And more worrisome, the number of people defaulting on their direct student loans continues to climb as well, up 24% since this time last year, according to the government data.
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That's a big deal, because student loans are not dischargeable in bankruptcy, and the government is aggressive about collecting past debt -- in some cases reaching back decades to get its money.
But experts say there's a glimmer of hope that some people are at least tapping the brakes on their personal student loan debt issues.
The number of debtors using a program tying their payments to their actual income -- which experts believe will help people avoid defaulting on the loans -- has doubled in the last year, thanks largely to an aggressive e-mail marketing campaign by the federal government.
But that payment's hard for her to make -- she has managed to find a job working retail that pays her about
So she's enrolled in the federal government's Income Based Repayment (IBR) program, which caps her monthly payment at a maximum of 15% of her discretionary income, as determined by a federal funding formula, which has a sliding scale for payments based on federal poverty guidelines.
Willis pays about
But there's a trade-off. Instead of paying off her loan over 10 years, Willis will be paying for nearly 18 years, adding thousands of dollars in interest costs. Still, she's happy with the switch.
"I'd love to pay it off faster, but I just can't now," she said. "This program is helping me make sure I'm paying something at least."
Stories like that are why most experts think IBR is a good program.
"It's a positive that more people are finding these plans and using them if they need them," said
But there are a lot more people who need help.
In the third quarter of 2013,
In the third quarter of 2014 --
Last year, the federal government sent out e-mails alerting borrowers about the availability of the IBR program and a similar Pay As You Earn program.
It appears to have paid off. In 2013's third quarter, just under a million people were enrolled in the two programs, bringing
Despite the positive signs, there are still issues.
"There are people who would benefit from it who don't use it," said
"I tried to talk with the company that collects my payments about it, but it was really confusing to me," said
That's a common issue, despite efforts by the federal government to simplify payment calculators and the sign-up form on its website, experts said.
"IBR should help with delinquencies, but the loan servicers need to get distressed borrowers into the program," said
"The numbers are still very, very small, with about 2% of borrowers using an income-based plan. We need to both design better repayment plans and make it easier to sign up for them."
Delisle said there's no magic number out there to tell whether the IBR program is working. He said he'd like to see an automatic IBR program tied to payroll withholding.
Still, income-based repayment programs aren't the best choice for everyone, Asher said, nor do they solve the larger issues of college costs and rising student debt levels.
"We need to make sure there's a good repayment system to help people stay out of defaulting, but we need to work to lower costs."
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