What to Consider Before Trading a High Salary for Student Loan Forgiveness

student loan forgiveness

Student loan forgiveness sounds like a great idea. Help your community, earn some repayment assistance, and put the money toward your debt.

But even though it sounds like a good plan, it’s hard to get excited about it. For those with potentially high-paying professions, the idea of giving up years of higher income for a chance at student loan forgiveness isn’t always appealing.

Would you give up a high salary for student loan forgiveness?

Student loan forgiveness program requirements often revolve around working in an underserved community. Though these jobs help those who need it most, they often offer a much lower salary than workers could find elsewhere.

For example, instead of earning $150,000 to $300,000 a year as a doctor or lawyer, you might only earn $50,000 to $60,000 in a job that qualifies for loan forgiveness. That’s a lot of salary to give up.

“In general, you’ll make more money net if you take a higher-paying private sector job, even with loan forgiveness,” said Mark Kantrowitz, publisher of Cappex, a free website about college admissions and financial aid.

When you consider the Public Service Loan Forgiveness (PSLF) program, the sacrifice becomes even greater. “It’s a 10-year commitment, and it’s all or nothing,” Kantrowitz pointed out. “If you stop pursuing forgiveness at year nine, you’re not getting anything.”

It’s one thing to give up all those earnings for three or four years, he added. It’s another thing altogether to give up a much higher salary for a full decade. “It might not make sense for a lawyer,” he continued, “but some doctors can gain a benefit, depending on their situations.”

One of the realities of medical school is that once you’ve graduated, you must still complete a residency.

“You’re earning a salary, but it’s $50,000 or $60,000 a year. You might qualify for income-based repayment and work toward forgiveness,” Kantrowitz said. “If you’ve been doing your residency and fellowship at a public hospital for several years, it can make sense to keep working at that public hospital for another four or five years to preserve the forgiveness you’ve earned so far.”

Other student loan forgiveness programs

Kantrowitz pointed to the current legal case put forth by the American Bar Association. He said the main problem with long-term programs like PSLF is that you can wait a decade for forgiveness just for the government to tell you they’ve changed the game.

“You have to trust it won’t change in 10 years after you’ve already given up all that money in potential salary,” he said.

Instead, Kantrowitz suggested looking into programs with shorter service commitments. You might not get as much loan forgiveness this way. But you can still get money to pay down student loan debts, feel good about your work, and move on to a higher salary.

“Earn education awards through AmeriCorps, VISTA, or PeaceCorps to pay down loans,” Kantrowitz said. “It’s money that goes toward your student loans … after a smaller time commitment.”

PSLF alternatives

Kantrowitz pointed out that programs like PSLF make it affordable to make that choice. “Public Service Loan Forgiveness removes debt as a disincentive to stick with these jobs, but it doesn’t offer an incentive,” he said.

But those who seek forgiveness might not be willing to stay in that field for 10 years. “If you can get something that will knock tens of thousands of dollars off your loans without waiting 10 years before you start making much more, that can be a better choice,” Kantrowitz said.

For medical professionals especially, there are many more options for student loan forgiveness. If you’re not interested in qualifying for PSLF, check out the following:

  • National Service Health Corps (NHSC): If you’re willing to practice at an NHSC-approved site for two years, you can receive between $30,000 and $50,000 toward your student loans.
  • National Institutes of Health (NIH): If you spend two years involved in certain health research funded by a domestic nonprofit or a government entity, you can get up to $35,000 of student loan forgiveness per year.
  • Faculty Loan Repayment Program (FLRP): For teaching full- or part-time at an accredited health school, you can get up to $40,000 toward your student loans.

Kantrowitz also suggested checking into state programs. Many states offer their own medical and legal student loan forgiveness grants and programs. These programs are more likely to have shorter service terms. Start your search with this full list of forgiveness and assistance programs.

Student loan forgiveness is more about passion

Trading a big salary for student loan forgiveness is a decision that’s made based on your long-term goals and lifestyle preferences.

“You don’t take a public service job because you want to get loans forgiven, especially if you choose a high-paying profession,” Kantrowitz said. “You take these jobs because you want to do good for society and you’re willing to sacrifice.”

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