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RENEE MONTAGNE, host: Here's a bleak economic statistic: the nation's student loan debt now exceeds credit card debt. It's climbing toward a trillion dollars. Two-thirds of college students graduate with debt, an average of $24,000, but many with far more than that. And as NPR's Jennifer Ludden reports, they'll be taking longer than ever to pay back the loans.

JENNIFER LUDDEN: Stephanie Iachini was the first in her family to go to college, and did what she needed to pay for it herself.

STEPHANIE IACHINI: I was very naive, and I realize that now. But basically, I was just signing papers because the education part meant a lot to me.

LUDDEN: The papers were loans, and between her undergrad degree and law school - both at private institutions - Iachini owes about $160,000 dollars. She's now 31, living in Altoona, Pennsylvania, and grateful her debt didn't scare away her husband.

IACHINI: He realized what he was taking on, but I don't think he realized the long term impact. That this wasn't just something that we could pay off in three years and be done with it.

MARK KANTROWITZ: About a third of bachelor degree recipients this year have enough debt to have a 20 year or longer repayment plan.

LUDDEN: Mark Kantrowitz publishes fastweb-dot-com and fin-aid-dot-org - leading web sites about paying for college. He says for students who need help, debt is almost unavoidable these days. And yet...

KANTROWITZ: Nobody is teaching these students how to manage their money. The schools aren't warning them, very strenuously, about borrowing excessively.

LUDDEN: Stephanie Iachini's debt is certainly extreme, and she had no idea what kind of monthly payment it would mean. It turns out it's $1200 dollars. And since she chose non-profit work over the law, that's more than half her take home pay.

IACHINI: Basically all of our financial decisions are made based on his salary alone.

LUDDEN: Decisions like buying a house and even having children. That doesn't seem possible for now, maybe ever, as Iachini and her husband have explained to family.

IACHINI: It's not what they like to hear, and you know, we get the pep talk, well you guys can make it work and... I know everyone says that they don't know how they're going to afford children, but we really don't.

LUDDEN: Iachini says it weighs on her conscience that she's not the only one constrained by her debt.

IACHINI: It's hard, every month, when we're paying bills, and my husband pays all of them. All right, now I'm getting emotional. Because, you know, he has dreams that he wants to fulfill, and he really has to put them on the back burner because there's not much else I'm able to contribute.

ANNIE SPENCER: I can't lie, I often fantasize about just, like, fleeing the country and being a debt fugitive in Canada or Europe or somewhere.

LUDDEN: Annie Spencer was also the first in her family to go to college - a small, state school, then private grad school. She saw higher education as a way out of the precarious paycheck-to-paycheck existence she'd grown up in. So, despite merit scholarships, and working 30-hours-a-week, she racked up $85,000 in student loan debt.

SPENCER: From the minute I graduated from my master's degree, my job prospects were completely limited to the jobs that would help me pay back my loans.

LUDDEN: She gave up on social justice work, and landed a decent paying government job. But in New York City, with high rent, plus $600 a month in loan payments, it was tough.

SPENCER: There were months when, you know, I was really having to watch my budget in terms of grocery shopping.

LUDDEN: Spencer's boyfriend also has substantial student loan debt, and she says this burden hangs over any future she tries to imagine for the two of them. Unlike most other debt, even if you declare bankruptcy, says aid expert Kantrowitz, student loan debt does not disappear.

KANTROWITZ: Education debt has often been highlighted as good debt, because it's an investment in your future. But too much of a good thing can be harmful.

LUDDEN: Last year, Annie Spencer's student loan debt helped push her into an unlikely course - back to school for a Ph.D.! No loans this time - she's on a teaching fellowship. But Spencer figures if she's always going to be strapped for money, she might as well feel good about her career. And, it lets her defer those loans.

SPENCER: And honestly, it was just becoming such a day to day stress. So being back in school, kind of, gave me a chance to stop the clock.

LUDDEN: A chance, she says, to figure out a better strategy to pay down her crushing debt.

Jennifer Ludden, NPR News.

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