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 says borrowers should contact FedLoan Servicing for alternatives if they find themselves in this situation.
FAQ and other things to know
The process is estimated to take up to 60 days, a Department of Education spokesman confirmed to MagnifyMoney.
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.
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)
- 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: