Paying off your student loans by volunteering might sound counterintuitive, but there are ways that such service efforts can help reduce debt accumulated from attending college.
There are programs that allow college graduates to volunteer and in exchange receive money toward paying down their student loan debt. A range of options are available, from government-supported programs such as AmeriCorps and the Peace Corps to platforms such as Shared Harvest Fund.
Take Danny McGee, who earned a bachelor’s degree from Tufts University and a master’s degree from the University of Colorado Boulder. He accumulated $85,000 in student loan debt and was working full time as an engineer in Michigan, plus extra work, to pay it off. He told U.S. News in 2018 that he didn’t want to do odd jobs or work at a restaurant, so he looked for opportunities to combine volunteerism with earning extra money to make his student loan payments of $850 a month and to sock away money for his own child’s education.
That led him to Shared Harvest Fund, a Los Angeles-based digital platform that allows professionals to engage in volunteer work to benefit social causes while reducing their student loan debt. Members who subscribe on the website can be connected to paid service opportunities with social enterprises and business startups.
Within the network, would-be volunteers subscribe by creating a free profile and indicating their skills, talents and the social causes that interest them, such as community development or homelessness. The jobs, which range from providing legal assistance and marketing services to bookkeeping and grant writing, vary in compensation from $200 to $1,000 per project and often can be done remotely.
If connected with a project, volunteers — whom Shared Harvest calls “DebtFreelancers” — complete that project and then payment is made directly to the lender or student loan servicer of their choice.
Such service work also offers benefits like flexible schedules, the personal reward that comes from helping others and enriching work that provides experience in other areas. The exposure to new experiences also makes volunteering a great way to build a professional network.
Shared Harvest isn’t the only avenue that allows people to pay off student loan debt through service. Some volunteer programs that offer debt repayment assistance through service work require longer terms of service, usually at least a year.
AmeriCorps, a division of the Corporation for National and Community Service, is a government program that places people into service positions within the U.S. ranging from relief effort assistance during natural disasters to conservation work. After completing their term of service, participants receive the Segal AmeriCorps Education Award, an amount equal to the full Pell Grant award for the fiscal year in which the service term was approved. The money can be used to repay eligible student loans.
The AmeriCorps National Civilian Community Corps, another example, is a full-time program that includes travel expenses, lodging, basic expenses and a living allowance for people ages 18 to 26. AmeriCorps NCCC service focuses on areas such as disaster relief, environmental programs, infrastructure improvement, and urban and rural development for 10 to 12 months in locales across the U.S.
During service, participants may get a forbearance on federally backed student loans. After service, any interest incurred during that time on student loans that were in forbearance will be paid, plus participants will receive the Segal AmeriCorps Education Award of around $6,000 that can be used to pay back qualified student loans.
Another AmeriCorps program, AmeriCorps Volunteers in Service to America, focuses on alleviating poverty through partnerships with government agencies and nonprofit organizations. Participants in AmeriCorps VISTA, who serve in an office setting working on tasks such as fundraising and grant writing, must commit to a one-year term of full-time service and may serve for up to five years total.
Upon completing their service requirement, volunteers are eligible for the Segal Education Award or a cash stipend of $1,800, in which case the volunteer also may be eligible for up to 15% cancellation of certain kinds of student loans.
There’s also the National Health Service Corps under the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, a program with three loan repayment programs for licensed primary care professionals. For those in an eligible discipline, there’s a two- or three-year commitment to serve part or full time in an approved high-need, underserved area in exchange for funds toward student loan repayment ranging from $25,000 to $100,000.
As a reminder, beyond volunteering, borrowers who go into public service may be eligible for the federal Public Service Loan Forgiveness program. Borrowers must meet a set of requirements for PSLF, including working full time in a qualifying public service position for a qualifying organization, and make 120 qualifying monthly payments over 10 years under an approved repayment plan. Then, the remaining balances on federal direct student loans are forgiven.
Doing good for others has many benefits: the community wins; you pay down student loan debt, which leads to a healthier financial picture; and you build your network and overall self-satisfaction.
There aren’t too many true “win-wins” in life, but for the nonprofits and other organizations that receive service volunteers — and for the volunteers who receive rewards in the form of money to pay down student loans — these kinds of programs come close.
More from U.S. News