You generally don’t have to pay for help if you’re struggling with your student loans. The Department of Education (DoE) and many servicers offer free resources to guide you through changing your repayment plan or applying for forgiveness. But these might not help if you’re in legal trouble and need personalized assistance.
Student loan application help
Applying for federal student loans isn’t as complicated as it used to be, but the Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA) can still take some time. There are several free resources available to help guide you through the application.
What it does: Estimates how much federal aid you’ll receive
The FAFSA4caster is an online tool you can use to get an estimate of how much federal aid you’ll receive at different schools you’re considering. It’s available for free through the Federal Student Aid (FSA) website. Knowing how much federal funding you might get can help you decide how many scholarships and grants to apply for and if you need to look into private student loan options.
Federal Student Aid Information Center
What it does: Answers questions about the FAFSA and your federal loans
This information center has answers to frequently asked questions about applying for federal student loans, finding out how to make repayments and why you received the amount of funds you were awarded. If you can’t find answers online, you can reach out via live chat, email or phone by calling 800-433-3243 — or 334-523-2691 for international calls. Its call line is available weekdays from 8 a.m. to 11 p.m. ET and 11 a.m. to 5 p.m. ET on weekends.
IRS Data Retrieval Tool
What it does: Pulls your family’s tax information when you apply for federal student loans
Where to find it: On the FAFSA
You no longer have to hunt through your family’s tax returns when you apply for federal student aid thanks to this time-saving tool. It pops up when you’re filling out the FAFSA online and fills in as much information as it can. You still might want to have your tax returns on hand though, in case the data retrieval tool leaves any required fields blank.
Free online resources
What they do: Offer step-by-step instructions and tips to fill out the FAFSA and apply for private aid
Where to find them: On a variety of websites that offer student loans or financial advice
My Federal Student Aid should be the first place to look if you’re not sure who your servicer is or need basic information about your federal loans. You can access this information by going to the Federal Student Aid website and logging in with your FSA ID.
Student Loan Repayment Estimator
What it does: Compares federal student loan repayment plans
If you’re struggling with repayments on your federal student loans, you might want to change up your repayment plan. The Student Loan Repayment Estimator is a quick way to compare how much you’d pay on different federal plans.
After logging in with your FSA ID, this calculator pulls in your student loan information to show how much you’d pay on the different plans you’re eligible for. It can also show you an estimate of how much forgiveness you’d receive if you were approved for Public Service Loan Forgiveness (PSLF).
Student loan calculator
What it does: Gives you a breakdown of the monthly and total cost of a private loan at different rates and terms
Private student loans generally only have one standard repayment plan that comes with monthly repayments of both principal and interest over the length of your loan term. If you’re thinking of refinancing, a student loan calculator makes estimating your monthly and total interest costs under different rates and terms a lot easier.
What it does: Walks you through your repayment options and helps you apply to switch repayment plans
Where to find it: Your servicer’s website or app
Servicers typically offer a wide range of free resources on their website or app to help you stay on top of repayments — from calculators to guides on your repayment options. You can also often get live personalized assistance by calling their customer service line. If you decide to switch plans or apply for deferment, they can walk you through the application process.
Public Service Loan Forgiveness help
Applying for forgiveness through the Public Service Loan Forgiveness (PSLF) Program is notoriously difficult — 99% of the first round of applicants were rejected, mostly because they misunderstood the application. Now the FSA office offers free resources you can use to get information and assistance with your application.
By logging in with your FSA ID and providing information abut yourself, the Federal Student Aid’s free PSLF Help Tool will complete your portion of the PSLF application and employer certification forms to create printable documents you and your employer need to sign.
It also uses the information that FSA already has to tell you what other steps you need to take to make sure you’re eligible for PSLF — like consolidating your loans or signing up for an income-driven repayment plan.
Student loan servicer help
While student loan servicers can be a good resource, some have a record of providing false information or misleading students. Servicers like Navient and FedLoan have even faced lawsuits over the way they’ve dealt with their customers. If you’re having issues with your servicer, there are a few different places you can turn to for help.
