7 Federal Programs That Help Borrowers Pay Off Student Loans

By Melissa Brock · March 19, 2024 · 8 minute read

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7 Federal Programs That Help Borrowers Pay Off Student Loans

Approximately 61% of college graduates have student loan debt, according to data from the National Center for Education Statistics, and most of that money owed (more than 90%) is in the form of federal student loans. In other words, if you have student debt, you are not alone.

Federal student loan programs are funded by the federal government, and while virtually no one likes being in debt, there’s an upside here. These programs can not only help you pay for college but also repay what you owe in different ways, to suit your particular situation.

In this guide, you’ll learn about the types of federal student loans available and the tactics federal student loan borrowers can use to eliminate their debt. There’s likely to be a plan that helps you balance your budget and enjoy life while paying off what you owe.

Types of Federal Student Loans

The types of federal student loans include the following. The federal student loan program includes the Direct Loan program, and the Direct Subsidized, Unsubsidized, PLUS, and Consolidated loans exist under that umbrella.

•   Direct Subsidized loans: Direct Subsidized loans help undergraduate students (who are eligible and demonstrate financial need) cover the education costs. In terms of when the interest accrues, that doesn’t happen while you are in school at least half-time or during deferment.

•   Direct Unsubsidized loans: Direct Unsubsidized loans, on the other hand, help undergraduate, graduate, and professional students cover the costs of education. These loans are not need-based, but the government does not cover the interest while you’re in school.

•   Direct PLUS loans: Graduate or professional students and parents of dependent undergraduate students can get Direct PLUS loans. You do not have to demonstrate financial need to get a Direct PLUS loan, but you must undergo a credit check.

•   Direct Consolidation loans: Direct Consolidation loans let you combine your eligible federal student loans into a single loan with a single loan servicer. This helps reduce the complexity of paying on multiple loans.

How do you get a federal student loan? You file the Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA), and as long as you’re eligible for federal student aid, the financial aid will appear on your financial aid package at the school you apply for.

💡 Quick Tip: Ready to refinance your student loan? You could save thousands.

Federal Programs for Student Loan Borrowers

Among the federal programs for student loan borrowers are government grants and tax deductions, as well as federal student loan programs that can help with repayment. Among these are income-driven repayment plans, deferment and forbearance, and forgiveness. Here’s a closer look at some of your potential options as you pay off student loans (yes, you will make it happen).

1. Government Grants

Federal grants can also help cover college costs for students attending college or career school. You don’t have to pay back grant money unless you fail to meet the qualifications for the grant. (In this way, they aren’t repayment plans but coverage of educational costs upfront.)

For example, you may be able to take advantage of a Pell Grant or a Teacher Education Assistance for College and Higher Education (TEACH) grant.

•   Pell Grant: The Pell Grant is a need-based grant awarded by the US Department of Education to undergraduate students with high financial need. The Federal Pell Grant maximum is $7,395 for the 2023-2024 award year between July 1, 2023 and June 30, 2024.

•   TEACH Grant: The TEACH Grant offers funds to students who plan to teach full-time for at least four years in a high-need field. They must meet the service obligation after graduation. For example, they must work in a low-income elementary school, secondary school, or educational service agency.

2. Income-Driven Repayment Plans

When it comes time to pay off federal student loans, the Department of Education has the following income-driven repayment plans, which aim to keep student loan payments at a comfortable level:

•   Saving on a Valuable Education (SAVE) plan: The SAVE plan, which replaces the REPAYE plan, calculates your monthly payment amount based on your family size and income. It offers the possibility of forgiveness in as little as 10 years for some borrowers, and the payment cap is 10% of discretionary income and that may drop to 5% for some from the summer of 2024 onward.

•   Pay As You Earn (PAYE) Repayment plan: The PAYE plan means your monthly payments equal to 10% of your discretionary income, divided by 12. It will never amount to more in payments than the 10-year Standard Repayment plan amount. Expect a 20-year term.

•   Income-Based Repayment (IBR) plan: The IBR plan means your monthly payments are equal to 10% (15% if you’re an older borrower whose loans date to before July 1, 2014) of your discretionary income. Repayment terms are 20 years for new borrowers; 25 years for older borrowers.

•   Income-Contingent Repayment (ICR) plan: The ICR plan means you’ll make monthly payments — the lesser of what you would pay on a repayment plan with a fixed monthly payment over 12 years or 20% of your discretionary income, divided by 12. The term is typically 25 years.

💡 Quick Tip: Refinancing could be a great choice for working graduates who have higher-interest graduate PLUS loans, Direct Unsubsidized Loans, and/or private loans.

