What you don’t know can hurt you. American borrowers owe a record $1.2 trillion in student loan debt, a number that has tripled in the last ten years, according to Sallie Mae. Within those numbers, nearly one million retirees are saddled with $18 billion in outstanding student loans, a dollar amount that has risen 600 percent in the last decade.

Average student loan debt grows every year. Graduates today walk away from school owing about $35,000. At least 23 percent of American adults have some education debt, including debt for their spouse or partner, or a child or grandchild. The numbers are higher for households headed by young adults – more than 40 percent carry student loan debt.

Millions of people owe but did not complete a degree program. People who take on student loans but do not complete their degree are more likely to fall behind on payments, according to a survey by the Federal Reserve.

1. You Can’t Bankrupt Student Loans

While it’s possible to have a student loan discharged in bankruptcy, it’s extremely difficult and rarely happens. In general, student loans must be repaid even if the borrower does not complete the program, cannot find a job or is in some way dissatisfied with the education purchased with the funds. Exceptions are made for borrowers who become totally and permanently disabled or who die.

To bankrupt a student loan, the borrower must prove to the court that the loans cause undue hardship. This is quite difficult. Repayment must prevent the borrower from maintaining a “minimal” standard of living; there must be evidence that the hardship will continue for “a significant portion” of the repayment period; the borrower must have made good faith efforts to repay the loan, for a minimum of five years. If any one of those conditions cannot be met, the loan must be repaid.

Far more likely is an offer for deferment or forbearance. Payments are suspended, but will eventually resume. On some types of loans, the government will pay the interest charges during a deferment. During forbearance, the interest continues to accrue.

2. Student Loans Can Prevent You From Buying a Home

Getting a mortgage depends on many factors. If you’re planning on buying a home and have outstanding student loans, there are two ways student loans come into play when you’re applying for a mortgage.

First, payment history. The mortgage lender is not likely to approve an application from a borrower whose credit report shows late payments. Some lenders will not allow more than one 30-day late payment during the past year. Few, if any, lenders will approve an application from someone who has paid a bill 60, 90 or more days late. So if the borrower has struggled at all with payments on the student loan, mortgage lenders might turn away.

Second, debt ratio. To qualify for a mortgage, your new mortgage payment cannot exceed a certain percentage of your income (usually around 28 percent). Furthermore, the total of all of your debt payments, including the new loan, cannot exceed a certain percentage (usually 36 to 40 percent). So a borrower who earns $40,000 per year might be approved for a mortgage if the payment, including taxes and homeowners insurance, does not exceed about $933 AND if the borrower’s total debt payments, including the mortgage and any credit cards, student loans, auto loan and other monthly obligations do not exceed $1,333. That’s not much wiggle room. Since the average student loan payment is over $600 per month, many borrowers will be excluded from even a modest mortgage if it hinges on his or her debt ratio.

3. Co-Signers Suffer Just as Much or More Than Primary Borrowers

Co-signing means taking full financial responsibility for a loan in the event the primary borrower defaults. At the time the loan is needed, the co-signer wants to help. The harsh reality is that if the borrower can’t qualify for a loan, it’s much smarter to help him improve his own credit score than to co-sign for the loan. None of us wants to be saddled with the financial obligations of someone we tried to help with education financing. But that is the door we open when we co-sign.

Think the student loan will fade into memory when you’re old enough? Think again. Many well-meaning parents and grandparents discover that unmanageable student loan debt follows them into retirement, offering no reprieve to older Americans who have stopped working and begun to live on a limited fixed retirement income. Hundreds of thousands of retirees have their social security checks garnished to repay student loans in default.

Even with the best intentions, co-signing is a bad idea. If the borrower defaults, both signers’ credit suffers equally. Since the repayment period on student loans usually ranges from ten to twenty years or even longer, the risk remains for a very long time.
Avoiding Student Loans

Today’s students are tasked with the steep challenge of getting an education without an unmanageable price tag. Parents today can set up pre-tax accounts for children’s education. Students must apply maximum effort to finding grants, scholarships and other school funding. The trick is to avoid the student loan trap. Knowledge is the first step.

That student loans debt is a heavy financial burden in our nation is indisputable. Armed with knowledge, however, today’s borrowers have an opportunity to pay the debt off faster.