Behind on your student loan payments? There are options

It's back to school time for college students across the country. At the same time, millions of former students struggle to pay off a mountain of student loan debt.

Based on the latest estimates, the average senior who graduates today owes about $25,000 in loans. And these days, a college degree doesn't guarantee employment, let alone a good-paying job.

"You don't realize the seriousness of paying back that loan until you finish school," said Langdon Bueschel.

Bueschel needed financial aid to attend the University of Washington When he graduated in 2008, Bueschel had a degree in English and $12,000 in student loan debt.

He has a job designing online advertising, but most of his money goes to living expenses. Because he missed so many payments, his balance now stands at $18,000 and counting.

"I could have been more responsible and paid more quickly," he admitted, "but sometimes things come up."

The most recent report from the U.S. Department of Education found that as of September of 2010, more than 320,000 borrowers had defaulted on their student loans.

Here's a heads up for anyone who can't handle their student loan payments: you may have options and there's an easy way to find them. Just go to the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau website and
head to the "Student Debt Repayment Assistant."

It can help students and their families figure out the best repayment options and what to do if they're behind in their payments.

"You just answer a few questions and we'll be able to point you to the best repayment program or action you should take in order to best manage your debt," said Rohit Chopra, student loan ombudsman at the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau.

"We can lead you in the right direction for the income-based repayment program on federal loans and we can tell you how you might negotiate with your private student lender," Chopra explained. "Let's say you've fallen behind like so many people have, we can even tell you about ways to negotiate with debt collectors and maybe even get your credit report fixed so you can get back on track."

Of course, nothing's guaranteed. But your chances of modifying the repayment terms are fairly good with a student loan from the federal government. Private lenders are generally not as willing to help. Still, it's worth a try.

If you're headed to college and in need of financial assistance -- you need to think ahead. Consider this advice from the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau: take advantage of all federal loans before you apply for private loans, especially those with variable rates. Remember: it is virtually impossible to discharge any type of student loans in bankruptcy. This obligation stays with you forever.