It’s not difficult to take out a student loan — if they were hard to get, it’s unlikely they would be the largest form of outstanding consumer debt in the U.S. (except for mortgages).

A major factor? For federal student loans (a large part of the $1.3 trillion in current U.S. student loan debt), little is done to vet borrowers’ ability to repay. In fact, ability to repay has very little to do with student lending, because they are very difficult to discharge in bankruptcy. That’s a huge comfort for lenders, but consumers are unlikely to see it that way. Sure, someone whose student debt exceeds his or her salary should perhaps have known better before taking out the loan, but it can be frustrating to have been offered money you can’t afford to repay.

How to Get a Loan

There are barriers to financing an education: Federal loans are available in limited quantities, and private loans require a creditworthy borrower or co-signer. Even with limits (for example, dependent students can only borrow up to $31,000 in federal loans throughout their undergraduate education), loan affordability greatly depends on career path.

A $29,400 debt load, the average for the class of 2013, is going to have a completely different impact on the finances of someone going into engineering than on someone pursuing a career in social work. Should people with such vastly different earning potential be allowed to borrow the same amount of money?“I’ve got so many mixed feelings about this, to be fair,” said Mitchell D. Weiss, a debt expert and Credit.com contributor. “On the one hand, you want to try to protect people against themselves, but is that really [the government's] job?”

The idea of protecting people from seemingly unaffordable debt could mean cutting off loan access to people with no other means of paying for higher education. To many, that sounds like a recipe for inequality rather than a solution to climbing student loan debt.

Where to Draw the Line

It may be pretty easy to get a student loan — you fill out the Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA) to qualify for federal loans and get a co-signer for private ones — but ideally, finances shouldn’t be the deciding factor in access to education.

“Do you want to make it prohibitive for a student who wants to try to get ahead and get the life they want for themselves?” said Elizabeth Keuffel, president of the New Hampshire Association of Student Financial Aid Administrators and director of financial aid at St. Anselm College. “That’s the conundrum for access in general. Yes, there is an ease of ability to get the loan, but you also have to do well.”

If you don’t meet the academic standards of the Education Department or your school’s financial aid office, you won’t be able to get federal student loans for another term, until you get your grades up. That standard is called satisfactory academic progress, and it varies by institution.

Choosing an Investment

For college-bound students and their families, education decisions need to involve a lot of math. It’s not just the cost of the school but the value of the education and how that will translate into the student’s future earnings. It’s hard to turn the future into tangible numbers, but failing to try is a huge financial risk.

“I think ultimately it has to come down to the consumer to make better choices in terms of the educational institutions that they’re contemplating,” Weiss said. Families need to decide how willing they are to take on debt and whether they can reasonably expect to repay it — those are tough, but necessary, decisions.

How do you know if you’re making the right choice? Lots of research helps. There are plenty of websites out there with potential salary information on various careers, lists of schools that give a lot of scholarship money and calculators that help you understand what your future student loan payments may be. Being able to afford those loans is serious business, because if you fail to make student loan payments on time, you can do serious damage to your credit standing.

Using the interactive tools on Credit.com, you can see how just one or two mistakes can make a mess of your credit. At the same time, consistently making student loan payments on time will help you build credit. Taking out loans to get an education is an investment full of potential — if you know how to handle it.

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