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Teacher Loan Forgiveness: What You Should Know Before You Apply

College can be expensive, but for teachers who choose to work in low-income, high-need areas, there is relief from the the high cost of student loans through government loan forgiveness programs. But how do you know if you qualify? Or when to apply? Or how much you'd even be able to get to cover your loans? We've got all the answers here, helping you learn everything you need to know about teacher loan forgiveness programs before you apply, saving you time and helping you pay down those hefty student loans.

Are you eligible?

In order to qualify for federal teacher loan forgiveness programs, there are some eligibility requirements teachers must meet. Read on to learn if you can get a little help from good old Uncle Sam with your student loans.

  • Your loans must be of a certain type and be in good standing.

    Not all loans are eligible for federal loan forgiveness programs. You must have federal direct subsidized or unsubsidized loans, federal Stafford subsidized or unsubsidized loans, or federal Perkins loans. Your loans must also be in good standing; if you are in default, you will not qualify for forgiveness until you have made satisfactory repayment arrangements with the holder of the loan. Additionally, the loans you are seeking must have been made prior to the five-year period required to achieve loan forgiveness.

  • You must have taught for five consecutive years.

    Teachers cannot apply for loan forgiveness until they have taught at a qualifying school or schools for at least five years. Those five years must be complete and consecutive. If for some reason you were unable to complete an entire year at a school, that time can still count if you taught at least half the year, you fulfilled any contractual obligations to the school, or you left the school to return to college, perform service in the military, or because of conditions covered by the Family and Medical Leave Act.

  • You must teach at schools that serve low-income or high-need populations.

    Not all schools are eligible for the loan forgiveness program. In an effort to encourage teachers to work in neighborhoods that have a high need for qualified educators, loan forgiveness is limited to schools that qualify for funds under Title I of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act, have been selected by the U.S. Department of Education based on the percentage of students who qualify for Title I funds, are in the Directory of Designated Low-Income Schools for Teacher Cancellation Benefits, or meet other qualifications. Your school must qualify for these requirements for at least one year of the five years of teaching you are counting towards loan forgiveness. Additionally, other educational service industry work may also qualify but you will need to ensure that the agency through which the work was done is eligible under these guidelines.

Don't meet these requirements? There are still other forms of loan forgiveness you may be able to get, depending on your circumstances. Some states have their own forgiveness programs (Mississippi is one example) and volunteers with AmeriCorps, the Peace Corps, and VISTA can also get help with school costs. Check with the American Federation of Teachers here for a list of alternate loan forgiveness and grant programs.

How much can you get?

Federal loan forgiveness programs can be pretty generous, especially for teachers working in certain fields. Here's what you can expect to get if you qualify for forgiveness.

  • Full-time elementary or secondary school teachers can receive up to $5,000 in loan forgiveness.

    If you work at an elementary or secondary school you may qualify for as much as $5,000 in loan forgiveness if the chief administrative officer of the school can verify that you have taught a subject area relevant to your academic major or that you have demonstrated knowledge and teaching skills in reading, writing, mathematics, and other areas of curriculum. You must also be state-certified and not have had that certification waived on any basis.

  • Full-time mathematics, science, or special education teachers can receive up to $17,500 in loan forgiveness.

    Because these types of teachers are in higher demand, the government is willing to give greater amounts of loan forgiveness to teachers who specialize in math and science at the secondary level or who teach special education at any level. These teachers must also be highly qualified and certified to teach in their given area of expertise to be eligible for loan forgiveness. If you had already claimed $5,000 in loan forgiveness, you may qualify for an additional $12,500 if you changed specializations to focus on math, science, or special education.

How do you apply?

If you meet the requirements for federal teacher loan forgiveness, all that's left to do is apply. Learn how to start the process here.

  • Begin by printing and completing the Teacher Loan Forgiveness Application.

    This will be your first step and is the most essential part of starting the process. You will fill out the majority of the form, but you must also get the chief administrative official at your school (a principal or dean) to fill out the certification section. If you worked for more than one school during the five years you are counting towards your loan forgiveness, you must get administrators from all of the schools to certify your eligibility.

  • Once the application is complete, submit it to your loan holder or servicer.

    They will take care of processing your application and getting the money applied to your loans if and when you are approved. If you have multiple loan holders or servicers, make sure to submit a form to each of them.

  • Then, play the waiting game.

    It may take a while to hear back on the status of your loan forgiveness, sometimes as long as 45 days. Check back with your loan holder regularly to ensure that things are going smoothly. If all goes well, you'll have a substantial chunk of your debt taken care of and can move on with putting your money towards other things.

For any additional questions teachers may have about qualifying, applying, or getting loan forgiveness, head to the U.S. government's Federal Student Aid site for information and links to documents.