The majority of college graduates leave school with student loan debt, with an average balance of $28,950 in 2019, according to The Institute for College Access & Success. Repaying such a large balance would be difficult under normal circumstances, but is especially difficult in light of COVID-19. According to a recent survey by Student Debt Crisis, 20% of respondents said their student loan payments made them unable to afford medicine or health care expenses during the pandemic, highlighting how difficult it is right now to survive, let alone thrive between paychecks.
If you’re having trouble keeping up with your loans, make sure these programs are on your recession checklist. Here are 12 ways to get some student loan debt relief.
Temporary student loan forgiveness under the CARES Act
In March, Congress passed the Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security (CARES) Act, a coronavirus student loan relief option that offers assistance to eligible borrowers. Under the CARES Act, borrowers with federal Direct Loans receive the following benefits:
- Payments are automatically suspended
- Interest rates are set to 0%
- Collection activity on defaulted loans is temporarily halted
Originally set to expire on Sept. 30, 2020, President Trump extended the CARES Act benefits until Dec. 31, 2020. If you’re struggling financially, this could help offer you some temporary relief until you regain your financial footing.
Income-driven repayment (IDR) plans
If you have federal Direct student loans and cannot afford your payments, you may be eligible for an IDR plan offered by the federal government. IDR plans have longer repayment terms — 20 to 25 years depending on the plan you choose — and base your payments on discretionary income and family size.
If you’ve lost your job or your hours have been cut, you could qualify for a much smaller monthly payment than you have now. Some borrowers qualify for $0 payments and can pay nothing each month without entering into default.
There are four IDR plans:
- Income-Based Repayment plan
- Income-Contingent Repayment plan
- Pay As You Earn
- Revised Pay As You Earn
If you still have a loan balance after making 20 to 25 years of payments, the remaining amount will be discharged, and you’ll no longer have to make payments on your loan.
You can apply for an IDR plan online.
Whether you have federal or private student loans, you may be eligible for loan forbearance. When your lender approves you for forbearance, you can temporarily postpone your payments for a few months at a time without becoming delinquent or incurring late fees.
With federal student loans, you can request a general forbearance if you can’t make your payments because of medical expenses, financial difficulties, or a change in employment. If eligible, you can postpone your payments for up to 12 months. If your situation has not improved, you can request additional forbearances, up to a maximum of three years.
If you have private student loans, forbearance policies can vary by lender. Depending on the company that services your loans, you may be able to postpone your payments for one to three months at a time. Or your lender may allow you to make reduced payments for a few months to give you time to get back on your feet.
If you can’t afford your payments, contact your loan servicer to explain your situation and ask about forbearance and alternative repayment options.
Public Service Loan Forgiveness (PSLF)
If you have federal Direct Loans and work for either a nonprofit organization or government agency, you could get significant relief through PSLF. PSLF is a loan forgiveness program for people who work full time for qualifying public service employers for at least 10 years while making 120 monthly payments. If you apply for an IDR plan, the reduced payments you make still count toward the 120 required payments for PSLF.
Once you meet the employment and payment requirements, the government forgives your remaining balance tax-free.
Use the PSLF Help Tool to see whether you’re eligible for loan forgiveness.
Teacher Loan Forgiveness
If you are a teacher who teaches full time in a low-income school or educational service agency, you may qualify for partial loan forgiveness in as few as five years. Depending on what subjects you teach, you could get forgiveness of up to $17,500 on your federal Direct student loans.
To get loan forgiveness, you must teach for five full and consecutive academic years in a qualifying school. To apply, complete the Teacher Loan Forgiveness Application and send it to your loan servicer.
Permanent disability discharge
If you took out student loans and are now totally and permanently disabled and cannot afford your payments, you may be eligible for full or partial loan discharge of your student loan balances.
Federal student loan borrowers may qualify for Total and Permanent Disability (TPD) Discharge. If you receive Social Security Disability Insurance, Supplemental Security Income, have verification from the Department of Veterans Affairs that you are disabled, or have been certified as disabled from a physician, your loans will be discharged, and you’ll no longer have to repay the loan. To apply, visit DisabilityDischarge.com.
