It’s time to start liberating yourself from your student loan debt.
We’ve got a true student loan crisis – there’s over $1.4 trillion in student debt, and that number keeps on rising. The average undergrad leaves college with nearly $40,000 in student loans, and over 7 in 10 recent graduates are in the red. Twenty-five percent of student loan borrowers are in distress – meaning they are in a suspended status, behind in payments, or in default. And things only seem to be getting worse.
With this as a backdrop, it’s easy to become paralyzed. The loan balance figures and payment amounts can be distressing. Figuring our your repayment options can be overwhelming. It doesn’t help that loan servicers often provide incorrect or misleading information. It’s easy to feel like you’re lost.
But ignoring the problem isn’t going to make it go away; student loans don’t just disappear. Even if there are only imperfect solutions out there right now, it’s important to take stock of your situation, figure out what your options are, and optimize your student loan management approach. Only then can you start getting on the path to student debt freedom. Here’s how you can get started.
Figure Out What Type of Student Loans You Have
The first step to tackle your student debt is to figure out what type of loans you actually have. The type of student loans you have can determine what your options might be. Are your loans private, or are they federal? If they are federal, do you have Perkins loans, FFEL loans, or Direct loans? Who are your lenders (the entities that issued or disbursed the loans), and who are your servicers (the contractors that handle the day-to-day billing operations of your loans)?
To sort out what’s what and what’s where, you can start by pulling your credit report. Under federal law, consumers are entitled to one free credit report each year from the three major credit bureaus. Your credit report will show key information about your student loans including loan balances, current owners/servicers, and payment histories. You can also access the U.S Dept. of Education’s federal student loan database, which has key information on your federal student loans including loan type, loan status, balance figures, and servicer contact information.
Are You in Default?
If you are in default on your student loans, the consequences can be pretty severe. In addition to financial penalties and credit damage, some federal student loan lenders can garnish your wages, seize your federal tax refund, or take your Social Security, all without a court order. Private student loan lenders may file lawsuits against you. And default can have terrible secondary consequences as well, such as problems obtaining housing or employment, or the loss of a professional license.
But there might be ways to get out of default. Federal law allows student loan borrowers to “cure” or otherwise resolve the defaults on their federal student loans by accessing certain programs, and you may have multiple options. For defaulted private student loans, you may be able to raise defenses to collection or negotiate a settlement. Regardless of the specifics, you may not be stuck – there could be a way out for you.
Take Stock of Your Options
Once you have “triaged” your student loan situation, you can start considering your options. What repayment options are available to you? Should you go with a Standard plan, or a Graduated plan? Can you extend the repayment term? Should you consider an income-driven repayment option for your federal student loans, like Income Based Repayment (IBR), Pay As You Earn (PAYE), or Revised Pay As You Earn (REPAYE)? If you’re already in one of those plans – like IBR – should you switch to one of the newer plans, like REPAYE?
What about loan forgiveness? Might you be eligible for profession-based loan forgiveness programs like Teacher Loan Forgiveness or Public Service Loan Forgiveness? Does something your school did, or something that happened to you (like an illness or injury) potentially qualify you for a loan discharge?
Prioritize Payoff Strategies
Having multiple student loans with multiple lenders or servicers can be particularly challenging. But that just means you’ll have to come up with a plan of attack. Figure out how you’re going to prioritize certain loans for more rapid payoff. Consider consolidating your federal student loans through the Direct consolidation loan program, but make sure it’s the right decision for you and be wary of the potential pitfalls. You may also want to consider refinancing your student loans, but again, there are going to be some pros and cons to seriously consider before doing either a partial or full refinancing of your student loan portfolio.
Get Help If You Need It
If you’re feeling lost as you go through this process, it’s okay to ask for help. The U.S. Dept. of Education has a lot of good, helpful, and free information on its Student Aid website. The National Consumer Law Center also provides a lot of free information on its website, as well.
And you can also hire a professional to help you. There are clear benefits to going with a regulated professional, like an attorney; I’ve built my career on helping student loan borrowers work through these very issues. But other consumer rights attorneys may also be able to help you. You can browse the directory of the National Association of Consumer Advocates for a consumer rights attorney that best fits your needs.