven after your repayment term of 20 to 25 years is complete. Because the monthly amount you owe will fluctuate based on your income, you could end up repaying your loans before your term is up, or you could have a balance that will be forgiven. However, if you receive student loan forgiveness this way, the canceled debt is taxable. (Only borrowers whose loan forgiveness stems from their employment are exempt from paying taxes on canceled student loan debt.)

Loan discharges for special circumstances

There are a few other times you may be able to get your student loans forgiven, but they’re relatively rare, and they’re generally because of bad circumstances. You can find out more about these discharges on the Department of Education’s website:

The post Applying for Public Service Student Loan Forgiveness: A Step-By-Step Guide appeared first on MagnifyMoney.

With the Fate of Public Service Loan Forgiveness Uncertain, Here are Tips for Confused Borrowers

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More than half a million Americans are working toward Public Service Loan Forgiveness (PSLF), a program that eliminates federal student loan debt for people with jobs in the public sector. But the proposed 2018 White House budget reportedly calls for ending PSLF for future borrowers — and even current participants’ status could be in doubt, with a lawsuit claiming the government has reversed previous assurances given to certain borrowers that their employment qualifies.

Final decisions have not yet been made in either scenario. But even with this uncertainty, there are steps both current borrowers and interested potential future PSLF participants can take to make themselves as secure as possible.

First, a quick primer on PSLF: The program began in October 2007 under George W. Bush, and it wipes clean the remaining federal student debt for qualifying borrowers who have made 120 payments, or 10 years’ worth (more information is available at StudentAid.gov/publicservice). So the earliest any public service worker could receive loan forgiveness under PSLF is October 2017.

“The idea is to avoid making debt a disincentive to choosing public service,” explains Mark Kantrowitz, a student loan expert and publisher at college scholarship site Cappex.com. “Think about a public defender. They might make $40,000 a year, but they’ll incur $120,000 in debt for law school. That debt-to-income ratio is impossible, so PSLF makes that career path possible — and attracts people who might have otherwise taken high-paying private-sector jobs.”

Public Service Loan Forgiveness — on the chopping block?

At this time, the biggest threat to the future of PSLF is President Donald Trump’s 2018 White House education budget proposal. The budget proposal would eliminate PSLF — citing costs — and replace all current income-based repayment/forgiveness plans with a single income-driven system. While existing borrowers would be grandfathered into PSLF, any new students who take out their first federal loans on or after July 1, 2018, would not qualify. Still, all of this can happen only if Congress passes the budget — and it remains to be seen whether this section will pass as currently written in the proposal.

If you’re one of the more than 550,000 borrowers who is already working toward forgiveness — that is, you have already taken out at least one federal loan and/or you’ve completed school and are working in public service — the proposed cancellation of PSLF won’t affect you. Again, if the program is cut, it will impact only students who take out their first federal loans on or after July 1, 2018.

But even existing borrowers working toward PSLF can’t fully relax. As first reported by The New York Times, the Department of Education added a serious wrinkle by sending letters to people saying their employment was no longer eligible for PSLF, after the borrowers had confirmed with their loan servicer that they qualified. Four borrowers and the American Bar Association have filed a lawsuit against the department, and the case is currently in progress.

That may leave many workers questioning whether or not they will ultimately be eligible for loan forgiveness after all — even if they work in the nonprofit or public sector. MagnifyMoney has spoken to experts and reviewed the rules of the program to help.

How Can I Be Sure I Qualify for Public Service Loan Forgiveness?

Qualifying for PSLF depends on meeting several specific requirements, so the first step in determining your eligibility is to make sure your loans and employment check all the boxes.

1. Your student loan must qualify for forgiveness.

PSLF provides forgiveness only for federal Direct Loans:

  • Direct Subsidized Loans
  • Direct Unsubsidized Loans
  • Direct PLUS Loans—for parents and graduate or professional students
  • Direct Consolidation Loans

Note that loans made under other federal student loan programs may become eligible for PSLF if they’re consolidated into a Direct Consolidation Loan, but only payments toward that consolidated loan will count toward the 120-payment requirement. And, according to ED, parents who borrowed a Direct PLUS Loan “may qualify for forgiveness of the PLUS loan, if the parent borrower—not the student on whose behalf the loan was obtained—is employed by a public service organization.”

2. You must be enrolled in the right type of repayment plan.

You must be enrolled in one of the Direct Loan repayment plans, some of which are income-based. The umbrella term for these plans is income-driven repayment plans, which include the Pay As You Earn and Income-Based Repayment plans. While payments under other types of Direct Loan plans, like the 10-year Standard Repayment Plan, do qualify and count toward your 120 payments, you’ll want to switch to an income-driven plan as soon as possible — because if you stick with a standard 10-year repayment, you’ll have paid off your loan in full after 10 years with nothing left to be forgiven under PSLF. Check the official PSLF site for more details. And note that private loans, including bank loans that are “federally guaranteed,” do not qualify.

