Updated on 05.15.15

Student Loan Forgiveness: Joining the Military

US Army paratroopers in training

It’s not easy, and it’s not for everyone, but military service comes with many benefits — including student loan forgiveness. Photo: U.S. Army

Dealing with student loan debt can seem unbearable and overwhelming. As I mentioned in 15 Ways To Deal with Student Loan Debt, the average student owes a whopping $40,000 after graduation — but almost one in five students owes $50,000 or more, and 5.6 percent owe over $100,000.

Maybe you worked hard to save money in college, diligently keeping your student loan debt in mind. Maybe you made some huge financial mistakes during college and ended up taking out much more than you imagined. Whatever road you took to amass this student loan debt, now is the time to start planning your exit route.

One idea often thrown around when talking about student loan debt is the option of Student Loan Forgiveness. Student Loan Forgiveness is simply what it sounds like – a portion of your student loan debt gets forgiven, and you no longer owe that set amount of money. Pretty sweet, right?

Many people don’t explore this “too good to be true” option since they don’t know about it, they don’t understand it, or they don’t think they’d qualify for such an amazing benefit. That is exactly why I decided to do this Student Loan Forgiveness series, exploring different ways you can eliminate some or all of your student loan debt. Next up: joining the military.

Student Loan Forgiveness Programs for U.S. Military Personnel

Putting yourself at risk to serve your country isn’t an easy bargain, so joining the military comes with many benefits to make it more appealing — one of which is help with the high cost of education.

Most of us are familiar with the basic benefits of the GI Bill — how you can get a good chunk of your college education paid for in exchange for military service. But the armed forces offer many other opportunities for currently enrolled students or those thinking about college as well.

The student loan assistance programs below, though, are specifically for student loan repayment — which means you have already accrued debt from college and are seeking assistance with paying it off.

Pros and Cons of Joining the Military for Student Loan Forgiveness

Joining the military is a huge, life-changing decision. Serving in the armed forces offers many incredible opportunities, but it is also one of the hardest, and riskiest, options you can choose. Before you jump in, you need to consider the pros and cons of joining the military for student loan reimbursement benefits:

Pros

  • Depending on your eligibility and your program, you may be able to earn money toward your student loan debt, which can, of course, benefit your financial future immensely.
  • Depending on the branch of military you join and your exact role, you may also earn a salary and health benefits. This is also true for choosing a job that offers student loan forgiveness.
  • Most military personnel also receive free or discounted housing.
  • You get the chance to serve your country and make a difference in the world. Volunteer programs that offer student loan forgiveness also offer the chance to help people and make an impact.
  • The military offers the chance to build your resume and learn useful, marketable, and often high-tech skills while you serve. The experience can help you build a very rewarding career, whether you decide to stay in the military or leave after your commitment.
  • You may also get the chance to travel, and you could be eligible for future tuition assistance in addition to help with the student loans you already have.

Cons

  • Joining the military could cause you severe physical and psychological harm. Consider the dramatic, life-changing risks. According to U.S. News & World Report, approximately 5,700 Americans have been killed in the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, and almost 40,000 have been injured.
  • You may have no control over where you are sent and what you are asked to do.
  • Joining the military is a physical, emotional, and mental sacrifice that will require hard work, perseverance, exceptional strength, and courage. If your heart’s not in it, or if you’re only joining the military to get your student loan debts paid off, you are probably doing it for the wrong reasons.
  • Depending on your role, you may find yourself in dangerous or even life-threatening situations.
  • You need to make a commitment and serve for a specific amount of time, which could be difficult if you have a change of heart.

Active Duty Health Professions Loan Repayment Program

This student loan repayment program is only for fully qualified health professionals that are also on active duty.

If you qualify, you’ll be eligible to receive $40,000 per year toward your student loan debt for up to three years if you are in the dental, medical, allied health, nursing, or veterinary corps while serving active duty.

You can be eligible for up to $50,000 in total loan forgiveness over three years if you are in the dental, medical, allied health, nurse, or veterinary corps serving in the reserves.

Qualifying loans include:

Stafford Loans
Grad PLUS loans
Consolidation loans
Perkins loans
Health professions student loans (HPSLs)
Private student loans

For more information, visit GoArmy.com.

Air Force College Loan Repayment Program

Prior to enlisting in the Air Force, you can sign up for the Air Force College Loan Repayment Program, which could mean up to $10,000 of your student loan balance forgiven.

