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Public Service Loan Forgiveness 101


Interested in a public service career? Afraid you won’t be able to afford your student loan payments? Law graduates can afford to pursue lower-paying public interest positions in spite of student loan debt thanks to federal Public Service Loan Forgiveness and a variety of loan repayment assistance programs. If you are interested in such a career, focus on understanding your options and mind the details—they matter.

Law School Loan Repayment Assistance Programs
Law school-based loan repayment assistance programs exist at more than 100 law schools, providing financial aid to graduates who have educational debt and take low-paying jobs. A graduate of a law school with a loan repayment assistance program can apply for and receive funds from the program to help with his or her student loan repayment. But not every law school loan repayment assistance program provides substantial benefits, so examine the eligibility requirements and benefits offer carefully.

State-Based Loan Forgiveness Programs
Some 24 states offer loan repayment assistance programs designed to encourage attorneys to practice in a particular area. These programs typically require recipients to be practicing law in “qualifying employment” within the state and tend to focus on civil legal assistance and sometimes government employees.

Employer Loan Repayment Assistance Programs
A number of nonprofit and government employers provide Loan Repayment Assistance Programs designed with the goal to recruit and retain qualified staff. Ask prospective employers about the availability of such a program and the benefits it provides.

Loan Repayment Assistance for Employees of Federal Agencies
Federal agencies are authorized by statute to set up loan repayment assistance programs to recruit and retain highly qualified employees. For example, the Department of Justice and the Securities and Exchange Commission provide benefits to particularly qualified employees with student debt.

Public Service Loan Forgiveness Program
Federal Public Service Loan Forgiveness is by far the most generous of the available debt-relief programs. To qualify for loan forgiveness, a student loan borrower must make monthly loan payments for 10 years (120 payments) while working full-time in qualifying public service employment.

A borrower must make 120 qualifying payments to be eligible for Public Service Loan Forgiveness. You’ll need to:

1. Make the right kind of payments,
2. on the right kind of loans,
3. while working in the right kind of job,
4. 120 times, and
5. prove it

The right kind of job. Qualifying public service employment under Public Service Loan Forgiveness is full-time paid work in the government, a 501(c)(3) nonprofit, and a few additional nonprofit positions. “Full-time” is an annual average of at least 30 hours per week, unless your employer requires a greater number of hours for full-time status. Borrowers can work more than one part-time position and still be in the “right kind” of job if your combined hours are at least 30 hours a week on an annual average.

Download the employment certification form from student Complete the employment verification process every year and submit the form annually and every time you leave an employer.

The right kind of loans. Only federal direct loans are eligible for Public Service Loan Forgiveness. If you started borrowing student loans (like Stafford loans and GradPLUS loans) before July 2010, you might have borrowed federal student loans from a bank or private lender through the FFEL program (Federal Family Education Loans). If so, you must consolidate FFEL loans into Federal Direct Loans for those loans to be eligible for Public Service Loan Forgiveness. Be careful deciding whether to consolidate Perkins loans, because they have their own cancellation provisions that would be lost upon consolidation.

Check out the National Student Loan Data System at to find a complete listing of all your federal student loans.

Unfortunately, private student loans are never eligible for Public Service Loan Forgiveness.

The right kind of payments. Qualifying monthly payments include only those made under an income-driven repayment plan (like Income-Based Repayment or Pay As You Earn) or a payment of at least the amount due under a standard 10-year repayment schedule. Qualifying payments do not need to be consecutive but be careful to get the payments in on time, because late payments don’t count toward forgiveness.

Understand that once you make your 120 qualifying payments, you’ll need to apply for forgiveness and demonstrate that you met the requirements of the program.

The details are tricky, there is lots of red tape, and getting the documentation right is important. Be sure you understand all the fine print! Get more information about Public Service Loan Forgiveness from the Department of Education.

Heather Jarvis (heather@askheatherjarvis…) is an attorney providing educational resources and training for student loan borrowers and is the founder of

Vol. 43 No. 6