If you have private student loans, you’re not eligible for federal TPD Discharge. However, some lenders do offer loan discharge in cases of death or disability. Contact your lender to see what their discharge policies are and what you need to submit to qualify.
If you have federal student loans and attended a school that misled you or engaged in misconduct, you may be eligible for Borrower Defense to Repayment. To qualify, you must be able to prove that your school intentionally misled you related to the federal student loan program or the educational services provided. For example, if the admissions department lied about your program’s job placement statistics, you may be eligible for Borrower Defense to Repayment.
You can apply for loan discharge online. If approved, your remaining loan balance will be forgiven, and you may be reimbursed for student loan payments you’ve already made.
Student loan refinancing
If you are ineligible for other student loan debt relief programs, another way to make your loans more manageable is through student loan refinancing. To refinance your loans, you apply for a loan from a private lender for the full amount of your existing student loans. If approved, your loans are consolidated into one, and you’ll have just one monthly payment to remember going forward.
When you refinance, you may get a loan with a lower interest rate than you have now, helping you save money and pay off your loans faster. Or you can extend your repayment term to reduce your monthly payment and get more wiggle room in your budget.
Dozens of companies that offer student loan refinancing. It’s smart to get rate quotes from several different lenders to ensure you get the best deal. With Credible, you can fill out one form and get quotes from top refinancing companies without affecting your credit score.
Closed School Discharge
If you have federal Direct, federal Family Education Loans, or federal Perkins Loans and you couldn’t complete your studies because your school closed, you could qualify for Closed School Discharge.
Under this program, 100% of your loans may be discharged if you were currently enrolled when the school closed, you were on an approved leave of absence when it closed, or your school closed within 120 days after you withdrew.
Contact your loan servicer to see whether you’re eligible for Closed School Discharge.
Military student loan forgiveness
If you served in the U.S. military, you might qualify for student loan debt relief through one or more of the following programs:
- Servicemembers Civil Relief Act interest rate cap: Interest on student loans taken out prior to your military service is capped at 6% during periods of active duty. This protection applies to both federal and private student loans.
- Department of Defense Repayment: In some circumstances, the Department of Defense may pay some or all of your remaining loan balance, including federal and private student loans.
- 0% Interest: If you’re serving in a hostile area that qualifies for special pay, the interest rates on your loans will be set to 0%, and you’ll pay no interest for up to 60 months.
Rules and eligibility requirements vary by branch of the military, so contact your military personnel officer for details.
State loan repayment assistance
Many states are facing shortages of skilled workers in certain professions, particularly teaching and health care. To attract qualified workers, some states offer student loan repayment assistance. In return for a service commitment in a high-need area, the state will pay off a portion of your student loans.
For example, health care professionals in California can qualify for up to $50,000 in student loan repayment assistance. Primary care physicians, dentists, dental hygienists, certified nurse midwives, and mental health providers who agree to work for two years full time in a designated Health Professional Shortage Area are eligible.
Check with your state’s education department to see whether similar programs exist in your area.
Employer loan repayment assistance
With so many young adults struggling with student loan debt, some employers are offering loan repayment assistance programs as a tool to recruit top talent.
According to a study by Willis Towers Watson, the percentage of employers contributing to student loan repayment is projected to grow from just 4% in 2018 to 32% by 2021.
These programs typically function like employer-sponsored retirement plans. Your employer matches a portion of your student loan payments, up to a percentage of your salary. For example, your employer may offer a 100% student loan payment match, up to 3% of your salary. If you earned $40,000 per year, that means your employer would contribute up to $1,200 per year toward your student loan payments, helping you get rid of your student loans faster and save money on interest charges.
Talk to your human resources department to see whether your company has a student loan repayment program, or if they’re willing to add it to the company’s compensation package.
Getting relief from your student loans
The COVID-19 pandemic has devastated millions of people. If you’re having trouble keeping up with your loan payments, there are programs available that can make your loans more manageable. Contact your loan servicer right away — before you miss a payment and rack up late fees — to explain your situation and see what alternative options there are. Many lenders are willing to work with borrowers, but you do have to communicate with them to take advantage of those programs.