They say that teaching is a calling. It’s just not a calling to money.
And considering most schools don’t employ teachers without a college degree, that can mean taking out student loans that are tough to cover on a teacher’s salary.
The national average for starting teacher salaries was $39,249 for the 2017-18 school year, according to the National Education Association, while the average student loan debt was $28,650 in 2017 for those graduating from public and private nonprofit colleges.
And in 2018, student loans had the highest delinquency rate of any form of household debt. Clearly, graduates are struggling to repay.
But wait, you say. Isn’t there a program to forgive your student loan debt because you chose the noble profession of teaching?
You get a gold star for knowing about the Teacher Student Loan Forgiveness program, but you might need a remedial lesson on what’s covered — and isn’t covered — by this type of loan forgiveness. And for bonus points, we’ll check out some alternatives.
A word of warning to anyone looking at forgiveness programs as a quick and easy way to get out of paying back student loans: All of the forgiveness programs require you to stick to a strict repayment schedule during the qualifying period.
Understanding the Teacher Student Loan Forgiveness Program
This loan forgiveness program should be an obvious, easy choice, right? It has the word “teacher” in the title. But alas, there are enough hurdles and limitations within this program to make it a limited option for many borrowers.
Which Loans Are Eligible?
To qualify for Teacher Loan Forgiveness, you need to have one of the following loans:
Simply, unless you have a Direct Federal Student Loan — made through the William D. Ford Federal Direct Loan program — you aren’t eligible for this program. However, you can consolidate Federal Family Education Loans into a Direct Consolidated Loan to make them eligible.
Don’t know which loans you have? Log onto www.studentloans.gov: In the loan information list’s left-hand column, it will identify the type of loan. Or you can call the Department of Education and ask.
If you’re in default on a loan, you are not eligible for forgiveness unless you have made satisfactory repayment arrangements with the holder of the defaulted loan. Here’s what you can do if you’re heading toward student loan default.
Who’s Eligible for the Loan
If you are employed as a full-time teacher at a low-income school (you can find the list of eligible schools here) for five complete and consecutive academic years, you’re eligible for the program if at least one of those years was after the 1997-98 school year.
You don’t have to teach all five years at the same school, but you’ll need verification from every school you taught at to reach the five-year minimum.
School librarians, guidance counselors, and other administrative staff are not considered teachers for the purposes of this loan forgiveness program.
But good news for you procrastinators: You apply for teacher loan forgiveness after you’ve completed the teaching requirement.
How Much Can You Get?
The amount you can qualify for depends on what subject areas you teach.
The only way to receive the maximum $17,500 award is to be considered a “highly qualified” teacher in special education or secondary mathematics or science. The highly qualified requirements are as follows:
You’ve attained your bachelor’s degree.
You’ve received full state certification at a teacher.
You have not had certification or licensure requirements waived on an emergency, temporary or provisional basis.
There are additional requirements depending on whether you’re new to the profession and what level you teach.
You can receive up to $5,000 if you teach in other subject areas and you’ve attained subject-specific requirements (but only if you began teaching before Oct. 30, 2004) or you meet the “highly qualified” standard.
How to Apply
Submit a completed Teacher Loan Forgiveness Program application. The head of the school(s) where you completed your service will have to complete the certification section, and you’ll need to submit separate applications for each loan servicer.
Alternative Options to the Teacher Loan Forgiveness Program
Although $5,000 to $17,500 can put a dent in a debt, if your loans reach into the upper five digits (or six digits) — or you don’t meet the requirements of the Teacher Loan Forgiveness Program — you do have other options.
Perkins Loan Teacher Cancellation
Although the Perkins Loan Teacher Cancellation is specifically designed for teachers, it’s also specifically for Perkins loans.
The Perkins Loan Program ended on Sept. 30, 2017, so if you’re a recent graduate, this forgiveness may not be of much help. But if you have outstanding Perkins loans, you can still qualify for cancellation.
The terms “forgiveness” and “cancellation” essentially mean the same thing: You are no longer required to make payments on your loan because of your job.
