If you’re hoping to become a firefighter, or already working as one, you’ve made a noble choice. Besides putting out local blazes, firefighters also rescue victims, educate the public on fire prevention, attend to medical emergencies, and respond to disasters. There are nearly 1.2 million firefighters in the U.S., with 35% choosing the role as a career and 65% volunteering.
There’s a shortage of firefighters in many parts of the country, putting communities at risk. So this is clearly impactful work. But if you have student loans, you may wonder whether your loan payments will be affordable given the modest salaries some firefighters make. And you may be curious about whether you’re eligible for any extra relief thanks to performing a needed public service.
You usually don’t need a college or an advanced degree to become a firefighter, but many career and volunteer firefighters do bring along student loans. That’s no surprise, given that the majority of college students are graduating with debt, and total student loan debt in the U.S. has reached $1.5 trillion .
The good news is that, as a firefighter, you have options for student loan assistance and forgiveness. Here’s a guide to help you navigate them:
Firefighter Student Loan Relief
One potential way to take advantage of student debt forgiveness if you have federal loans is to sign up for an income-driven repayment (IDR) plan. The federal government offers four IDR different plans that aim to make your monthly payment affordable by tying your monthly payments to a percentage of your discretionary income, usually between 10% and 20%.
If you make your qualifying monthly payments on time under one of these programs, the remaining balance may be forgiven in 20 to 25 years. The specific plans you’re eligible for depend on the types of loans you have, your income and family size, and when you borrowed.
Considering that the median annual salary for firefighters is less than $50,000 , these types of plans can go a long way toward making your loan repayment manageable. To apply, you need to submit an IDR Plan Request online with the Department of Education, or by requesting a paper form from your loan servicer. The loan servicer can also help answer any questions you have about your eligibility or how the plans work.
Public Service Loan Forgiveness
If you have federal student loans, as a firefighter you may also qualify for Public Service Loan Forgiveness (PSLF). Under this program, you must work full-time for a qualifying employer , which includes a government agency or a non-profit that provides public safety or emergency management services. Currently, you only qualify if you’re a full-time employee, and not a volunteer.
In December 2017, several U.S. senators introduced a bill that would expand eligibility to volunteer first responders, including firefighters, to acknowledge how many communities are served by volunteers. The legislation hasn’t progressed, but student loan forgiveness for volunteer firefighters is something to keep an eye on.
To qualify for PSLF, you must submit an Employment Certification Form to the Department of Education annually or when you switch jobs. If you make your qualifying minimum payment under an income-driven repayment plan for 120 months then the federal government can forgive the remaining balance on your loan.
You can change jobs over this period—you just need to be making payments with a qualifying employer for 120 months (after October 1, 2007), and those payments don’t have to be consecutive.
Note that you’re only eligible for Public Service Loan Forgiveness if you borrowed under the William D. Ford Federal Direct Loan Program. This includes Direct Subsidized Loans, Direct Unsubsidized Loans, Direct PLUS Loans, and Direct Consolidation Loans.
If you borrowed before July 2010, you may have loans under an earlier program known as the Federal Family Education Loan Program or the Federal Perkins Loan Program. To qualify for Public Service Loan Forgiveness, you would need to consolidate these older loans by taking out a Direct Consolidation Loan, then paying this new loan off under an income-based repayment plan.
Note: if you consolidate older loans with Direct Loans, you may lose credit for any payments you already made that would’ve qualified for forgiveness under the program. Also, if your loans are currently in default, you would need to take steps to get them out of default in order to qualify for Public Service Loan Forgiveness.
If you have had a federal Perkins Loan , you may also qualify to have all or part of that debt wiped away. (Perkins Loans are discontinued, for the record, but there are still many borrowers working to repay the ones disbursed before September 30, 2017.) If you’re a full-time firefighter, you may be able to get the entire Perkins Loan canceled , including interest accrued, after five years of service (the service must have started on August 14, 2008, or later).
Further, you must work for a local, state, or federal fire department or fire district. The way cancellation works is that 15% of the principal is canceled after the first and second years, 20% is canceled after the third and fourth years, and 30% is cancelled after the fifth year. You need to apply for the cancellation directly with the school that issued the Perkins Loan or the school’s loan servicer.
When looking for debt relief opportunities, be careful not to get sucked in by student loan forgiveness scams. Plenty of ads and websites promise to help you get student loan assistance by touting questionable programs, such as the Obama Student Loan Forgiveness plan. Some of these specifically target public service professionals, including firefighters.
These organizations aim to take advantage of the fact that navigating the student loan forgiveness maze can be confusing. But in reality, they take your money only to fill out forms you could’ve submitted yourself for free, or even for performing no services at all. So tread carefully when looking for firefighter loan forgiveness, and focus on official programs you can access through the federal government or your loan servicer.
Consider Refinancing Your Student Loans
Another way to get a handle on your student debt is to look into refinancing with a private lender. For some borrowers, especially those with decent credit and employment history, refinancing can help obtain a lower interest rate and reduce the overall cost of the loan, depending on the term you select. It can also make your monthly payments lower, which makes them more affordable.
When you refinance your student loans, you take out a new loan and use it to repay all or some of your existing federal or private loans (or both). You do have to give up benefits of federal loans, such as deferment, forbearance, income-based repayment plans, and Public Service Loan Forgiveness. But depending on your income and your existing interest rates, refinancing can reduce what some borrowers owe.
With SoFi, you don’t pay any fees to refinance, and there are no penalties for paying your loans ahead of schedule. You can choose between fixed rates (which will stay the same over the life of the loan) or variable rates (which often start out lower but can change over time). It takes just a few minutes to see what rates you may qualify for.
Paving the Way to a Career in Public Service
Pursuing your dream of being a firefighter can be daunting when your finances feel like a disaster. But you have lots of options for making your student debt manageable, including federal student debt relief for firefighters and refinancing.
Educating yourself about these opportunities and taking advantage of them can help you put your mind at ease, so you can focus on saving lives.
The information and analysis provided through hyperlinks to third party websites, while believed to be accurate, cannot be guaranteed by SoFi. Links are provided for informational purposes and should not be viewed as an endorsement.
Notice: SoFi refinance loans are private loans and do not have the same repayment options that the federal loan program offers such as Income-Driven Repayment plans, including Income-Contingent Repayment or PAYE. SoFi always recommends that you consult a qualified financial advisor to discuss what is best for your unique situation.
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.