Editor’s note: The following commentary was contributed by Mike Saunders, Director of Military and Consumer Policy at the nonprofit group Veterans Education Success. The content may be edited for clarity, style and length.

Hundreds of thousands of veterans, service members and their families have student loans. But most of us have no idea how much help is available to get those loans reduced or even eliminated entirely.

Surveys have shown that more than one-third of service members and half of junior enlisted service members have student loans. Even with their military education benefits, one-quarter of veterans using the Post-9/11 GI Bill have federal student loan debt when they graduate. Today, approximately 200,000 active duty members owe a collective $2.9 billion in student loan debt. All told, student loan issues are quickly becoming a crisis in America.

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But there’s good news.

You probably didn’t know that you can get your loans reduced simply if you are not making enough money to pay your loans.

That’s OK. That’s why I’m here to help you discover the ways you can reduce or even erase your student loan debt!

While you’re enlisted

Your first chance at reducing or eliminating student loan debt is when you join the U.S. armed forces. There are service-branch-specific programs to help alleviate student loan debt before you join the military. Even if you can’t take advantage of these programs, it helps to spread awareness of them to others. And be sure to ask your recruiter about them!

For anyone on active duty, and that includes National Guard and reserve members ordered to active duty, you have significant legal rights, as well. No lender — private or federal — can charge you more than a 6 percent interest rate while you’re on active duty, and they must charge a 0 percent interest rate if you’re serving in a hostile area. This is ironclad, protected by federal statute, and often overlooked by many service members; don’t be one of them. Make sure your lender isn’t charging you more than 6 percent while on active duty. If you decide you don’t want to repay your loans on active duty then you’re entitled to postpone your loan payments.

In addition, branches have specific programs to help with student loans: For example:

  • The Army Student Loan Repayment Program offers repayment assistance to people who hadn’t enlisted previously. 
  • If you’re in a qualifying Military Occupational Specialty, you could get assistance through the Army Reserve College Loan Repayment Program
  • The Health Professions Loan Repayment Program for those joining the Army or Navy helps doctors, dentists, and other healthcare professionals on active duty or in the Army Reserve. 
  • If you join the Air Force Judge Advocate General’s Corps, you could get up to $65,000 in student loan repayment assistance. 
  • If you’re in the Navy, you could receive up to $65,000 in student loan repayment assistance. 

Finally, Federal Perkins Loan holders who serve in the U.S. armed forces in a hostile fire or imminent danger pay area for a period longer than a year qualify for up to 50 percent loan forgiveness if their active-duty service ended before Aug. 14, 2008, or up to 100 percent if their active duty service includes or began on or after Aug. 14, 2008.

After you leave the military

The opportunity to lower or forgive your student loan debt doesn’t end after you separate from the military.

First off, anyone with student loan debt who isn’t making much money can apply to get into “income-based repayment” programs at the U.S. Education Department. They have four programs to lower your monthly payments if the monthly payments are too burdensome in light of your income. Most students don’t know about it! Only a small fraction of Americans even apply, and many more are eligible. We can help you with the paperwork.

You may have extra rights to loan forgiveness:

  • If you are 100 percent disabled or individually unemployable, you have a lot of rights. We can help make sure your rights are honored. The Education Department is supposed to give you complete forgiveness of your loans, but we can help you make sure they honor your rights. If you’re in default on your loans, call us right away because that means the Education Department is violating your legal rights and our free lawyers can make them stop.
  • If you’re working in a public interest job, like at a nonprofit, government or civilian military position, then you may be eligible for loan forgiveness under the Public Service Loan Forgiveness program
  • If you teach for five consecutive years in a low-income school or educational service agency then you may have up to $17,500 in student loan debt forgiven.  

You also have rights if your school violated your legal rights. Our free lawyers can help you get your rights honored. For example, you have rights and options to reduce or eliminate your loans if a school took out loans in your name without your permission, defrauded or deceived you or wrongly enrolled you in a program you couldn’t benefit from.

Also, of course, you have lots of rights to get your loans erased and some of your GI Bill back if your school closed.

A word of caution though: beware of scams. Apply only through the programs and websites associated with the Education Department, the U.S. armed forces, and approved loan servicers here.

At Veterans Education Success, we’re here to protect you on the path towards prosperity and want every service member and veteran to know we’ve got their backs when it comes to understanding their rights! Free lawyers can help you figure out your rights and help you with the paperwork. Email us help@veteranseducationSuccess.org.

Final tip: For good tips on how to get out of debt, check out USAA Educational Foundation’s Destroy Debt videos.

Mike Saunders (Veterans Education Success)
Mike Saunders (Veterans Education Success)

Mike Saunders is director of military and consumer policy for Veterans Education Success, a nonprofit organization serving veterans’ educational needs. Mike can be reached at mikesaunders@veteranseducationsuccess.org.