Editor's Note: For the latest developments regarding federal student loan debt repayment, check out our student debt guide.
Student loans are mounting for college and graduate students, with engineering majors being no exception. In fact, for the 2020-21 school year, 54% of bachelor’s degree holders left school with student loans—with a debt level of $29,100, on average. Nationally, Americans have $1.6 trillion in student debt combined. Given that engineering is the fourth most common major, many of those shouldering student debt are engineering students.
Since careers in engineering can come with salaries well into the six-figures, some students might consider taking on student loans in order to follow all the way through to a master’s degree in that area. But getting there isn’t cheap. The typical engineering grad school student can expect to spend upwards of $50,000 or more for their masters degree. And that doesn’t include possible balances carried over from their undergrad years. The average student debt for engineering undergrad students varies, but when you factor in graduate school and undergraduate debt, that could mean a substantial amount of student debt.
If you’re studying to be an engineer, you may assume there aren’t many loan assistance programs out there for you, and it’s true that there are no federal forgiveness programs specifically for engineers. But you do have options to save money on your loans, whether through public service loan forgiveness, income-driven repayment plans, state programs aimed at professionals in your field, or student loan refinancing. Here, you can learn about some of the opportunities that exist.
Federal Loan Repayment Options
It’s true that many engineering majors go on to lucrative careers. But that doesn’t mean you necessarily earn a high salary right away. And you may choose to apply your skills at a government agency or nonprofit, or work in a different field altogether, earning less than expected.
The federal government offers four different repayment plans that cap your monthly payments at a percentage of your income in order to make your student loans affordable. Once you make the minimum number of payments required, the balance on your loans is eligible to be forgiven. Which plans you’re eligible for will depend on the types of federal student loans you have and when you borrowed them:
• The Saving on a Valuable Education (SAVE) Plan was created to replace REPAYE. Payments on SAVE are capped at 10% of your discretionary income (in July 2024, that threshold will be 5% for undergraduate loans). Certain borrowers will have their balances forgiven after 10 years, while others will need to make payments for up to 20-25 years before receiving forgiveness. Only Direct Loans are eligible, excluding Direct PLUS loans to parents.
• The Pay As You Earn (PAYE) plan also limits payments to 10% of your discretionary income. The balance can be forgiven after 20 years of payments. Again, only Direct Loans are eligible, except Direct PLUS loans to parents.
• Under the Income-Based Repayment Plan (IBR Plan), your payments are limited to 10% of your discretionary income if you borrowed on or after July 1, 2014, or 15% if you borrowed before that date. In the former case, the debt can be forgiven after 20 years; in the latter, it can be wiped away after 25 years. Direct Loans are eligible (except Direct PLUS loans to parents), as well as most loans under the earlier Federal Family Education Loan Program.
• The Income-Contingent Repayment Plan (ICR Plan) limits payments to 20% of discretionary income in most cases, and the rest can be forgiven after 25 years. Only Direct Loans are eligible, but this is the only program that also allows Direct PLUS loans to parents to qualify, as long as they are consolidated into a Direct Consolidation Loan.
If you aren’t sure which plan is best for you, ask your loan servicer for guidance. You can apply to enroll in an IDR program by filling out an Income-Driven Repayment Plan Request online or by asking your loan servicer for a paper form.
Taking advantage of programs that base your payment on your income can potentially make your monthly payment affordable in the long term if you don’t expect your salary to go up much.
Note: the amount forgiven under an income-driven repayment plan may be considered taxable income.
💡 Quick Tip: Ready to refinance your student loan? With SoFi’s no-fee loans, you could save thousands.
Public Service Loan Forgiveness
There’s another way to take advantage of student loan forgiveness for engineers. If you work full-time for a government agency, non-profit, or certain other employers that serve the public interest, your federal loans might qualify for Public Service Loan Forgiveness. Those organizations include the military, as well as public safety, emergency management, and public health groups.
Under this program, once you make 120 qualifying payments (the equivalent of 10 years), the balance on your loans can be eligible for forgiveness. Make sure to submit an Employment Certification form annually or when you switch jobs. Note that only Direct Loans qualify for the program.
If you have older loans, you may be able to make them eligible by consolidating them through a Direct Consolidation Loan. You need to be enrolled in an income-driven repayment plan if you want to apply for Public Service Loan Forgiveness.