3. You must make 120 on-time payments while employed full time by an eligible employer.

If you drop to part-time work, those payments won’t qualify. You must also be employed full time in public service at the time you apply for loan forgiveness and at the time the remaining balance on your eligible loans is forgiven. After you make your 120th payment you’ll need to submit the forgiveness application, which the Department of Education says will be available in September 2017.

4. Your employer must count as a public service organization.

This is the big one, and the most complicated step of the process for some borrowers to figure out. While the Education Department does address types of employers that fit under the PSLF program, there are some gray areas.  Broadly, the types of employers that qualify include governmental groups, not-for-profit tax-exempt organizations known as 501(c)(3)s, and private not-for-profits. That last category includes military; public safety, health, education, and library services; and more.

Pro tip: Certify that your employer is included in the program every year.

Each year and whenever you change employers, you should fill out and send an Employment Certification form to FedLoan Servicing. The form isn’t required to be submitted on an annual basis, but it’s highly recommended to fill it out annually so there are no unhappy surprises down the road.  It also helps you keep track of progress toward your 120 payments and gives you a chance to find out whether there is any change to your eligibility status.

What if you fear your job’s eligibility is unclear?

The validity of that FedLoan Servicing certification form is at the center of the lawsuit against the Department of Education. Although it’s important to have your employer’s eligibility certified by the department, the Education Department has said the form isn’t necessarily binding and the eligibility of employers can possibly change. As The New York Times put it, the department’s position implies “that borrowers could not rely on the program’s administrator to say accurately whether they qualify for debt forgiveness. The thousands of approval letters that have been sent … are not binding and can be rescinded at any time, the [DOE] said.”

That puts existing borrowers in a tough spot, says Joseph Orsolini, CFP and president of College Aid Planners: “[PSLF] is sort of an all-or-nothing in that you can’t apply for the forgiveness until you’ve already done your 120 payments. So to have someone choose this career path and work for years only to be told, ‘never mind, you no longer qualify even though we said you did,’ it would be hard for them not to see that as reneging on a deal.”

That possibility is “terrifying” for Frances Harrell, 35, a preservation specialist who works for a nonprofit that supports small and medium-size libraries in caring for their collections. She completed a library graduate school program in 2013 and emerged with a total of about $125,000 in debt, including her undergraduate loans.

“Everyone I know is in public service, and we all saw the Times article [about the PSLF lawsuit] and flipped out,” says Harrell, who currently lives in Gainesville, Fla. “I felt like I had been dropped in a bucket of ice. We’re making life decisions based on this understanding, and it feels so precarious not to have any true confirmation that we’ll get the forgiveness in the end.”

Christopher Razo, 22, who this month will begin classes at Chicago’s John Marshall Law School, plans to take advantage of PSLF while working toward his dream of becoming a state attorney. (Photo courtesy of Christopher Razo)

Harrell has also dealt with confusion from loan servicers and other experts — and based on incorrect advice, she nearly consolidated her loans in a way that would have reset the clock on her years of payments.

Christopher Razo, 22, who this month will begin classes at Chicago’s John Marshall Law School, is relieved that he is enrolling before the 2018 uncertainty begins. Razo is one of Orsolini’s clients, and he plans to take advantage of PSLF while working toward his dream of becoming a state attorney.

“[PSLF] is complex as it is, so my initial thought was, ‘Wow, great timing for me that I’m starting in 2017,’” Razo says. “But I understand the program affects way more than just me. [PSLF] gives you comfort to pursue public-service goals without having to make your employment about the money. I’m optimistic that [lawmakers] will see the good in the program so it can continue.”

When in doubt: Follow the ‘3 phone call rule’

While borrowers may think their loan servicer has all of the answers, Harrell’s situation isn’t uncommon, says Orsolini. He recommends “the three phone call rule”: Call three times and ask the same question, documenting whom you spoke to and when.

“These programs are complicated — which is one of the issues that critics [of PSLF] bring up — and you don’t always get the right information,” Orsolini says. “Before you plan your whole life around the [first] answer you get, you have to double- and triple-check that it’s right.”

If you’re taking out your first qualifying loan on or after July 1, 2018, Orsolini says “there’s not much to do besides hurry up and wait” to see what happens with the White House budget as it relates to PSLF.

“The important thing to remember is that a proposal is just a proposal, and these don’t always see the light of day,” Orsolini adds. “It doesn’t do any good to be overly worried, but you’ll want to keep a close eye on the news.”

Other types of loan forgiveness, cancellation, or discharge:

PSLF isn’t the only option. But not all types of federal student loans offer the same forgiveness, cancellation, or discharge options. See the chart below and check out StudentEd.gov pages here and here for more details.

Still, borrowers should know Trump’s desire to streamline federal programs into a single option means some of these loan types and forgiveness plans could be changed or canceled as well.

The post With the Fate of Public Service Loan Forgiveness Uncertain, Here are Tips for Confused Borrowers appeared first on MagnifyMoney.