You have finally graduated with your master’s or doctoral degree, got your first job and things seem great — until your grace period is over and that first student loan payment comes due (insert scary music here). You ask yourself, I have the degree, now what do I do about my student loan debt?!

The Student Debt “Crisis”

Student debt in America is estimated to exceed $1 trillion dollars [1]. In a study of graduate student debt in psychology, a sample of 1,283 graduate students reported an anticipated final educational debt amount of over $129,000 [2].

Costs for obtaining an advanced degree are rising, with average salaries in the mental health field often notoriously low. This leaves many graduates feeling hopeless that they will ever be able to emerge from the shadow of their debt. Fortunately, there has been recognition of this struggle and development of federal loan repayment programs to help.

The Importance of Self-Care and Compassion

Before we talk about anything else, I want to encourage you to be compassionate with yourself. You did not do anything wrong, nor are you a bad person because you have student loan debt. As you can see from the section above, rising student loan debt is a national issue and it is important for you to understand that you are not alone! So, all the things that you tell your clients to do to take better care of themselves, make sure you do some of that for yourself, too.

Federal Loan Repayment Programs 

My goal is to bring attention to and provide some highlights of federal loan repayment programs that offer repayment of federal and, in some cases, private loans. Federal loans are those taken out directly from the federal government, and private loans are from private universities or financial institutions. In addition to repayment programs, there are a number of workplaces that, as part of an employment package, may also offer the repayment of both federal and private loans. No matter what loans you have, it would not hurt to ask for money toward loan repayment during salary negotiations.

A note, before you read further: The information presented here is not meant to be exhaustive. You will want to read the requirements for any loan repayment program carefully to determine if it is right for you. I have provided some basic information about some of your repayment options to increase your awareness of what is available.

1. Public Service Loan Forgiveness Program


The Public Service Loan Forgiveness Program (PSLF) is a federal government program enacted in 2007 and managed by the U.S. Department of Education. The aim of PSLF is to encourage workers to enter into public service.

Who it is for:

  • Clinicians who work in the public sector such as state and federal agencies and not-for-profit organizations that are tax exempt under Section501(c)(3).


  • Work full time as defined by your employer or a total of 30 hours per week (whichever is greater).
  • Multiple part-time jobs with certified employers may also be acceptable.
  • Make a total of 120 on time payments, which equates to a total of ten years, with the remaining loan amount “forgiven” after that.
  • Enroll in an income-driven repayment plan and re-certify your salary yearly.
  • Have your employer complete a Certification of Employment form yearly, or whenever you change employers.

Important to know:

  • . For instance, if you worked for a qualifying employer for 2 years and made on time payments but then left to work for a non-qualifying employer, the payments you made for those 2 years can still go towards your 120 payment total. You would just need to work for another qualifying employer(s) at some point in order to accumulate a total of 120 payments over time.
  • Make sure your work place meets the PSLF requirements. Pay special attention if you work for a not-for-profit agency.
  • There has been increased discussion about the PSLF possibly being in jeopardy and/or not living up to its promises. With all the uncertainty, there are still those who have successfully made it through the program [3].

2. National Institutes of Health Loan Repayment Programs


The National Institutes of Health (NIH) Loan Repayment Programs (LRPs) were established by Congress to recruit and retain bio-behavioral researchers. The NIH explains that due to increasing costs for education and training, many people are choosing careers with more earning potential in the private sector.

Who it is for:

  • Doctoral level researchers
  • Some master’s degrees and certificates are eligible for the Extramural Contraception and Infertility program


  • You can be either an employee within the NIH (considered to be “Intramural”) or work and conduct research elsewhere (“Extramural”).
  • Choose an LRP program out of the eight available that best matches your research area. Examples of programs include health disparities, HIV/AIDS and one for researchers who come from “disadvantaged backgrounds.”

Important to know:

  • NIH opens an application period every year (this year it started on September 1st) for first time applicants and renewal submissions.
  • Repays up to $35,000 a year of

3. National Health Service Corps Loan Repayment Program


The National Health Service Corps (NHSC) Loan Repayment Program is a federal program housed in the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services Health Resources and Services Administration (HRSA). It aims to recruit health care providers to work in communities that have limited access to providers. Funding is available based on the Health Professional Shortage Area (HPSA) score. HRSA outlines that a shortage can be based on geographic area, for a specific population or within a facility.

Who is it for:

  • Psychologists
  • LCSWs
  • LPCs
  • MFTs


  • Work at a NHSC-approved site in a HPSA
  • Work full time for two years providing direct patient care (at least 40 hours/week for 45 weeks of the year), OR
  • Work half time for two years providing direct patient care (at least 20 hours/week for 45 weeks of the year

Important to know:

  • You will want to read program details carefully. The amount of financial award varies based on HPSA site scores.
  • Private practice sites are eligible.

4. Indian Health Service Loan Repayment Program (IHS LRP)


The Indian Health Service (IHS) is a federal program housed within the Department of Health and Human Services (DHHS) and was established to provide services to American Indian and Alaskan Native communities.

Who it is for:

  • Clinical or Counseling Psychologists (IHS specifies these two sub-specialties)
  • LPCs
  • LCSWs


  • Must be licensed
  • Can apply if in final year of training; however, must be licensed prior to acceptance into the program
  • Must commit to two “continuous” years of full-time work

Important to know:

  • LRP awards up to $40,000 for the first two-year commitment.
  • Once you are in the LRP, you can apply to extend your commitment on a yearly basis until your educational debt is paid.
  • The IHS LRP website notes that you can only accept an award from one government funded program at a time.

Final Thoughts

Be an informed borrower, even if the thought of your student loan debt terrifies you. It is important to understand what you are signing up for when you agree to take out student loans,  and it is never too early to become knowledgeable about your choices for repayment.

With additional research, I hope that you can find a repayment program that allows you to do the work you are passionate about with the added bonus of paying off chunks, if not all, of your educational debt.

Have faith, there is light at the end of the student loan tunnel!


[1] Johnson, A., Van Ostern, T., & White, A. (2012). The student debt crisis. Center for American Progress. Retrieved from


[2] Doran, J. M., Kraha, A., Laura, R. M., Ameen, E. J., & El-Ghoroury, N. H. (2016). Graduate debt in psychology: A quantitative analysis. Training and Education in Professional Psychology, 10(1), 3-13.


[3] National Institutes of Health Division of Loan Repayment: Loan eligibility (2018) retrieved September 26, 2018 from


[4] Lieber, R. (2018, May 4). Public servants do get student loan forgiveness. Meet one of the first. The New York Times. Retrieved from

Latest posts by Elizabeth S. Bradshaw-Livingston, PhD (see all)