3. Tax Deductions

Looking for good things about filing your taxes? Here’s one: When you claim the student loan tax deduction, you claim the interest you paid on your student loans, whether they are federal or private. You can deduct student loan interest up to $2,500; you don’t need to itemize to get the deduction.

To be eligible to deduct student loan interest, you must pay interest on a qualified federal or private student loan for you, your spouse, or a dependent child during the tax year. You must meet modified adjusted gross income (MAGI) requirements, which is your annual gross income minus certain deductions. You must not have a filing status of married filing separately, and someone else may not claim you as a dependent.

4. Military Service

You may remember the original G.I. Bill from history class, which allowed military service members to attend school after World War II. You can still get help paying for school if you currently serve in the military.

The branches of the United States Military offer loan payment programs that can help you pay off your federal student loans, such as the Air Force JAG program, Army College Loan, Army Reserve Loan, National Guard Loan, and Navy Student Loan repayment options.

Research how military loan repayment programs work for your respective military branch to potentially pay off a significant portion (or even all) of your student loan debt.

5. AmeriCorps

You can also consider using AmeriCorps as a vehicle for paying off your student loans. AmericCorps is an organization through which individuals can dedicate themselves to service and volunteering in the United States.

AmeriCorps volunteers can qualify for Public Service Loan Forgiveness (PSLF), meaning they can get their federal Direct student loans forgiven (“forgiveness” means you don’t have to pay back the loan and can stop repayment) after making 10 years (120 months) of qualifying payments. AmeriCorps service is considered the “employer” for PSLF.

6. Deferment and Forbearance

Deferment and forbearance are similar in that they allow federal loan borrowers to temporarily lower or stop making payments on their federal student loans for a certain period. The steps to achieve deferment and forbearance are also usually the same: Contact your loan servicer, submit a request, and provide the requested documentation.

However, the main difference is that interest does not accrue on some Direct Loans during a deferment. When your loan is in forbearance, you must pay the interest that accrues on your loans.

7. Forgiveness

Another option if you’re looking to pay off federal student loans could be forgiveness. As noted above, this term means that you don’t have to pay back some or all of your federal student loans.

As with serving in AmeriCorps, you may be able to get your federal student loans forgiven via the PSLF program if you work for a government or nonprofit organization. The PSLF program forgives the remaining balance on your Direct loans after you make 120 qualifying monthly payments under an accepted repayment plan and as long as you work full-time for an eligible employer.

You may also receive forgiveness of up to $17,500 on Direct Subsidized and Unsubsidized loans under the Teacher Loan Forgiveness (TLF) program. You may receive forgiveness if you teach full-time or complete five years in a low-income school or educational service agency and meet other qualifications. You may also receive forgiveness for consolidation loans, which occurs when you combine all your loans into one payment.

Note: Private student loan forgiveness is not available as it is with federal student loans. Still, there are avenues you can pursue if you are struggling to repay what you owe, such as discussing hardships with your private loan lender or seeking credit counseling.

The Takeaway

The majority of college graduates have student loan debt, and paying it off can be a stressful process. But there is help. If you have federal student loans and are looking for ways to pay them off as affordably as possible, you likely have plenty of options. Tapping into income-based repayment plans, considering military service or AmeriCorps, deferment, forbearance, or forgiveness can help you as you work to manage and eliminate those student loan payments.

For some people, refinancing their federal loans with a private loan may make sense and be a way to lower their payments or speed up their repayment schedule. However, it’s important to note the following:

•   If you refinance federal loans with a private loan, you forfeit access to federal protections and benefits, such as the deferment, forbearance, and forgiveness programs mentioned above.

•   If you refinance for an extended term, you may pay more interest over the life of the loan, so think carefully if this suits your overall financial picture.

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.

With SoFi, refinancing is fast, easy, and all online. We offer competitive fixed and variable rates.

Photo credit: iStock/PeopleImages

SoFi Student Loan Refinance
If you are a federal student loan borrower, you should consider all of your repayment opportunities including the opportunity to refinance your student loan debt at a lower APR or to extend your term to achieve a lower monthly payment. 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 or extended repayment plans.

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Non affiliation: SoFi isn’t affiliated with any of the companies highlighted in this article.

Financial Tips & Strategies: The tips provided on this website are of a general nature and do not take into account your specific objectives, financial situation, and needs. You should always consider their appropriateness given your own circumstances.

Tax Information: This article provides general background information only and is not intended to serve as legal or tax advice or as a substitute for legal counsel. You should consult your own attorney and/or tax advisor if you have a question requiring legal or tax advice.


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