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Published: Feb 09, 2022 11 min read
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By May 2020, when Misty Wyscarver’s youngest of four children had graduated from college, Wyscarver had racked up a total of $194,000 in debt. Her parent PLUS loans, taken over the span of 9 years, were on top of the student loans her kids borrowed.

As a public librarian, Wyscarver, 55, of Caldwell, Ohio had been vaguely aware of a government program that offers loan forgiveness to borrowers with qualifying jobs like hers. But she didn’t explore her own participation in Public Service Loan Forgiveness (PSLF) until her oldest child suggested it.

Federal parent PLUS borrowers are the one of fastest growing segments of higher education borrowers. At the end of 2021, parents held $105 billion in PLUS loans, a 35% increase from five years earlier. The typical parent borrows about $24,400, but many borrow much more. Because these loans don’t come with caps as student loans do, parents can get into trouble quickly by borrowing more than their income can support. With fewer years left in their working career and limited repayment options, a hefty PLUS debt can easily derail parents' retirement plans.

But there are relief valves available, including options to have your loans forgiven. Those who work in a public service job may be able to qualify for Public Service Loan Forgiveness, while parents with a low income can limit the size of their monthly payments.

Both options require enrolling in what’s called the Income-Contingent Repayment Plan, which sets monthly payments at 20% of your income and forgives your balance after either 10 years (PLSF) or 25 years (ICR) of qualifying payments.

Still, getting your loans forgiven through either of these strategies involves jumping through a few hoops, and the process can get complicated when you’re borrowing for multiple children. Here's how to navigate the process:

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1. Understand the eligibility for Public Service Loan Forgiveness

Getting set up requires some due diligence to ensure you meet the requirements.

For starters, you, the parent, must be employed full-time with a qualifying employer: a 501c3 organization or the government (either local, state, federal, tribal, or the military). Working at a non-profit organization while employed by a private contractor — as a contracting doctor with an emergency department, for example — doesn’t qualify, says Fred Amrein, CEO of PayforEd, a student loan assistance company. Nor can you turn over your loans to your graduate working in a qualifying job.

Technically, parent PLUS loans themselves don’t qualify for forgiveness. So, second, you must enroll in an income-driven repayment plan. To access it, you'll need to consolidate your PLUS loans into a Direct Consolidation Loan to become eligible for the Income-Contingent Repayment Plan, the only income-driven plan available to parent borrowers.

You must recertify your income and family size every year, and your payment amount — set at 20% of what the government defines as your “discretionary income” — may fluctuate as your earnings do. Private loans don’t qualify for ICR or PSLF. They need to be paid separately.

Then, you must make 120 payments while working for the qualified employer. The payments, which add up to a decade of public sector work, don’t need to be consecutive or with the same employer. However, you should fill out paperwork with the Education Department each year to certify your job and confirm you’re on track with eligible employment.

That is one of the steps that may require jumping through several hoops, as Wyscarver learned. Her annual employment recertification form was denied twice last year before her servicer corrected the error. (Pro tip: You can recertify your job and income at the same time.)

Finally, note that if you’ve already been paying PLUS loans while working in a job that qualifies for PSLF, but you weren’t in the correct payment plan, you can’t (for now) get retroactive credit toward forgiveness. Student borrowers have access to a temporary waiver from the Education Department that will do just that, but parent borrowers weren’t included in the relaxed rules.

2. Consider your income

While loan forgiveness sounds appealing to all borrowers, these programs aren’t a good fit for every one. The question is: how much did you borrow (or plan to borrow) and what is your income?

“The goal of working toward forgiveness is to pay as little as possible to maximize the forgiveness,” says Meagan Landress, a certified student loan professional with Student Loan Planner.

So, if your earnings are high relative to how much debt you have, then this may not be the most efficient way to pay off your loans. In other words, the PSLF program won’t offer much benefit if your income-based payments are so large that you have no balance to forgive at the end of 120 payments.

