The Public Service Loan Forgiveness Program – PSLF, for short – provides a path to federal student loan forgiveness. If you are working full time in a qualifying public service profession, the government may forgive a portion of your federal student loans. However, the qualification process is long, complicated and (worst of all) not guaranteed. This guide will tell you everything you need to know to maximize your chances of securing forgiveness through this highly beneficial program. If your situation qualifies for PSLF, you could get out of student loan debt for less than you originally borrowed.

Table of Contents

How PSLF Works

  1. First, you must have federal student loans that qualify for inclusion in a federal repayment plan.
  2. Then you must have an income level that qualifies you to enroll specifically in a hardship-based repayment plan. This includes the following programs:
    1. Income-based repayment
    2. Income-contingent repayment
    3. Pay as you earn
    4. Revised pay as you earn
  3. You must make payments on that program for 10 years – that’s 120 qualifying monthly payments. Keep your own records to feel confident in your number of qualifying payments.
  4. During that time, you must maintain employment in the public service sector for a qualifying employer.
  5. After 10 years of maintaining eligibility, you can send in your PSLF application.
  6. Once approved, the loan servicers must forgive the remaining balances on all federal loans included in the qualifying repayment plan.

Five things we think you should know about PSLF…

Is PSLF worth the hassle?

If you can make PSLF work, it’s absolutely worth the effort it takes

We probably don’t have to tell you how much of a burden student loan debt can be. Student loans lead to major life delays, such as homeownership and even marriage. They aren’t easily discharged by bankruptcy. Default hurts your credit.

Enrollment in a federal repayment plan provides monthly relief from your student loans. Plans like the IBR and PayE lower your monthly payments, matching them to your income and family size. But they also increase the repayment term up to 25-30 years.

Two and a half decades in debt is a long time to be in debt. So, the fact that PSLF forgives your balances after 10 years is a substantial advantage.

Income requirements

Income is extremely important during the repayment period

Even though the federal government offers a range of income driven repayment plans, you must enroll in a “hardship based” program. There are four programs that qualify:

  1. Income Based Repayment (IBR)
  2. Income Contingent Repayment (ICR)
  3. Pay as You Earn (PayE)
  4. Revised Pay as You Earn (RePayE)

To enroll, your Adjusted Gross Income (AGI) must be less than 150% of the Federal Poverty Line in your state. This calculation also considers your family size. For example, if the FPL is $20,000 for a family of two where you live as a single parent your AGI must be less than $30,000.

You must re-certify your income every year to maintain eligibility in the program. Otherwise, you get switched to a non-hardship program and no longer qualify for PSLF. Thankfully, this means any deductions made that reduce liability on your tax returns also help maintain eligibility for these programs. Things like childcare deductions can work in your favor. Make sure to maintain your certification and re-certify promptly each year.

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Employment certification

You should apply for employment certification, even though it’s not required

The Department of Education offers an Employment Certification Form through Completing this form is not a requirement to get approved for loan forgiveness.

However, remember that you must be working for a qualifying institution in public service throughout the 10-year repayment period. If you don’t strictly adhere to that eligibility you could find yourself rejected for PSLF. All that work for 10 years, only to find you don’t qualify to have your loans forgiven.

That makes it imperative to get your employment certified and make sure you maintain that certification. As soon as you enroll in the repayment plan, submit an employment certification form. You should re-certify every year and anytime you change jobs. This is your best guarantee for loan forgiveness.

PSLF is not “Obama Student Loan Forgiveness”

The Public Service Loan Forgiveness program started in 2007 under George W. Bush. However, the Department of Education under Obama changed the rules for hardship eligibility for the federal repayment plans in 2010, 2012 and 2015. New estimates from the Congressional Budget Office estimate the PSLF will now cost tax payers over $12 billion over the next 10 years.

This has all made a 10-year-old loan bi-partisan loan forgiveness program highly controversial. And just like President Obama’s DoED had the authority to change PSLF and the repayment plans, so does President Trump. That means Betsy DeVos and the current Department of Education holds loan forgiveness in their hands.