State Loan Assistance Programs for Engineers
Engineering is an in-demand profession. The U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics estimates that 140,000 new engineering jobs will be created between 2016 and 2026. The fastest growing sub-specialties are civil, mechanical, and industrial engineering.
With this in mind, a couple of states have created programs that provide student loan assistance to people in the Science, Technology, Engineering, and Math (STEM) fields as incentive for professionals to reside there and pursue jobs in these areas.
For example, the Rhode Island Wavemaker Fellowship provides funds to college graduates who are pursuing a STEM-related career or starting a business in Rhode Island. Qualifying individuals receive a refundable tax credit certificate worth the value of their annual student loan burden for up to four years. Fellows are also invited to participate in various personal and professional programs and events.
The New Jersey STEM Loan Redemption Program incentivizes professionals to build careers in certain high-growth STEM fields in New Jersey. Program participants receive up to $2,000 to cover eligible student loan expenses each year, for up to four years, up to a maximum of $8,000. Half of each payment is funded by the New Jersey Higher Education Student Assistance Authority (HESAA), and the balance is matched by an equal contribution from the participant’s current employer.
When looking for student loan relief, steer clear of any scams promising fast, easy solutions at a hefty cost. Many of these companies end up filling out paperwork you could’ve completed yourself for free, or providing no services. Focus on official programs administered by federal or state governments, or by legitimate foundations or employers.
💡 Quick Tip: When refinancing a student loan, you may shorten or extend the loan term. Shortening your loan term may result in higher monthly payments but significantly less total interest paid. A longer loan term typically results in lower monthly payments but more total interest paid.
Look to Your Employer
With employers looking to retain talent, some companies offer loan assistance for engineers. For example, PriceWaterhouseCoopers, the professional services firm, pays $1,200 in student loans for associates and senior associates, for up to six years. Its employees include software engineers, data engineers, cloud security engineers, DevOps engineers, and more.
Abbott, a health technology company, assists with student loans in a slightly more indirect way. For full-time and part-time workers who qualify for the company’s 401(k) plan, and who are paying at least 2% of their salary toward student loans, the company will deposit its 5% match in the 401(k) plan even if the employee doesn’t contribute anything.
This way, it helps employees avoid the tradeoff between paying off loans and saving for retirement. Abbott hires for roles like engineering director, senior manufacturing process engineer, mechanical engineer, and more.
These are just a few examples of companies that offer loan repayment help to engineers. It’s worth keeping a lookout for this benefit throughout your job search.
The Benefits of Student Loan Refinancing
The above options may not be enough: Perhaps you don’t live in the right place or work for the right employer, or maybe you earn too much for an income based plan to make sense. If you don’t qualify for loan assistance, or even if you do have some benefits but not all of your loans are covered, refinancing your student loans can be a good way to potentially save money.
You can refinance federal loans or private loans with a variety of lenders and other financial institutions, often nabbing a lower interest rate or reduced monthly payment in the process. (You may pay more interest over the life of the loan if you refinance with an extended term.) And you may get a better rate if you have a good credit score, earn a decent income, and have a solid employment history. It takes just a couple of minutes to see if you pre-qualify online.
Engineer a Better Future
Student loans represent an investment in a solid career path, but they can be a burden even for people in thriving professions. If you’re an engineer, check out what options are available to reduce your student loans, whether that’s loan forgiveness, assistance from your state or employer, or student loan refinancing.
Looking to lower your monthly student loan payment? Refinancing may be one way to do it — by extending your loan term, getting a lower interest rate than what you currently have, or both. (Please note that refinancing federal loans makes them ineligible for federal forgiveness and protections. Also, lengthening your loan term may mean paying more in interest over the life of the loan.) SoFi student loan refinancing offers flexible terms that fit your budget.
Student Loan Refinancing
If you are a federal student loan borrower you should take time now to prepare for your payments to restart, including the opportunity to refinance your student loan debt at a lower APR or to extend your term to achieve a lower monthly payment. (You may pay more interest over the life of the loan if you refinance with an extended term.) Please note that once you refinance federal student loans, you will no longer be eligible for current or future flexible payment options available to federal loan borrowers, including but not limited to income-based repayment plans, such as the SAVE Plan, or extended repayment plans.
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