But if you earn $50,000 like Wyscarver does and you have substantial debt, it makes sense. On a standard 10-year repayment plan, her payment would be around $2,400, she says. On the ICR plan, it’s about $250.

3. Ask yourself when you’ll retire

It’s also important to consider the likelihood of working long enough at the right job to earn forgiveness. A word to wise here: You may be counting on working into your late 60s or early 70s, but research has found people regularly overestimate their final years in the workforce.

There’s a lot you can’t predict, including possibly losing or being forced out of your job, or having to stop out to care for an elderly parent, spouse or child.

“If PSLF doesn’t work out for some reason, you need to have a Plan B,” says Rachel Fishman, deputy director for research with the Education Policy program at New America. For many people, that’s the ICR plan. (More on that below.)

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4. Strategize who takes the loans

The parent with the qualifying job — that’s either a government job or a position at a non-profit organization — is the person who should take the PLUS loans, says Amrein, who advises families on strategies for paying and borrowing for college. Wyscarver and her husband also file their taxes separately so her loan payment is calculated based only on her income. They lose out on other tax advantages, but it’s the only way to keep her income-based payment low, she says.

5. Be careful about when you consolidate

If your goal is to maximize the amount of debt you get forgiven, you can’t make payments to get ahead while your student is in school because payments during “in-school status” or the 6-month grace period after graduation don’t count toward PSLF. That means you need to be confident you’ll be working in your qualifying job for at least 14 years — the four years your student is in college and the 10 years of payments after they graduate, Fishman says.

If you have two or more kids, you'll have to add to that timeline. In fact, it can make sense to wait until after the younger child graduates to consolidate all your loans, Landress says. The reason: once you consolidate your loan for your first student’s education, the 120-payment schedule starts without your loans for your younger student rolled in.

The loans for your younger student(s) would then need to be consolidated separately, and that means you could have two (or more) 120-payment schedules with different finishing dates. You don't want to consolidate your older student’s loans first and then later consolidate your younger student’s loans with them, because it will start the clock over on payments, erasing the progress you’ve made toward forgiveness.

That’s why it can make sense to put loans from an older student in forbearance while the younger one is in school. Once the younger student has graduated, “you enter repayment to pursue PSLF from there and get them all forgiven at the same time,” Landress says.

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6. If PSLF doesn’t work out, fall back on Income-Contingent Repayment

If PSLF doesn’t work out — you have to apply for it after your 120 qualifying payments — you’re already enrolled in the ICR plan. After 300 ICR payments, the balance is forgiven. Of course, that could mean you’re paying parent loans well into your 70s or 80s, which is likely not what you’re planning on for your golden years.

“Twenty-five years is a long time to have a monthly payment, especially going into retirement,” Landress says.

But the ICR plan still provides relief to lower-income borrowers with large debt loads and helps them avoid the steep consequences of defaulting, during which the federal government can garnish wages or Social Security payments or seize tax refunds. Let’s say you lose your job at age 64 and you begin living solely on a small Social Security check. On the ICR plan, you could have a zero-dollar payment that still counts toward forgiveness, Fishman says.

To learn more about PSLF and ICR forgiveness, start with studentaid.gov. Also talk to your loan servicer about your options, Fishman says. For more detailed advice on tax strategies and retirement planning for borrowers, a financial advisor with a certified student loan planner designation and a tax background may be worth consulting.

Finally, and perhaps most importantly, if you haven’t taken out the PLUS loans yet, consider whether your student can choose an educational path that requires less or no parent borrowing.

Wyscarver says she doesn't regret her kids' educations. But she cautions parents to understand what borrowing close to retirement will mean and says she wishes she had more guidance on her repayment options.

"I would have signed up for PSLF as soon as possible," she says.

More from Money:

Still Paying for College at 65: A Growing Number of Americans Are Retiring With Student Debt

Why Hasn't Joe Biden Forgiven All Your Student Loan Debt? Short Answer: He Never Promised To

Public Service Loan Forgiveness: 5 Steps to Getting Your Student Loans Canceled Under the Temporary Waiver