If you are eligible, the good news is that up to 100 percent of the loan may be cancelled in increments for years of teaching service.
To qualify, you must either teach at a low-income school or teach one of the following subjects:
- Foreign Languages
- Special Education
- Subject area that is facing a shortage of qualified teachers in your state
Private school teachers can also qualify for the Perkins Loan Teacher Cancellation.
How to Apply
To apply, contact the school where you obtained the Perkins Loan to learn its specific rules.
Public Service Loan Forgiveness
Similar to the Teacher Loan Forgiveness program, the Public Service Loan Forgiveness has quite a few hoops to jump through — enough hoops that the acceptance rate is hovering around 1%, according to a recent NPR report.
However, we’ve covered which questions you need to ask to make sure you qualify for Public Service Loan Forgiveness. And the good news is that the Public program does not restrict teachers to a specific school or subject matter.
If you’re employed by a government or non-profit, you’re eligible to qualify for loan forgiveness after 120 payments — that’s 10 years for you non-math teachers. You’ll need verification for each year of qualification.
How to Apply
Login to the Federal Student Aid site and use the Public Service Loan Forgiveness tool to determine whether you, your loan and your employer qualify, as well as to fill out the form.
Volunteering with AmeriCorps programs can let you help others while making money — including paying off a student loan.
After completing your AmeriCorps term of service, you are eligible to receive the Segal AmeriCorps Education Award, which can be used to repay qualified student loans that includes Stafford, Direct, Perkins Loans, Federal Consolidated Loans and others listed here.
You can use your award to repay defaulted student loans, as long as it qualifies.
However, unlike the other loan forgiveness programs, this award is subject to federal tax in the year each payment is made, making it taxable income.
How to Apply
Start your AmeriCorps application here.
State- and School- Forgiveness Programs
The availability of teacher loan forgiveness programs at a more local level depends on where you live, but if you’re struggling, you might be able to find a more human (and sympathetic) ear at your alma mater or state agency.
Almost every state has at least one type of student loan forgiveness program that’s designed for those in public service fields.
How to Apply
Contact your college’s financial aid or alumni office to find out about its forgiveness program options. For state and local programs, check out this directory from the American Federation of Teachers.
Income-Driven Repayment Plans
This one isn’t specific to teachers, but the standard repayment term for federal student loans is 10 years. If you have difficulty making payments, you have four main options for lowering them that take your income and expenses into account:
- Income-Based Repayment Plan (IBR)
- Income-Contingent Repayment Plan (ICR)
- Pay as You Earn (PAYE)
- Revised Pay as You Earn (RPAYE)
We cover each of these repayment plans in more detail in this article, but know that these plans aren’t actually forgiveness programs. They’re repayment programs with a forgiveness option at the end. You’ll need to resubmit your income and family size every year to determine eligibility — and the forgiven portion is subject to federal taxes.
Can You Stack Forgiveness Programs? Sort of.
If you’re thinking about stacking the Teacher Loan Forgiveness with other forgiveness programs, you’ll be waiting a while. That’s because the forgiveness programs count your service sequentially, not simultaneously.
That means you can use both the teacher loan forgiveness and Public Service Loan Forgiveness, for instance, but not for the same period of teaching service. So after working five years to qualify for the teacher loan forgiveness, you’ll need to tack on another 120 monthly payments to qualify for Public Service Loan Forgiveness.
That’s 15 years total — so if you graduate from college at 22, you’ll need to commit to teaching until you’re at least 37 years old. And there’s no guarantee you’ll receive forgiveness.
Considering a study recently concluded that 30% of public school teachers leave the profession within five years — and teaching in low-income districts can be extra challenging — you might be better off applying for just the Public Service Loan Forgiveness program if you’re looking to have a large amount of debt forgiven.
But if your debt is a smaller amount, help from the Teacher Loan Forgiveness program could help put a dent in your debt.
Tiffany Wendeln Connors is a staff writer/editor at The Penny Hoarder. Read her bio and other work here, then catch her on Twitter @TiffanyWendeln.