Student loan relief is the forgiveness, cancellation or discharge of your federal student loans. There are several relief programs, and each has its own set of eligibility requirements. Typically, relief may be an option based on a significant life event or having worked in designated occupations for the required number of years. Most student loan relief programs are restricted to federal student loans, although some programs may be available with private lenders.

If you’ve worked in the nonprofit or public service sector for the designated amount of time, or if you face a job loss, disability or the school you attended closed, you may be eligible for student loan relief.

While options like forbearance or deferment will pause your student loan payments for a short amount of time, student loan relief typically entails wiping out some or all of the balance on your student loans completely. The requirements for loan forgiveness are stricter than they are for forbearance or deferment.

How student loan relief works

With most types of student loan relief, you’ll have to continue making payments on your loan until the remaining amount is forgiven. For instance, Teacher Loan Forgiveness requires you to make payments for five years while working at an approved school. After five years, you can apply for forgiveness and, if approved, see the remainder of your student loan debt removed.

Some forms of student loan relief are usually taxable, although President Biden’s American Rescue Plan included a provision waiving this requirement through 2025. If your federal loans are forgiven before then, the forgiven amount will not be taxed. Many experts believe this provision will become permanent.

How to apply

If you think that you qualify for relief, contact your loan servicer to see if you meet the eligibility requirements. It’s also wise to check in with your servicer along the way to ensure that you’re making progress toward relief. If you have a Perkins Loan, contact your school directly. However, they may direct you to their loan servicer.

You can also apply for relief on the Federal Student Aid website, which provides resources for each program.

Common requirements for student loan debt relief

While each student loan relief program has its own set of requirements, they have a few in common:

  • Employed by a government or not-for-profit organization or an approved school.
  • Have worked for the approved organization for a set time period.
  • Have made student loan payments for a specified amount of time.

Student loan forgiveness vs. discharge

While they have the same general function, forgiveness, cancellation and discharge are different forms of relief.

Student loan cancellation and forgiveness

Cancellation or forgiveness of your federal student loans is typically granted if you’ve served a certain amount of time in an eligible occupation. For example, the Public Service Loan Forgiveness Program will forgive the remaining balance on your federal student loans after you make 120 monthly payments while working full-time at a qualifying public service employer.

Student loan discharge

Discharge is a more immediate removal of your student loan debt due to an unexpected situation or emergency. Only specific circumstances can warrant a student loan discharge, like a total and permanent disability, death, the closure of the school you attended or, in rare cases, bankruptcy.

Student loan forgiveness programs

Student loan forgiveness is available through many programs, each with a specific set of qualification requirements. Here are some of the programs that could help you cut down your balance:

Each program provides varying amounts of forgiveness and requires a different level of commitment in exchange for forgiveness. PSLF, for instance, requires 10 years of payments before your balance is forgiven, while income-driven repayment plans require 20 to 25 years.

Do your research before applying to ensure you meet the requirements and have the proper documentation on hand. If you have questions about your eligibility, your loan servicer can help.

Be aware of student loan relief scams in which companies may charge you to submit an application, or request your Federal Student Aid ID or power of attorney.

Alternative student loan relief options

If you have private student loans or don’t qualify for a loan forgiveness program, there are other strategies that can help you pay off your loans:

  • Refinance your student loans: If you have good credit or have a trusted co-signer, refinancing your student loans could help you save money through a lower interest rate. Keep in mind, however, that you will lose your federal student loan benefits and protections when you refinance.
  • Deferment: Student loan deferment allows you to temporarily stop making your monthly payments when you return to school, enlist in the military or become unemployed. In some cases, interest will not accrue.
  • Forbearance: Student loan forbearance is similar to deferment in that you can temporarily stop making your monthly payments. However, interest will accrue during all forbearance periods. Forbearance is typically designed for borrowers experiencing major financial hardship.

The bottom line

If you work in certain professions, in the nonprofit or public sector or for approved schools and meet other time requirements for the length of your employment or loan payment period, you may be able to get student loan relief for your federal student loans. The government offers resources through the Federal Student Aid website. If you think you may be eligible, it may be worth reaching out to your loan servicer.