Kandace LaMonica was the first person in her family to attend college. By the time she finished her bachelor’s degree, the Bronx, New York, resident had $120,000 in student-loan debt.

“I worked two jobs, seven days a week and was still unable to pay my debts and living expenses,” she told StudentDebtCrisis.org, an advocacy group for people struggling with their college loans. “My credit score has dropped substantially to the point where I am unable to even apply for a credit card, car or apartment. I was just accepted into medical school, and my federal loan was denied due to my credit history and I am now unable to attend.”

LaMonica is among 40 million U.S. citizens drowning in student-loan debt according to an analysis from the credit bureau Experian. The debt is keeping many college grads from saving for a house or car, starting a family or investing in their future, say a host of experts.

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The cost of a college education has jumped more than 1,000 percent in the last 40 years, according to Bloomberg Businessweek. The class of 2015 will be the most indebted in U.S. history, according to the CFA Institute, an association of investment professionals. The institute notes the average student graduates with more than $35,000 in debt —  $10,000 more than just 10 years ago.

Part of the problem can be traced to some for-profit schools, which have come under fire for misleading advertising and exorbitant fees and tuition.

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“We want to reform the way we pay for higher education,” says Natalia Abrams, executive director of Student Debt Crisis. “We’re trying to let borrowers know that there is free government help available. It may not be perfect, but it’s there and it’s free.”

If you're struggling to pay off your student loans, see if you qualify for a loan relief program. 

For teachers

Teachers who did not have an outstanding balance on a Direct Loan or FFEL Program loan on or before Oct. 1, 1998, and have worked full-time in a low-income school for at least five consecutive years can apply for a loan forgiveness of up to $17,500. This applies both to unsubsidized and federally subsidized loans. PLUS loans are excluded. For more information, visit Teacher Loan Forgiveness.

For public service workers

If you work in a qualifying public service job and have made at least 120 payments on your Direct Loan (after Oct. 1, 2007), the remaining balance may be discharged. (Note: Only payments made under certain repayment plans count toward the required payments, and you cannot be in default on the loans.) For more information, go to Public Service Loan Forgiveness.

For the permanently disabled

You may be able to receive a loan discharge under this plan, but it requires extensive documentation, including a physician’s written diagnosis. For more information, see the Federal Student Aid Total and Permanent Disability page.

For volunteers, nurses, police officers and others  

If you work in public service or certain occupations such as law enforcement or the military and you were lucky enough to quality for the Federal Perkins Loan Program while you were in school, that may pay off now. A percentage of the loan is discharged for each full year of service in a qualifying profession. The total amount of the loan cancellation varies with the type of service. 

Depending on the type of loan you have and when you took out the loan, you may be eligible to cancel part of your loan (or even all of it) if you have served as a:

  • Volunteer in the Peace Corps or ACTION program (including VISTA)
  • Teacher
  • Member of the U.S. armed forces (serving in conflict regions)
  • Nurse or medical technician
  • Law enforcement or corrections officer
  • Head Start worker
  • Child or family services worker
  • Professional provider of early intervention services

There is no standard form to apply for a Perkins Loan cancellation. Since your school was your lender, contact the school you were enrolled in when you received your loan for more information.

Obama Student Loan Forgiveness program

This is the nickname for the William D. Ford Direct Loan program, which President Obama and Congress modified under the Health Care and Education Reconciliation Act of 2010. All these provisions apply only to federal loans; the program excludes private loans. (The government no longer provides subsidies to private lenders for federally backed loans.)

Borrowers of new loans can qualify to make payments based on 10 percent of their discretionary income. Borrowers can also consolidate all their federal student loans into one new loan with affordable payment options. Information on these programs is available at Federal Student Aid.

Of course, there are still millions of former students left out of these programs. A group of 11 U.S. Representatives, all Democrats, and Virginia Attorney General Mark Herring, among others, are spearheading a movement to push Congress for higher education tuition reforms.

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Steve Evans, MA, is an award-winning journalist with more than 20 years experience in daily news, investigative, health and business journalism. Among other jobs, he has served as managing editor of the Central Virginia Newspaper Group, as a senior writer for SNL Financial and as a staff writer for The Progress Index and the Richmond Times-Dispatch.