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Field Work

College Debt’s Impact is Growing

Forty percent of college graduates today have difficulty repaying their student loans, but few realize how many options they have to get relief by renegotiating them.

The non-profit American Student Assistance (ASA) counsels students on how to deal with onerous loan payments. When students call ASA, repayment counselors tell them their options include extending the life of the loan, which reduces the monthly payments, or making graduated payments, which increase as their paycheck increases in future years.

Some borrowers may even be able to qualify for postponing payments or canceling some of their debts.

Borrowing on college campuses has reached crisis proportions, according to ASA. Total student loans outstanding have surpassed the $900 billion mark. Rising tuitions and stagnating household incomes due to the recession have only increased American families’ reliance on debt to fund college.

Today, 41 percent of former students with loan payments are struggling to meet them, according to a March study by the Institute for Higher Education Policy in Washington, DC. The report for the first time looked at both late payments (delinquencies) and defaults, expanding beyond the federal government’s traditional use of defaults to gauge students’ ability to repay.

Like defaults, late payments can have long-term implications, damaging credit reports and impeding car or home purchases by new entrants to the workforce.

Natali Marmolejos, a repayment counselor, said many students are already delinquent when they call ASA, even though they could’ve avoided it by modifying their repayment plan.

“A lot of them are not really aware,” she said. “I had somebody crying last night.”

The first thing students and parents should know is that there are far more options to renegotiate federal loans, which make up about three-fourths of all student debt. Private lenders provide very few options.

In either case, ASA spokeswoman Alle Lanza-Cosgrove said the student loan industry doesn’t do a good job advertising repayment options.

“Nobody is incented to take the time to talk to the borrower and say, ‘Here are your seven or eight options.’ They’re confusing – I work in the field, and I’m still confused,” she said.

ASA provides a full rundown of the renegotiating plans here.

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