Student Debt Forgiveness, Repayment Options for Social Workers

These federal programs can provide student loan debt forgiveness for qualifying social workers.
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Matthew Arrojas is a news reporter at BestColleges covering higher education issues and policy. He previously worked as the hospitality and tourism news reporter at the South Florida Business Journal. He also covered higher education policy issues as...
Published on July 5, 2023
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  • Many social workers may qualify for public service loan forgiveness (PSLF) if they work for a government agency or nonprofit.
  • Student debt is often seen as a barrier to social work as many jobs in the field are perceived as low-paying.

Social work is often a profession of passion, with most students seeking a degree in this field with the aim of serving and helping their community.

The downside, however, is that the pursuit of a social work degree can leave students with high student loan balances. Moreover, entry-level positions in the field of social work aren't high-paying, leaving recent graduates worrying about how they'll manage to pay off tens of thousands of dollars in student loan debt.

According to a report to the Council on Social Work Education and the National Association of Social Workers, the mean starting salary for a recent social work graduate was $47,100 in 2020. The median debt was $66,000.

Thankfully, programs exist to reward students for their service post-graduation.

Here are some of the federal programs providing debt forgiveness and repayment options available for qualifying students.

National Debt Forgiveness, Repayment Programs

Debt Forgiveness Through Public Service

The Public Service Loan Forgiveness (PSLF) program is perhaps the federal government's most encompassing debt forgiveness program.

PSLF rewards any worker who commits to 10 years of public service with a total discharge of all federal student loan debt. The primary requirement is that borrowers work for a federal, state, local, or tribal government or nonprofit organization.

This is great news for most social workers, as the two most common employers of social workers are nonprofits and government agencies.

A 2017 report to the Council on Social Work Education found that 34.3% of people in the profession worked at a private, nonprofit, or charitable organization. Another 41% worked for federal, state, or local governments.

People who work for a qualifying employer can apply to have their federal student loan debt erased after making 120 qualifying payments. That's the equivalent of 10 years of continual payments.

While the standard debt repayment timeline is 10 years, people who plan to apply for PSLF often enroll into an income-driven repayment (IDR) plan, which creates significantly lower monthly payments in most circumstances. Normally, a borrower wouldn't qualify for debt forgiveness on an IDR plan until 20 or 25 years of continual repayment.

Borrowers must be employed at a government job or nonprofit for the entire 10 years of repayment to qualify.

It does not, however, have to be the same job or with the same employer for all 10 years.

$50K for Healthcare Workers Extends to Social Work

The National Health Service Corps (NHSC) Loan Repayment Program can aid social workers, not just traditional healthcare workers.

The program incentivizes clinicians — including behavioral healthcare providers — to work in "urban, rural, or tribal communities with limited access to care." The federal government has a list of Health Professional Shortage Areas (HPSAs) that applicants must work in to qualify for the program. They usually are outpatient facilities.

Two years of full-time service (40 hours per week) will repay up to $50,000 in student loan debt. Two years of part-time service (20 hours) will pay up to $25,000.

Unlike PSLF, the Loan Repayment Program applies to both government and private student loans.

The following mental and behavioral health disciplines are eligible for the NHSC program:

  • Health service psychologist
  • Licensed clinical social worker
  • Licensed professional counselor
  • Marriage and family therapist
  • Nurse practitioner — mental health and psychiatry
  • Physician assistant — mental health and psychiatry

An applicant must be a U.S. citizen or U.S. national to qualify for the program.

Program participants can apply to extend their contracts past two years to receive another $20,000 per year. Continuation contracts, however, are not guaranteed.

This loan repayment program does not apply to Parent PLUS loans.

Debt Repayment for Serving Native Communities

The Indian Health Service (IHS) Loan Repayment Program is similar to the NHSC program, but it instead focuses on placing clinicians into American Indian and Alaska Native communities.

Starting in 2023, the IHS program will pay back $25,000 per year in student loans for those who sign a two-year contract. Previously, the program only covered $20,000 per year.

Participants can apply to have their contract extended to repay additional debt beyond $50,000.

The following behavior health professions are eligible for the IHS Loan Repayment Program:

  • Clinical Psychologist: Ph.D. or Psy.D.
  • Counselor: Master's degree
  • Psychologist: Ph.D.
  • Social Worker: Master's degree and license

The IHS program differs from the NHSC program in that it only pays back student loans taken out for the discipline they are in that qualifies them for the program.

For example, let's say a student has a bachelor's degree in mathematics and a master's in social work. The IHS program will only pay back debt accumulated in pursuit of the master's in social work degree, but it will not cover debt for the bachelor's degree in math.