USA TODAY - Opening up the mailbox to find those long-awaited college acceptance letters is one of the high points for high school seniors. Incurring student loan debt, however, is the reality for millions of these young students who need a way to finance their education.
According to a TransUnion study, student loan balances increased a whopping 75 percent from 2007 to 2012. The average debt per borrower increased by 30 percent to $23,829.
There is some good news, however, for those who have taken out federal student loans. The interest rates on those loans are lower than private loan interest rates.Borrowers also have more legal rights with federal loans than they do with private loans. Here are some important rights to be aware of:
1. The Right to Defer Payment. Say you're in graduate school or the military. You can defer loan payments until you are out. You can also defer payments through a hardship deferment if, for example, you are sick and unable to work.
2. The Right to Pay Based on What You Earn. One such program is the "pay as you earn" plan that puts the monthly payment at 10% of your discretionary income based on your income and family size.
3. The Right to Loan Forgiveness. For those who work in areas such as early childhood education, law enforcement, public health, emergency management, the military or government positions, they may be eligible to have their student loan balances forgiven ... if they've made 120 payments under the Public Service Loan Forgiveness Program.
4. The Right to Change the Payment Schedule. For those graduates making less than they thought upon graduation, they can elect to change their payment schedule from the standard schedule of 10 years to an extended repayment plan of up to 25 years. Doing so will, of course, decrease the monthly payment, but increase the overall interest paid on the loan.
Perhaps one of the best ways for today's students to manage their money wisely is through personal finance classes in high school. Such classes provide students with critical guidance on finances and areas such as how to handle all those tempting credit card offers. Yet, according to research from the Council for Economic Education, just 22 states required a high school course in economics in 2011, and only 14 states required that a course in personal finance be offered.
By educating themselves on their student loan rights and responsibilities, borrowers can find themselves on more solid financial footing after graduation.
Regina Lewis is a national television contributor and host of USA TODAY's "Money Quick Tips" videos. Follow her on Twitter: @ReginaLewis.
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