No one can say what will happen, but some worry rules may change right as many public professionals reach their 120th payment. If eligibility requirements change and they apply those changes retroactively, even approved employment certification may not be enough. You could apply for forgiveness after doing everything right, only to find the rules have changed.

The DoED could also cap the amount of debt they forgive, leaving you on the hook for the rest. DeVos already stated that adjustments must be made to rein in runaway costs. She also wants to close loopholes that some say allow people like doctors with six-figure graduate degree debt to qualify.

Regardless of your political beliefs, if you think you qualify for PSLF follow this story closely. Any change to the program could affect your eligibility, regardless of your previous status. Get into the program immediately if you haven’t already started and maintain eligibility to the best of your ability.

Other types of student loan forgiveness if you don’t qualify for PSLF

There are other ways to forgive federal student loan debt that aren’t tied to Public Service Loan Forgiveness. Military Service and even service in AmeriCorps, PeaceCorps or Volunteers in Service to America allow you to qualify for loan forgiveness.

Military loan forgiveness doesn’t run through the DoED; it runs through the DOD (Department of Defense). The DOD actually repays your loans up to a certain amount – $60,000 overall. You must serve at least 3 years. The DoD Loan Repayment pays out up to $10,000 per calendar year. You can also qualify for forgiveness under a Veteran’s Total and Permanent Disability Discharge.

Volunteer service doesn’t forgive all your debt, but it can forgive some. There’s one program that cancels 15% of Perkins loan debt for each year of PeaceCorp service. You can do 12 months of AmericaCorps service or 1,700 hours of VISTA service for up to $4,275 towards your loans.

Perkins loan borrowers that aren’t in the PeaceCorps, but work in fields like teaching or nursing, can also get their loans forgiven.

Pursue as many avenues for student loan forgiveness as possible. Anything you can do to decrease your student loan debt is worth it.

You could handle your student loans yourself, but you may be better off with a little professional help. Find out how.

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Public Service Loan Forgiveness for specific groups

Different careers have different requirements for PSLF. Here are a few careers in public service that can qualify for Public Service Loan Forgiveness:


Depending on which kind of healthcare institution you work for, you could be eligible for PSLF for working as a nurse. You must work in an area of need.

Learn more about PSLF for nurses »


Teachers can also qualify for PSLF in certain situations. It depends on the subject they teach, the type of school they teach in, and the average income of the region.

Find out if your teaching career qualifies you for loan forgiveness »


Firefighters also have a unique path to loan forgiveness. Volunteer firefighting, however, doesn’t qualify as a career in public service.

How to take advantage of PSLF as a firefighter »

First Responders

Firefighters, police, EMTs, and other public servants can also qualify for Public Service Loan Forgiveness.

What you need to qualify for PSLF as a first responder »

Temporary Expanded Public Service Loan Forgiveness (TEPSLF)

The Temporary Expanded Public Service Loan Forgiveness program was created to combat the low rates of acceptance for regular PSLF applications. It was supposed to make it easier for people to qualify, but 99% of people were still rejected. Doesn’t sound very effective, but it’s worthwhile to apply if you were already rejected from Public Service Loan Forgiveness.

2020 PSLF update

Early in 2020, President Donald Trump announced that he wants to end the Public Service Loan Forgiveness program. He and Education Secretary Betsy DeVos argue that this would save the federal government a large amount of money. This would not end all pathways to student loan forgiveness. To improve the system in the absence of PSLF, President Trump proposed a modified income-based repayment plan that would forgive the remaining balance of undergraduate loans after 15 years of payments instead of the current 20 or 25 years.

Keep in mind that these changes will apply to those taking out loans now and in the future. The loans you already have will not be subject to these rules.

Article last modified on April 5, 2022. Published by, LLC

Reviewed By

Andrew Pentis

Expert contributor