Student Loan Forgiveness Options for First Responders

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Stanley Tate

#1 Student Loan Lawyer

Updated on January 3, 2023

First responders qualify for the same loan forgiveness programs available to other borrowers with federal student debt. The government has yet to create a unique debt relief plan specifically for first responders — even those who battled Covid on the frontlines throughout the pandemic — despite many attempts by state and federal lawmakers to reward them for their sacrifice.

Keep reading to learn more about student loan forgiveness and debt relief options for first responders.

Related: Student Loan Forgiveness: Who Qualifies

Do first responders get student loan forgiveness?

Yes, first responders, such as emergency medical technicians, paramedics, firefighters, police officers, and rescue workers, may be eligible for student loan forgiveness through certain programs, such as the Public Service Loan Forgiveness Program. PSLF allows first responders and other public servants working for the government or non-profits to have their student loan debt forgiven after 10 years of work.

First responders who work in the private sector can still get their loans forgiven after making payments for several years in an income-driven repayment plan and making payments for several years. They also may have the option to use state-sponsored repayment programs, which offer to repay a part of their student loan debt in exchange for a commitment to work for some years or in a specific field or location.

Related: How to Apply for Student Loan Forgiveness

Can you volunteer as a first responder for student loan forgiveness?

Unfortunately, first responders can’t receive student loan forgiveness through volunteering alone. The PSLF program, which is one of the main opportunities for first responders and other public servants, requires that you be employed in a full-time, paid position at a government agency, nonprofit organization, or healthcare facility with 501(c)(3) status.

There is an exception for people participating in AmeriCorps’ Volunteers in Service to America (VISTA program) or the Peace Corps. You can volunteer for those programs and meet the eligibility requirements for PSLF.

Several states, including New York and Pennsylvania, have proposed offering repayment assistance to volunteer first responders. For example, Senate Bill 3915 in New York would provide up to $50 thousand in relief after five years of service. While these proposals have not yet become law, they offer a potential option for first responders seeking relief from student loan debt.

Forgiveness programs for first responders

First responders have several options to get their federal student loans forgiven. Below, we’ll explore these programs and how you can benefit from them.

Public Service Loan Forgiveness

Public Service Loan Forgiveness was created to attract and keep talented people in public service jobs by offering a unique benefit: Tax-free loan forgiveness after 10 years of work and 120 on-time, qualifying payments.

Related: When Did PSLF Start?

In the past two years alone, the PSLF Program has helped first responders, emergency medical technicians, paramedics, health care workers, law enforcement personnel, and rescue workers eliminate over $32 billion in federal student debt.

Related: Student Loan Forgiveness for Government Contractors

But it wasn’t always this easy. Before the Biden administration introduced changes to relax eligibility requirements, the program was difficult to access. Now, however, it is much more accessible to those in need.

The PSLF Waiver ended last October, but a similar one — the IDR Waiver — offers many of the same benefits and will last until next summer.

To qualify for the Public Service Loan Forgiveness (PSLF) program as a first responder, you must work for an eligible employer and make payments toward federal Direct Loans. If you have Federal Perkins Loans or Federal Family Education Loans (FFEL), you must consolidate them into a Direct Consolidation Loan by May 1, 2023. You can do this on the Federal Student Aid website, StudentAid.gov. You can also use this site to access the PSLF Help Tool and generate a PSLF Form to send to your past qualifying employers.

Related: How to Consolidate Student Loans for PSLF

Income-Driven Repayment Forgiveness

Income-driven repayment plans cap your student loan payments at a percentage of your discretionary income and extend your repayment term from 10 years to 20-25 years, depending on the plan you choose and whether you borrowed loans for graduate school. If you get to the end of the term and still have a loan balance, the government will write it off. You may owe taxes depending on IRS regulations.

Related: Income-Based Repayment Forgiveness

IDR Forgiveness is an option for all first responders, whether they work in public service or not.

The U.S. Department of Education is reviewing student loan borrowers’ accounts to give them credit towards this forgiveness opportunity for payments they made under any repayment plan. It will also credit them for months spent in long forbearance periods and some deferments that occurred before 2013.

Department officials estimate the IDR Waiver will automatically cancel the debts of 40 thousand people and push millions more at least three years closer to relief.

This opportunity is only available to borrowers with loans owned by the Education Department or Ed-owned student loans. You have these types of loans if your payments and interest have been frozen since the start of the pandemic.

If you’ve had to keep paying your federal loans throughout the pandemic, you must consolidate those loans into a Direct Loan before next summer to have your payment history reviewed.

Biden’s debt cancellation plan

Last fall, President Biden announced a plan to cancel up to $20 thousand of federal student loan debt for Americans who received a Pell Grant and earned less than $125 thousand in 2020 or 2021. This proposal would have provided relief to millions of Americans, including hundreds of thousands of first responders. The Education Department rushed to create the application so it could begin delivering an estimated $400 billion in relief, which would have significantly reduced total student debt.

But not everyone was on board with paying for their neighbors’ college education. Biden’s plan faced opposition from Republican lawmakers and conservative groups and was met with legal challenges across the states.

The plan is on hold while the Supreme Court determines the president has the authority to provide the promised relief.* If he does, the Education Department plans to immediately apply the relief to borrowers’ accounts. Legal experts expect the Supreme Court to release its decision this summer.

* To justify the president’s announcement of student debt forgiveness, the Education Department released a memorandum highlighting the legal reasoning behind an executive order to cancel student debt. The memorandum argues that the Higher Education Relief Opportunities for Students (HEROES) Act of 2003 can be used to implement this plan, pointing to its past use for student loan relief during other national emergencies and its relevance in addressing the economic fallout from the COVID-19 pandemic.

Other forgiveness programs

There are a few specialized student loan forgiveness or payment assistance programs that may be available to first responders through federal or state programs. These programs may be specific to your profession or location.

  • Perkins Loan Cancellation — This program ended in 2017, but many first responders, corrections officers, nurses, and so on have these types of loans. If you have one, you can have the remaining balance forgiven after five years of work on the job. To apply, contact the college you borrowed the loan from or your student loan servicer. Read more about Perkins Loan Cancellation.

  • State-Based Student Loan Repayment Assistance Programs — Police officers, firefighters, EMTs, medical professionals, and so on may take advantage of programs that help repay their federal and private student loans. For example, the Peace Officer Loan Repayment Assitance Program offers up to $20 thousand in forgiveness after five years of service with Texas.

Check with your state or employer to see what programs they have available.

What if I have private loans?

Private lenders like Sallie Mae and SoFi don’t offer the same forgiveness programs and repayment options compared to the federal government.

Related: Can Private Student Loans Be Forgiven?

If you need a lower monthly payment, your best bet is to refinance for a lower interest rate and longer repayment term. You’ll need a good credit score and enough income to cover the payments for the new loan and your other debt payments — credit cards, home loans, auto loans, and so on. Otherwise, you’ll need a cosigner with both.

Two other options may help with private student loans: settlement and bankruptcy. Settlement involves negotiating with the lender to pay less than what you owe. Bankruptcy is a legal process that can eliminate some or all of your debts, including student loans.

Related: Help for Private Student Loans

Both options will wreck your credit score temporarily and aren’t guaranteed to work. But they may be your only options to escape your student loan debt.

Bottom Line

First responders have many opportunities to forgive all or part of their student debt. The program right for you will depend on your career and personal finance goals and where you plan on working.

Book a call with me if you need help sorting through your loan forgiveness options as a first responder. I’ll review your loans and goals to devise a plan that gives you a way out and peace of mind.

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