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Tax Tip of the Week | All You Need to Know About Student Loan Forgiveness March 27, 2019

Posted by bradstreetblogger in : Deductions, General, tax changes, Tax Deadlines, Tax Planning Tips, Taxes , trackback

The sheer magnitude of our outstanding student loan debt is beyond my feeble comprehension. According to the Federal Reserve, student-loan debt hit $1.53 trillion at the end of the second quarter of 2018. I may understand “millions” and just perhaps “billions,” but the concept of “trillions” totally escapes me. Almost two-thirds of that total debt or about $900 billion is carried by women.

An article written in the WSJ on December 17, 2018 by Ms. Berman, a reporter at MarketWatch follows. Her article discusses some limited options on having some of the student-loans forgiven, but, very often someone has to jump through some really high hoops to qualify. So keep your fingers crossed, but I wouldn’t hold your breath.

                                                                                                    – Mark C. Bradstreet

“Student-loan forgiveness might seem out of reach for many of the 44 million people who have educational debt. But some of these borrowers may qualify for relief—if they know where to look.

Student-loan forgiveness has gotten somewhat of a bad rap in recent months, largely because of controversy surrounding the federal Public Service Loan Forgiveness program, which allows public servants with a certain type of federal student loans to have their debt discharged after 120 monthly payments.

The first cohorts of borrowers became eligible for forgiveness under PSLF in the fall of 2017 and in the months since, advocates have grown concerned that confusion about the program’s requirements, combined with sloppy implementation on the part of student-loan companies and the government, has made it difficult for eligible borrowers to qualify. Of the roughly 28,000 people who filed an application for debt forgiveness under the program as of June 2018, just 96 had their loans forgiven, government data show.

PSLF may be the best known loan-forgiveness program, but it isn’t the only one. Not only are there other federal programs, cities and states across the country offer some debt forgiveness for people who work in certain jobs or even live in certain areas.

Here is a closer look at some programs and their requirements:

Federal programs

PSLF: To be eligible, borrowers must work full-time in a public-service job for the right type of employer—typically a federal, state or local government or a nonprofit with a 501(c)3 designation. They must have the right type of loan—a federal Direct Loan—and be in an income-driven repayment plan to benefit. Borrowers also need to have made 120 on-time payments toward their debt to have the remainder forgiven under PSLF.

It’s hard to say exactly why so many borrowers who applied to have their loans forgiven were rejected. It could be that many simply hadn’t been working in public service or paying down their loans for the full 10 years. But some data indicate that confusion over the program’s requirements played a role.

Of borrowers who have had at least one employment certification form (the document borrowers can use to ensure they’re on track toward forgiveness) approved, nearly 12% are repaying their loans under a nonqualifying repayment plan, according to the Education Department. Congress authorized a temporary expansion of PSLF earlier this year for borrowers who met all of the program’s other requirements but were using certain nonqualifying repayment plans.

Advocates also worry that borrowers who have Federal Family Education Loans, which don’t qualify for PSLF, are working in eligible jobs and repaying their debt, assuming they’ll qualify for forgiveness only to later face a rude awakening. Borrowers can consolidate FFEL debt into Direct Loans, but they may not know to do that unless they receive information about it from their student-loan servicer. (Borrowers who think they might qualify for PSLF should reach out to their servicer and ask whether they have Direct Loans, and if not, how they can consolidate their student debt into Direct Loans.)

Liz Hill, an Education Department spokeswoman, says the agency’s office of Federal Student Aid is approving every eligible application for PSLF under the “strict rules” established by Congress. It is also conducting regular outreach to borrowers about the program via social media, webinars and in person events.

“FSA is committed to enhancing the process, outreach, and communications related to the program,” she wrote in an email.

Are You Eligible?
Borrowers who want to know if they are on track to qualify for the federal Public Service Loan Forgiveness program can submit an employment certification form. A separate application is needed to claim forgiveness.

