Want student loan forgiveness? Millions of jobs qualify for updated program — and yours might be one of them.

·7 min read

WASHINGTON - A huge swath of the nation's workforce is employed in a job that now qualifies for loan forgiveness through the Public Service Loan Forgiveness program. But many workers, including those who aren't using their degree or were previously rejected for forgiveness, may not realize they are eligible.

That expanded eligibility is thanks to the Education Department's overhaul of the program in October. The federal agency loosened some of the program's most stringent rules that had kept most of the borrowers who worked in millions of qualifying jobs from accessing debt relief.

The department said in January that 70,000 had already benefited from total debt forgiveness, a figure more than triple the government’s initial estimate.

But hundreds of thousands – and possibly more – people likely qualify for the program, which offers relief to many borrowers who work for the government or in nonprofits.

The program is supposed to be simple. It requires borrowers to work full-time in a public service job and make 10 years' worth of payments on their loans. These borrowers have likely given up the higher wages associated with the private sector. The federal government, in turn, agrees to forgive their debt after a decade of payments.

In practice, the federal government had for years rejected nearly all borrowers' applications because of the program's strict requirements. For example, only certain types of federal loans qualified for the program.

But in October, the Education Department relaxed its rules. Importantly, a limited waiver now lets borrowers get credit for all sorts of past payments, and the main qualification is that applicants work in an eligible job.

President Joe Biden speaks during White House meeting last month on efforts to lower prices for working families.
President Joe Biden speaks during White House meeting last month on efforts to lower prices for working families.

What's more, workers who might assume their career path isn't considered public service may still qualify. That's because jobs are considered public service based on who your employer is, not based on your job title.

Broadly, those working for the government or nonprofits qualify. That includes careers like public school teachers, firefighters or police officers. But it also encompasses IT professionals, public interest attorneys, managers of game design laboratories and even clergy members.

The expanded program also opens the door to forgiveness for borrowers who had given up on debt forgiveness.

Public Service Loan Forgiveness: Here is who eligible and how to apply

For public service student loan forgiveness, the degree doesn't matter

About 35 million jobs in America are technically public service jobs, according to Jason DiLorenzo, creator of PSLFjobs.com. His job board highlights the sheer variety of professions eligible for the program.

They include listings for a manager of a game design studio, a fertility counselor and even a director position for the Golden State Salmon Association.

DiLorenzo said the public service program is more lenient than many relief initiatives, which often require that people work in a specific job or place to access forgiveness, like doctors working in rural areas or teachers in underserved school districts.

Perhaps even more surprising: Loans can be forgiven even if the person isn't working in their field of study.

STUDENT LOAN FORGIVENESS: $415 million of federal loan money sent to students defrauded by DeVry, ITT Tech

“It doesn’t matter if you’re using your degree,” he said. “You could be a doctor who’s working as a librarian at your county library and be eligible."

DiLorenzo started the website in 2020 after realizing that nonprofits were missing an opportunity to market themselves as eligible workplaces for borrowers seeking Public Service Loan Forgiveness.

The program even extends to unexpected jobs, including clergy. That, in particular, is thanks to a change under former Education Secretary Betsy DeVos.

Pastors may not seem like the people most in need of debt relief, said the Rev. Sekinah Hamlin, minister for economic justice at the United Church of Christ. But divinity school can be expensive and may leave many pastors indebted. Most religious workers aren’t making the salaries of the popular televangelists – many don't have adequate health insurance – which may make repaying that debt harder, Hamlin said.

The United Church of Christ and the National Council of Churches, a collection of 38 faith groups, have even hosted a webinar on applying to the program. Since the waiver’s introduction, Hamlin said she is hearing hope from people who had resigned themselves to a lifetime of debt.

Some previously rejected borrowers can get student loan forgiveness

Josh Murdock is one of the previously rejected borrowers now on the verge of relief.

In 2018, Murdock had submitted his application to the Public Service Loan Forgiveness program. He had been a professor at Valencia College and at the Orange County Florida Library System, and both his employers met the government's definition of public service. So he thought he would be close to forgiveness.

He was wrong.

The federal government denied all his payments because he held loans that were ineligible. At the time, only loans made directly by the federal government qualified.

So Murdock consolidated his loans to meet the requirement, a process that reset the clock on his eligibility. He believed it would be another decade before his loans could be forgiven.

But with the federal government’s overhaul of the Public Service Loan Forgiveness program, Murdock's previous payments now counted. He reapplied in November 2021 and learned a few months later that his past payments would count toward forgiveness.

Murdock is now pushing others to reapply.

Debt forgiveness lets people stay in jobs they love

Before the October overhaul, only 16,000 of the 1.3 million people in the program had had their debt forgiven.

Jane Fox, a public defender in New York City, was one of them. It required meticulous record-keeping to track the number of her payments and to ensure she was in the right type of loan program. But her efforts paid off, and she was able to discharge $196,000 in federal student loan debt in August 2020.

But she said she is an anomaly and attributed her success partially to a financial aid administrator at her law school, Brooklyn Law School, who taught her the nuances of the program’s requirements.

Fox now helps legal workers seek debt relief, many of whom have tried and been rejected already. Some had grown disillusioned with the initiative, she said. But interest has returned since the waiver’s introduction.

Fox said she now hears regularly from longtime civil servants who have had their debt forgiven through the program. And she believes the change to the program will allow some attorneys to stay in the public service sector. Many leave, she said, to seek the higher wages in the private sector to pay off the debt associated with law school.

“No one I know, who has gotten their debt forgiven, especially under the waiver, is emailing me to say, like, 'And now I quit,'” Fox said. “They're so excited because they're like, ‘Now I can stay.'’’

Student loan forgiveness' future uncertain

The overhaul comes at a time when borrower advocates and progressive lawmakers are pushing President Joe Biden to use his executive privilege to erase up to $50,000 in student loan debt per borrower. The president has said instead that he believes it is Congress’ role to forgive debt. And the administration extended a pandemic pause on federal student loan payments through May 1 to give struggling borrowers more time to prepare for the restart.

Recently, the agency forgave $415 million owed by borrowers who had been defrauded by their colleges. And the Biden administration estimates up to 550,000 may benefit from the public service overhaul and that 1.3 million were trying to forgive their debt through the program.

But those are just those who have submitted proof they were employed in the public sector. The initiative is open to everyone working in the public sector, which means many more debts could be forgiven.

As lenient as the waiver might be, the federal government has said it will remain open only through October. And though the Biden administration said it's looking to make additional permanent changes to the program, they could be undone under a new administration.

This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: Student loan forgiveness program now includes millions of jobs