After graduation, today’s college students owe on average a little more than $23,000, according to a National Postsecondary Student Aid study.

When the numbers shake out, that’s nearly $830 billion of student loan debt compared to the more than $825 billion of credit card debt. Unlike credit card debt, people cannot have federally-guaranteed student loans erased by declaring bankruptcy.  And the government can garnish Social Security payments and tax refunds if a person defaults on student loan payments.

Students take out loans to better themselves, to create a future in an industry or business sector and to earn a living so that they can raise a family and become a productive part of society. And as tuition rates rise, more students and families are borrowing to the point of no return.

Higher education has always been considered as a "good debt," because it presumably leads to a well- paying career. But for some, it’s becoming just the opposite.

Students and parents must be careful when choosing loans and pay attention to the high cost of many colleges and universities, particularly with online and for-profit schools. Some of these institutions offer expensive degrees, which often leave students struggling to find employment after graduation.

Financial hardship ranks as a top reason for students dropping out of college. On average, students must pay four times as much for a college education compared to 25 years ago. Part of the problem is students taking longer to complete their degrees. On average, students enrolled at a four-year institution take six or more years to complete their program. The bottom line is, anyone considering college should educate themselves on payment options, including student loans and their guidelines, but for the end result--the type of degree earned, which literally translates into how much money the student will earn.

Most student loan experts recommend college students take out private loans only after they’ve exhausted the federal loan options. Private student loans are a good supplement to the money already received through federal programs, but their benefits end there.

The National Consumer Law Center reviewed some private loans issued from 2001 to 2006 and found the loans had variable rates, with opening annual percentage rates (APR) ranging from 5% to 19%. The average initial APR was 11.5%, which is high and difficult to pay off and could substantially escalate over time.

If you do end up taking out private loans for school, paying them back as early as if possible. If you pay on schedule, students may be eligible for a tax deduction on the interest they’re paying.  Some lenders may also be willing to reduce interest rates after these former students prove that they are reliable and making payments.

The rules for federal loans are not as rigid as private loans. There are three types of federal loans: Stafford, Perkins and Plus.All students and parents should make themselves familiar with each loans.

 A relatively new plan to help students pay back their federal loans is called “income-based repayment.” This allows monthly payments to be capped at 15% of student’s income that exceeds 150% of the federal poverty level (that works out currently to $16,245/year for an individual).  The downside is they will be paying more interest for a longer period of time. Due to changes in the rules for federally guaranteed student loans last year, any debt not paid after 25 years will be erased, but the federal government will treat that balance as income and the consumer will be taxed on it.

About the author: Howard Dvorkin, CPA, is the founder of Consolidated Credit Counseling Services, Inc., and the author of Credit Hell: How To Dig Out of Debt.   He is also a national known personal finance expert and consumer advocate who has been helping people for more than 15 years.