Student loan forgiveness through income-driven repayment sounds like the best of all worlds: a monthly payment sized to match your paycheck that disappears — along with any remaining balance — after a set number of years.
But a new NerdWallet analysis finds most borrowers are unlikely to ever see that debt forgiven, despite the baked-in promise to do just that.
The projections show that even when federal loan borrowers make these income-driven payments each month, most will pay off their loans before they hit their forgiveness date, and those who do get their debt discharged will still accrue thousands in interest and face a high tax burden.
While income-driven plans remain the best choice for borrowers who need to shrink their monthly payments due to unemployment or want to shrink them as a safety net, they are not a long-term strategy to clear debt — especially for borrowers who earn more than $30,000 a year.
Federal student loan payments are set to restart May 2 after more than two years of pandemic forbearance. As millions of borrowers consider their best options to tackle their debt, here’s how income-driven repayment (IDR) might fit into their plans.
How is income-driven repayment forgiveness supposed to work?
As of the end of 2021, 33% of all federal student loan borrowers are enrolled in one of the four income-driven repayment plans, according to federal data.
The IDR plan you’re most likely to access is called Revised Pay As You Earn, or REPAYE. It caps payments at 10% of your discretionary income and sets your new repayment term at 20 years for undergraduate debt or 25 years for those with any graduate debt. If you haven’t paid off your debt by the end of your term, the remainder is forgiven.
IDR often lowers your monthly payment, but whether you’ll ever see forgiveness depends on your loan principal, interest rate and income over time.
“We’ve heard about the unaffordability of [IDR payments], but that’s not the crux; it’s this promise that you won’t be stuck in a lifetime of debt — that’s the piece that hasn’t quite hit,” says Persis Yu, policy director and managing counsel for the Student Borrower Protection Center.
The National Consumer Law Center and the Student Borrower Protection Center reported in September 2021 that only 32 borrowers had ever attained discharge through IDR since the program’s inception in 1995. The majority of borrowers currently enrolled in IDR are in the REPAYE plan, which launched in December 2015, and aren’t scheduled for discharge until 2035, at the earliest.
Forgiveness isn’t achievable for most borrowers
NerdWallet’s projections, for consistency, do not factor in several circumstances that could derail or delay repayment such as payment pauses, loss of income, wage stagnation or the addition of a spouse’s income to a borrower’s monthly payment calculation.
Considers two debt loads, based on federal direct loan maximums: $27,000 for undergraduates and $129,500 for those with graduate and undergraduate debt.
Factors in nine potential starting salaries ranging from $20,000 to $100,000 and assumes annual wages will rise 3% year over year.
Includes consolidated interest rates that reflect the last few years of rates that a borrower plausibly could have.
Measures the effect on federally taxed income for those who attain loan forgiveness, using 2021 tax calculations.
The analysis shows only two groups of borrowers — those with starting salaries of $20,000 and $30,000 — can expect to see their loans forgiven on $27,000 of debt. In addition, the borrower with a $20,000 starting salary would accrue $19,128 in interest and still pay $6,280 in income tax on the total forgiven debt of $31,027. The borrower with a $30,000 starting salary would accrue $15,164 in interest over time and only see $193 forgiven.
A borrower with a starting salary of $40,000 would pay off their loans in 149 months (roughly 12.4 years) while borrowers at a much higher starting salary of $100,000 would pay off their debt in 42 months — just 3½ years.
Starting salary (increasing 3% annually)
Months until loans are paid off
Total borrower pays
Borrowers with lower incomes are the most likely to benefit from IDR forgiveness. However, there’s strong evidence that this group of borrowers are not the ones enrolling. A July 2020 study from Third Way, a nonpartisan think tank, found that those with very low earnings ($12,500 or less) are less likely to enroll even though they stand to benefit the most. The research also found borrowers with more than $50,000 in student debt are the most likely to enroll in IDR.
Daniel Collier, one of the authors of the study and assistant professor of higher and adult education at the University of Memphis, says most people who can afford their payments on a traditional timeline may use income-driven repayment for financial safety.
“Forgiveness isn’t quite as generous as people like to think it is,” Collier says. “Most people who could pay off the debts on a traditional time and in a traditional way are just buying insurance, really.”
Reaching forgiveness is expensive
Even if you do see your loans forgiven, you’ll accrue a ton of interest on the way.
At the lower-earning end, a borrower with a $20,000 starting salary and $129,500 in student loans would see $237,338 forgiven in principal and interest but would have accrued $132,457 in interest alone during their 25-year repayment period.
For a borrower with a $50,000 starting salary and the same amount of debt, the amount of principal and interest forgiven would be $162,708, but the borrower would have accrued $167,205 in interest alone over time.
For those with starting salaries of $80,000, the borrower would only see $26,727 of their principal and interest forgiven, but will have accrued $140,601 in interest over time.
Borrowers could face a high tax burden
For now, any amount forgiven through income-driven repayment is not considered taxable income by the federal government through the end of 2025. But if you do reach forgiveness after that point, you may face an expensive downside: a high tax bill.
The amount forgiven is added to your total taxable income, which would increase the amount you owe the government. And it might push you into a higher tax bracket.
“Once you’re down the IDR rabbit hole, there’s no incentive to jump out, but borrowers know there’s this huge tax bomb coming down in a few years and they’re going to have to pay that bill, too,” says Collier.
A borrower with a starting salary of $40,000 and high debt, for example, would be pushed from the 22% tax bracket to the 32% tax bracket at the time of forgiveness, assuming today’s tax bracket distributions. Without the forgiven amount, this borrower would pay $13,637 (in current dollars) on their income; with forgiveness, they’d pay an additional $21,237 in income tax.
You should still use income-driven repayment if you need it
Plug your loan information into Federal Student Aid’s Loan Simulator to get an idea of what your monthly bills and costs could look like under an IDR plan. You can enroll in an IDR plan at any time. You must recertify your income each year.
IDR may not provide forgiveness effectively, but it is a safety net you should use when you:
Have a low income or you’re unemployed (you may see a $0 payment).
Can’t afford payments on a standard 10-year plan.
Don’t want to pause payments and accrue interest.
Have a high salary and want to pay off your debt fast.
Are pursuing Public Service Loan Forgiveness.
You shouldn’t use income-driven repayment when you:
Can afford your monthly payments on a standard 10-year plan.
Want to avoid paying more over time.
You should recertify if you:
Want to stick with income-driven repayment.
See a decrease in your income, at any time.
Want to continue pursuing forgiveness through PSLF or IDR.
You’ll have to submit an application on studentaid.gov or use a paper form. The application as well as a demo of the process are available on the Federal Student Aid website. Through July 31, 2022, borrowers can self-report their income without submitting tax documentation when applying for income-driven repayment. Your servicer will notify you when your application is complete and inform you of your new monthly amount.
Anna Helhoski writes for NerdWallet. Email: firstname.lastname@example.org. Twitter: @AnnaHelhoski.