Teacher loan forgiveness: Teachers who work for five consecutive years in qualifying schools—typically those serving low-income students-—can receive up to $17,500 in forgiveness on certain federal loans; depending on what subject they teach. They need to have been a new borrower as of Oct. 1, 1998, meaning that they had no prior loans still outstanding as of this date. Also, they must have completed at least one of their qualifying years of teaching after the 1997-1998 academic year.

Teachers can’t use this program and PSLF at the same time, so they need to pick that one that best suits their financial needs. The American Federation of Teachers, a national teachers union, tends to advise borrowers to focus on PSLF, which offers superior benefits, unless the borrower doesn’t plan to stay in public service for the full 10 years.

Perkins Loan cancellation: Nurses, firefighters, public defenders and others may be eligible for cancellation of their Perkins Loans, federal need-based loans for both undergraduate and graduate students. Typically, a percentage of the loan is forgiven for each year of service, culminating in 100% of the loan being discharged after up to seven years.

Congress ended schools’ authority to make new Perkins Loans last year, so there won’t be any new borrowers receiving them—at least for now.

Income-driven repayment forgiveness: Borrowers using income-driven plans for federal loans can have the balance of the debt discharged after 20 or 25 years of payments, even if they aren’t working in public service. But under current law, debt relief is taxed as income, so borrowers may face a heftier-than-normal tax bill after their loans are discharged.

State, local programs

States and regions across the country offer a variety of student-loan forgiveness programs, most of which fall into two categories: those tied to a specific occupation or those tied to living in a specific region, or both. Many of these programs cover private student loans, which federal debt-forgiveness programs don’t.

“Almost every single state has at least one program,” says Betsy Mayotte, president of the Institute of Student Loan Advisors, which recently compiled a list of 115 debt-forgiveness programs.

While the list is a good place to start, Ms. Mayotte cautions that the eligibility criteria and funding available for many of these programs changes constantly, so borrowers need to check with the entities offering forgiveness directly before making a financial plan based on them.

In some cases, borrowers may be able to combine a state or local program with Public Service Loan Forgiveness, says Heather Jarvis, an attorney and student-loan expert. For example, borrowers can use some loan-repayment assistance programs sponsored by states, nonprofits or their employers to help defray the cost of their loan payments during the 10 years they’re working to become eligible for PSLF.

Occupation-focused programs typically center on health care, education or legal-services jobs, Ms. Mayotte says.

Michigan’s Department of Health and Human Services will pay off a significant chunk of health professionals’ loans—both federal and private—if they agree to work in primary care in an underserved area. The initiative, which doctors, dentists, nurse practitioners and other health professionals can use to pay off up to $200,000 of debt over eight years, was designed “specifically to recruit and retain primary-care providers in underserved areas in Michigan,” says Elizabeth Nagel of the policy, planning and legislative-services administration at the Michigan Department of Health & Human Services.

Location-based programs, while not as widespread, simply require the borrower to live in a certain region, Ms. Mayotte says.

Kansas launched its Rural Opportunity Zones program in 2011 to encourage educated workers to move to certain rural regions experiencing population decline, says Rachéll Rowand, the program manager.

Borrowers with an associate’s, bachelor’s or graduate degree and a student-loan balance in their own name can become eligible for some debt relief by establishing residency in a ROZ county on or after the date the county opted into the program. They also need a sponsor, which can be an employer or the county itself. Borrowers can receive up to $15,000 in assistance on federal and private student loans over five years. And they can use the program along with PSLF if they qualify.

Of course, when considering any loan-forgiveness program tied to a job or place, borrowers need to ask themselves how committed they are to staying put for a long period.

While a loan-forgiveness program essentially helps to make a low-paying career possible with high student-debt levels, it “really isn’t an incentive to go into a particular occupation,” says Mark Kantrowitz, the publisher of Savingforcollege.com and a financial-aid expert.

“In most cases,” he says, “you might actually be better off taking a job in a different field that pays better.”

Thank you for all of your questions, comments and suggestions for future topics. As always, they are much appreciated. We may be reached in our Dayton office at 937-436-3133 or in our Xenia office at 937-372-3504. Or, visit our website.

This Week’s Author – Mark C. Bradstreet, CPA

-until next week

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