Consumer advocacy groups
What they do: Register your complaint with a regulatory body and work to resolve the issue
If you have a problem with your servicer, you can file a complaint against them with the following organizations:
Consumer Financial Protection Bureau (CFPB)
FSA Ombudsman Group
Federal Trade Commission (FTC)
The agency you file a complaint with will typically contact your servicer to negotiate a mutually-agreeable resolution. You can also switch servicers by applying for a Direct Consolidation Loan or refinancing.
What they do: Offers paid legal assistance to represent you in a lawsuit or to understand your options
Where to find them: Organizations like the National Association of Consumer Advocates (NACA)
Sometimes a complaint gets you nowhere. If you think you might need to take legal action against your servicer, consider hiring a student loan lawyer. Often you can get a free consultation to help you decide if it’s worth pursuing. If you’re not sure where to start, you can get connected with an attorney through organizations like the NACA.
Student loan default help
If you’re so late on your student loan repayments that you’re nearing default, there are several options you might want to consider.
What it does: Helps you apply for student loan rehabilitation and walks you through your options
Where to find it: Your servicer’s website or app
The first step you should take if you’re in default on your student loans is to contact your servicer. With federal student loans, you can apply for student loan rehabilitation or consolidate your loans to get out of default. They’ll also outline options that can help you avoid defaulting again once you’re back on your feet.
Student loan attorney
What they do: Represents you if you’re getting sued over missed repayments and walks you through your options
Where to find them: Organizations like NACA
If you’re being sued over a defaulted student loan, you might want to consider hiring a student loan attorney. They can outline the legal steps you can take to protect yourself and advise whether it’s worth taking other steps like filing for bankruptcy.
Credit counseling agency
What it does: Reviews your finances and provides personalized assistance to get back on track
If you’ve defaulted on your student loans, chances are other aspects of your finances aren’t in great shape. Setting up an appointment with a student loan credit counselor can help you go through your monthly expenses and income to come up with a plan to get yourself back on track. You can find a list of government-approved credit counseling agencies on the US Department of Justice’s website.
Beware of student loan debt relief scams
Remember that no student loan debt relief company can guarantee that they can completely eliminate your student loan debt. If you come across a company that offers debt relief programs that require upfront payments or sound too good to be true, they likely are.
For example, the Student Advocates Group was cited by the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) in 2019 for running a student loan scheme that “bilked millions out of consumers by charging illegal upfront fees and falsely promising to lower or even eliminate consumers’ loan payments or balances.”
If you’re interested in getting help with your student loan debt, make sure the company you’re working with is a government-approved credit counseling agency on the US Department of Justice’s website. And never agree to pay upfront fees for student loan help before actually seeing results.
You rarely have to pay for student loan help, especially if you aren’t facing legal action. In fact, the FSA office warns that companies offering paid student loan help are often unnecessary and may be a scam. You can learn more about how it all works by reading our guide to student loans.
Frequently asked questions
It can. You might qualify for up to $2,500 in tax deductions depending on how much interest you paid on your student loans. Read our guide to student loan interest deductions for more details.
No, there is no forgiveness program called Obama Student Loan Forgiveness — this is a common scam. However, the Obama administration did start the Pay As You Earn (PAYE) and the Revised Pay As You Earn (REPAYE) Repayment Plans, where the DoE forgives your balance after a specific number of repayments.
It depends on your judge. You’ll need to prove that your student loan repayments pose an undue hardship on you to have them discharged in bankruptcy. Currently, that’s difficult to prove and most judges don’t allow you to discharge student loans with your other debts.
Anna Serio is a trusted lending expert and certified Commercial Loan Officer who's published more than 1,000 articles on Finder to help Americans strengthen their financial literacy. A former editor of a newspaper in Beirut, Anna writes about personal, student, business and car loans. Today, digital publications like Business Insider, CNBC and the Simple Dollar feature her professional commentary, and she earned an Expert Contributor in Finance badge from review site Best Company in 2020.
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