Qualifying loans include:

Stafford loans
Consolidation loans
Parent PLUS loans
Grad PLUS loans
Perkins loans
Auxiliary Loan Assistance for Students (ALAS loans)
Federally Insured Student Loans (FISL loans)

Visit AirForce.com for more information.

Army Student Loan Repayment

Through this program, you can receive up to 33-1/3 percent or $1,500, whichever is greater, toward the unpaid principal balance of your student loans for each year of enlisted active duty.

Qualifying loans include:

Stafford loans
Grad PLUS loans
Parent PLUS loans
Consolidation loans
Perkins loans
Supplemental loans for students (SLS)

Contact an Army recruiter to learn how to apply, find out whether you’re eligible, and learn more about what active duty service in the Army entails.

Navy Loan Repayment Program

To be eligible for this specific loan repayment program (LRP), you need to be serving a minimum of three years on active duty, and you must be serving in your first enlistment as well.

If you’re eligible, you may receive up to 33-1/3 percent or $1,500 per year toward your principal balance, whichever is greater. Through this program, you can receive a maximum of $65,000 in loan forgiveness. For your loans to qualify, they must not be in default, which happens when you have missed payments.

Qualifying loans include:

Stafford loans
Grad PLUS loans
Consolidation loans
Perkins loans

You can visit Navy.com for more information, or contact a Navy recruiter for details.

National Guard Student Loan Repayment

The National Guard Student Loan Repayment program offers alleviation from student loan debt if you sign up to serve.

In order to qualify for this LRP as a non-prior service soldier, there are a number of criteria: You must enlist for a minimum of six years, enlist for a critical skills vacancy in the grade of E-4 or below, enlist in a qualifying position in an MTO or medical TDA unit only, score a minimum score of 50 on the Armed Forces Qualifying Test (AFQT). You cannot also be enlisting as a 09R SMP cadet, RFP, or Active First Program, and you must not be enlisted as a glossary non-prior service soldier (GNPS).

There are different stipulations for student loan forgiveness if you are a current National Guard member or a prior service soldier.

If you are eligible, you can earn up to $7,500 annually, with a maximum of $50,000, toward your qualifying student loan debts.

Qualifying loans include:

Stafford loans
Grad PLUS loans
Consolidation loans
Perkins loans

For more information on requirements and how the program works, visit the National Guard Student Loan Forgiveness website.

Things to Keep In Mind

Once you discover the chance to get a portion of your student loans forgiven, it can be quite tempting to instantly sign up. But before you apply, and especially before you sign a contact, you need to thoroughly understand how you receive this loan reimbursement and what you’ll be doing to get it. Here are some things to consider:

  • Know the severity of signing up for the military. Make sure you understand what you’ll probably be doing, what you could potentially end up doing, where you’d be living and for how long, and, of course, the physical and emotional risks involved.
  • Do your research. If you haven’t considered joining the military before now, you really need to consider whether it’s the right choice for you. Do thorough research and soul-searching to determine if this is the right path to take.
  • Understand the terms of your contract. How long do you have to serve? What are the terms of your service?
  • Know what happens if it doesn’t work out. What happens if you get injured and can’t serve, for example? Is there a way out?
  • Be certain your loans qualify. Many loan forgiveness opportunities only apply to certain types of loans. But that’s not the only catch: Some programs have stipulations on how those loans were used — did all of the money go toward tuition, or did you use some of it for living expenses? The same is true for where you went to school and the program you studied. Confirm that your course of study qualifies for reimbursement. And in some cases, if your student loan went into default, it won’t qualify, regardless of whether it would have qualified initially.
  • Ask about the student loan forgiveness options prior to enlisting. For many of these opportunities, you need to sign up prior to enlisting.
  • Compare the benefits of these student loan forgiveness programs. How much will you be forgiven? How much will your salary be? If the loan forgiveness program forces you to take a lower salary than you could earn elsewhere, or move to an area with a higher cost of living, it might not be worth it.
  • If you weren’t already interested in joining the military, consider other student loan forgiveness options that are potentially less life-altering. These include volunteering for loan assistance, getting a job that pays your student loans, or even moving to an area that offers a student loan forgiveness incentive. You can also explore consolidating your loans as an option to simplify your finances. Of course, there’s also the old-fashioned way: Trying to earn extra money while sticking to a budget to pay down your student loan debt more quickly.

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